How To Raise Kids Who Aren’t Ableist
How do we work towards a society where children don't internalize and perpetuate the idea that one kind of mind or body is better than others?
April is Autism Acceptance (not Awareness!) Month. Learn about it here.
About a decade into my career working with children with “special needs,” I realized that everything I’d been taught about disability was wrong.
Sure, I’d had my hunches that there was more to the story than the idea that the children I worked with, though deserving of compassion, were broken in some way that required fixing, but I'd never seen those feelings confirmed. I was trained that the goal of my job was to make my students — learning disabled, autistic, ADHD — better fit into the classrooms and communities they were a part of. If people couldn’t tell they were different, I’d done my job.
Then, I read a chapter in Ray McDermott and Hervé Varenne’s 1999 book Successful Failure about a boy named Adam. The authors trailed Adam in different situations, like the classroom, an after-school cooking class, and during intelligence testing, and the Adams they observed might as well have been different people. In the classroom, where kids had to “read to learn,” Adam was unproductive and ashamed. In cooking class, he relied on peers for the reading and mostly figured things out. It wasn’t that Adam had a disability — he was disabled by situations where his type of mind couldn’t succeed.
This idea, called the social model of disability, is taking off like a rocket ship in the world of disability advocacy and education. By the time I received my own ADHD diagnosis, at the age of 36, there were TED talks and blogs and YouTube channels and podcasts, all telling me not to believe the hype that my life’s goal was now to figure out ways to be more “normal,” but rather, to figure out which environments helped me thrive. There was “identity-first language,” adopted by many as a way to show pride. I wasn't a person with ADHD, just like I wasn't a person with whiteness or a person with Judaism, but rather an ADHDer. The documentary film Crip Camp, which tells the harrowing and inspiring tale of the disability rights movement of the 1990s, was nominated for an Academy Award (but beaten by an adorable octopus, which the Academy seemed to find easier to identify with than the disabled). I began to teach my grad students and talk to my parent coaching clients in very different ways. I changed the name of my teacher education course from “Exceptional Learners” to “The Neurodiverse Classroom.”
Let’s tell our children about the world as it could and should be, not as our limited imaginations often restrict.
Meanwhile, I had children. I could see their little brains sucking up culture like a Dyson every single moment of the day. My son pointed with shock at a man who was under 5 feet tall, yelling “Mama! Why is that man so little!” He laughed, not in cruelty, but with real delight. He described his friends as being either tall, or “normal.” He discussed in detail who was fastest at completing classroom test. He is not a monster. And unlike some other identities, his current status as a seemingly able-bodied or “neurotypical” child is not at all static. People become disabled every day. Children who have had relatively uneventful early childhoods get to first grade and are revealed to be dyslexic. Haggard moms who have studied ADHD their entire careers, and always figured that they never reached their potential because they were just a bad person, discover in their mid-30s that they are, in fact, ADHD.
So how do we work towards a society where children, apparently disabled or not, neurodivergent-identified or not, don't internalize and perpetuate ableism, the idea that people with one kind of mind or body are inherently better than others? Here’s where I would start:
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In order to talk to your kids about disability and neurodivergence, you need to understand it, not just from a theoretical experience, but from encounters with disabled and neurodivergent people. If you or others in your life are neurodivergent or disabled, that's a great start, but the world of disability is vast and varied. My current adult primer includes the film Crip Camp, TED talks from Todd Rose, Jac den Houting, and Salif Mahamane, the Alice Wong-edited collection of essays Disability Visibility, and the writings of thinkers like Nic Walker, Quincy Hansen, and Sarah Ruhl.
The best way to make sure you get a wide and current perspective is to subscribe to podcasts and newsletters, like Neuroclastic, understood.org, and the Disability Visibility podcast, that give you updated and regular views into the disabled or neurodivergent world. For your children, representation of disability in children's books lags behind the late but great progress made with racial representation, but there are still good options out there. Little Feminists publishes a set of fabulously inclusive board books. The children's books Sweety, El Deafo, and Fish In a Tree all touch on physical and cognitive differences in implicit or explicit ways. (Here is a list of children’s books that feature disabled and neurodivergent characters.)
Be on the lookout for tales of heroism or victimhood and when you see them, point them out. You don't have to be a hero to be a worthy disabled person, and not all disabled people see themselves as victims. Everyone just wants to have their way of being respected.
I start my teacher education classes with the question, "What is normal?" The answer we arrive at, without fail, is it depends, or even at times, nothing. I like to explain to kids that our environment often dictates what's considered "normal." I taught my son about the Deaf community on Martha's Vineyard that led to an island-wide adoption of sign language, spoken by the hearing and deaf alike, while at the same time, on the mainland, Deaf children were being excluded from public education and teaching in sign was banned. “Do you think it was the Deaf kids that were the problem, or the systems around them?” We also talk about what life would be like if left-handedness (my son and I are proud southpaws) wasn't accommodated (in some ways, it still isn't). What if you weren't allowed to write with your left hand? That would make you have a trickier time doing lots of things simply because the world around you decided you weren't normal and didn’t deserve to be yourself.
There are no 100% "right" words to use with children, and language is not the be-all-end-all of changing a mindset, but flipping your vocabulary does spark great discussions and make it clear to kids how subjective this whole thing really is. When my 6-year-old son was using the word "weird" a lot, not necessarily in relation to minds or bodies, but, say, a tropical fruit he had never encountered, we talked about how what’s weird is relative. We decided that words like "interesting" or "new to me" described the situation more accurately, since a Dragonfruit is "normal" to some and apples are "weird" to others.
If your children are disabled or neurodivergent, you will also be combating internalized ableism with these conversations, or, hopefully, working to prevent it by normalizing differences.
Learn about your own profile and talk about it openly.
I can’t tell you the number of parents who, after I’ve explained their child’s diagnosis, say “that sounds exactly like me!” We are much more aware of invisible disabilities than we used to be, and many adults end up learning about their own brains when they seek our neurodivergent education for their kids. Whether you identify as disabled, neurodivergent, or not, you can talk to your kids about the differences between you and the people around you, and how that is OK. I like to talk about how everyone has things that are tricky for their mind or body to do, and things that are easy. Something that is tricky can become easier with practice, but much of the time, what makes something easier is the conditions around someone changing, and we can learn to advocate for those changes, like a dyslexic child requesting audiobooks.
My ADHD gives me good fodder for these conversations (“Mama’s brain has a tricky time remembering what you need for school, do you think you could pack your backpack tonight? My ADHD makes it easy for me to travel and have adventures!), but anyone can engage in them. For disabled parents, artist and author Sunaura Taylor points out that many disabled people describe kinds of perception and being in the world that may be different from what’s considered the norm, but are equally valid ways of living that can have their advantages.
Point out ableism and the social construction of disability.
Often the most concrete way to explain access and ableism to kids is through the idea of wheelchairs. “If a person with a wheelchair tries to enter this building, that’s a problem. But the problem is not the person in the wheelchair, it’s the building!” When the elevator was broken at a nearby subway station, we talked about what that would be like if you were in a wheelchair, or otherwise needed it to get around. There are less obvious ways to show children that not considering different bodies and minds shouldn't be the default, like noticing a lack of representation in media, or wondering how someone with sensory sensitivity might feel under the glaring lights of our local city-sized Safeway.
Just like with race, and racism, we want children to think about how other people experience the world when it is not set up for them, and to notice if and how they might be “masking” their own needs or excluded, not because of who they are, but because some have decided that there’s only one kind of person. I remember one of my second-grade students saying, “My teachers didn't know how to teach dyslexic kids, so I came here!” It’s something we want to change, but it’s not about the child.
Like with everything we try to do with our children, we can’t be 100% sure how our messages will land. But we send these messages because they are true — they tell our children about the world as it could and should be, not as our limited imaginations often restrict. I tell my children that I’m grateful to live at a time when more and more people are becoming aware of this loss, and more and more disabled voices are being heard. And, I tell them, there is much work to do, and I cannot wait to see what that work uncovers.
Sarah Wheeler writes the newsletters Please Discuss: Small conversations on disability and neurodiversity and Momspreading: The inexpert endeavors of a supposed parenting expert.