Let me paint a picture for you. You're out with your child and they see someone in a wheelchair and ask "Mommy, what happened to them?". What would you say in response? Would you explain what you think may have happened to them, or say "Don't stare" and scold their curiosity? Is there a proper way to react to your child's response, and if so, what is it? I bring this up because I believe that as parents and adults in society, we highly influence the little ones in our lives. Religious and political beliefs are often passed down generations, and beliefs about people with disabilities are no exception.
Will you child grow up to believe that people with disabilities are human beings like everyone else?
I bring this to the forefront because our parenting styles will impact important areas of children's lives beyond the home. An example is when our children become old enough to go to school. All children want to play and be accepted by their peers, whether it is on the playground, in the classroom, or after school. Now imagine the child who is in a wheelchair on the sidelines. Although we may want to believe that they will be included in regular play, in reality, this is far from the truth. If children are not informed by their parents about people with disabilities and how they want the same things that any child wants, children are more likely to ignore, shy away from, or reject the child and not befriend them. In my own experience, I also found it hard to access the playground like other kids. If parents make more effort to inform their children about these issues, they are also more likely to speak with and influence teachers and the school board, who have the ability to make schools more accessible (e.g. by building accessible playgrounds or incorporating games that people with disabilities can play, such as throwing a ball). Also, children who grow up as disability advocates will advocate for people in schools, and possibly advocate for equal treatment for everyone (even beyond disability issues). All in all, the more that people talk about these issues, the faster we will see changes and start building successful futures for people with disabilities.
You may be thinking, "Well where to I begin with raising my children to be advocates for people with disabilities?". Good news: I can help (and I'm sure other people with disabilities have great advice too, so don't be afraid to politely ask). My first piece of advice is to teach your children that other children and people with disabilities are human beings too; they think, feel, love things, hate things, have dreams and goals, and have the human need to be loved and accepted. When we talk about the disability itself, we could invite our children to come up with ideas on how they can be more inclusive with other children with disabilities. How can they involve a child in play beyond playing on the playground, for example? Your child is going to have lots of questions, and please allow them! Questions are a great way for natural learning to take place - and your child should know that it is okay for them to ask children with disabilities questions too (while being respectful, of course). If a child does not feel like it is safe or right to ask questions, they will be too scared to approach or make a change in another child's life.
Although not everyone will agree with me, I think we need to teach kids that it's okay to be friends with someone who is different from them in any way, shape, or form. This includes people with disabilities. For some reason, we seem to have come a long way with dealing with issues such as racism and sexism, but people with disabilities are still often seen as less-than human. We are people like anyone else with hopes and dreams, and we would love to get to know you too!