By Laura Simon (with contributions from guest blogger Angela Fuller)

My Uncle Lavelle had a seizure when he was a toddler that left him with profound, irreversible brain damage. The youngest of eight children, most of whom remained in the same small community, he was a consistent presence in family life, even after he moved to an assisted living facility.

However, since my nuclear family lived in a different state, I barely knew who my uncle was. My parents never thought to sit me down and talk about his disability. They assumed that children will naturally accept others unless they’re taught to do otherwise.

Of course, left to their own devices, kids will also arrive at all sorts of crazy conclusions, and that’s exactly what I did. I distinctly remember a family Christmas – perhaps the first one where I’d really noticed my uncle. I was very young, and his uncontrolled movements frightened me: he rocked vigorously in his chair and made loud noises. He looked like an adult, but didn’t speak like one. He got a remote-controlled car for Christmas while the other adults were getting clothes. (I was kind of jealous of that car.)

Even though my family was relaxed and comfortable with Lavelle, I was terrified. I decided that he must be sick, and concluded that he was likely contagious. When my dad sat in the chair my uncle had been using earlier in the day, I broke down into tears. I was sure my dad was going to “get” whatever my uncle had. My tears led to a family chat about disabilities and how I didn’t need to be afraid. We repeated that conversation a few months later when it became apparent that I also thought old age was contagious. Obviously I’m a master at jumping to incorrect conclusions.

Our schools and communities have come a long way in twenty years. While I have no recollections of sharing a classroom with kids with disabilities, my children certainly will. We have a long way to go, but mainstream culture is starting to think about the steps we need to take so that everyone is included and valued. We can’t, however, assume that our kids will understand people who are different just because they see and interact with them. We need to talk to our kids about disabilities and we need to start when they’re young.

I’ll be the first to admit that these aren’t always easy conversations to have. I spent fourteen years in the secondary classroom and a big part of my current job is training teachers to work with kids with exceptionalities…and I’m STILL afraid of saying the wrong thing to my kids. Sometimes I fumble for words and terminology – because the terminology is constantly changing – but my purpose is always the same: I want my kids to know and appreciate their peers who are differently-abled.

I can’t give you a script, and I honestly think real conversation is better anyway. However, these are some of the points I try to communicate whenever I can.

-Disabilities can’t always be seen. Some kids might be obviously different from their peers, but others won’t. Sometimes people have brains that learn differently, and sometimes people are allergic to foods. You won’t be able to see these traits, but it’s still important to respect the needs of the other person.

-Disabilities aren’t something to be scared of. For many kids, anything different is scary. We need to help them understand that different isn’t bad…in fact, it’s good. Kids also respond well to concrete information; don’t be afraid to give straight and honest answers.

-People with disabilities are important and valuable – just like everyone else. They want to be defined by who they are – not their disability. They have dreams, ambitions, and desires. They have a lot to offer. They also face obstacles – but don’t we all?

-It’s OK to ask questions, but ask them in respectful ways. I’ve honestly started practicing this with my kids because I don’t want them to ask something that will hurt someone else. At the same time, when we shut down questions, we send a message that there’s something to be ashamed of. I hope eventually my own kids will start to think about how their questions might be received.

-We need to be helpers, but we also need to be respectful. Offer help, but don’t force it. Focus on being a friend.

-Sometimes people with disabilities need to do things differently, and that’s OK. In fact, they might teach you new and fun ways of doing things!

When I talk to my own kids, we talk about how everyone is unique in some way, and some people’s brains and bodies work differently than ours. I don’t want them thinking their friends are broken or defective in some way. I want them to see and appreciate differences.

If you’re trying to figure out how to even start the conversation, books can be a valuable resource. Here are a few to get you started:

This book deals with allergies, and helps kids understand what they are and how they can help friends be safe. This is especially helpful if your child has seen Daniel Tiger five million times and reached the incorrect conclusion that everyone is allergic to peaches…and only peaches. (My kids aren’t the only ones who won’t touch a peach now, right?)

And this one follows a child with a wheelchair preparing to start school. It will open your kids’ minds to the unique challenges facing kids who need alternate forms of mobility. Truly, you don’t understand the importance of a ramp until you’re with someone in a wheelchair.

Of course, if you have other recommendations, please share them in the comments! Just don’t be afraid to talk about these things with your kids, and don’t assume the school will do it for you. Your wisdom and perspective will help your kids create a welcoming community for all their peers.

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