teaching kids about disabilities

Today I would like to talk about some tips I have learned for teaching kids about disabilities and how to interact with them.  Exactly TWENTY years ago this June I participated in my VERY FIRST Muscular Dystrophy Summer Camp.   My first college roommate convinced me to go and volunteer to be paired up with a kid with Muscular Dystrophy and spend a week taking care of him and helping him to enjoy one of the best weeks of his life…a week at Summer Camp.


{1992–my roommate Heather, her camper Abram standing, and my camper Chad in the wheelchair}

I was 18 and scared to death, but really excited at the same time.  I had never done anything like this before.  My childhood friend had a brother with Down Syndrome who we played with, but other than that I had limited contact or knowledge about someone with disabilities.

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It was a life changing week for me.  I spent an entire week serving someone who could not do many of the things that came so easy to me, things I completely took for granted.  I was never the same.


{1993—My camper Denae and I.  I was 19 and she was 18 years old}

I have spent the next 19 years (with the exception of about 3 years which I missed due to being hugely pregnant one year and a couple years when I had a nursing baby).

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After the first couple of years of being paired with one of the Campers…I was asked to come back in 1994 as a Group Leader which is equivalent to a Camp Counselor.  This is what I have been doing with MDA Camp since.  We start planning the summer camp starting in January and then during the week long camp in June are in charge of overseeing a group of campers and volunteers.



I feel like a lot of who I am is in part tied to this great experience I have been priviliged to be a part of.  These kids have so much to teach us.  We have lost so many of them throughout the years and I have been too way to many of their funerals.  But their lives have fully enriched me and my family members lives.

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One of the main reasons I have made the decision to continue to serve in this way, when I have a busy and growing family, is FOR my kids.  They have been able to come to many of the summer camp activities and be a part the MDA family.



I wanted to share with you a few things that I have learned.  Keeping in mind that though, that people and children with disabilities have a wide range of abilities and independence.  And they may also have different ways that they like to be helped or treated.   But here are a few general things I have learned that can help teach you and/or  teach your children how to treat others with disabilities.

1.  Kids with disabilities want to be treated like everyone else.

2.  Get down to their level and talk to them face to face.

3.  Don’t lean on or hang on their wheel chair or equipment.  Their medical equipment is an extension of their body.  Please respect it.

4.  Kids are kids, disability or not.  They want to be treated as such.  They want to have fun too.  Include them and find ways for them to feel like they are a part of the group.  Don’t leave them watching on the sidelines…unless of course that is exactly where they want to be.  And then even then with some encouragement you can get them out there having fun.

5.  Don’t rush in to help someone with a disability unless they need immediate attention or help.  But…that doesn’t mean they might not need help.  Ask if you can help and how.  Many have varying abilities and a need for independence.  They may or may not want your help, but it never hurts to kindly ask.

6.  Don’t stare, it’s rude.  But at the same time…don’t ignore them either.  Treat them as you would any other person you might come across.



7.  If you child says something to you about someone with a disability this is a great opportunity to have a teaching moment with them.  For example if your child wonders why a person is in a wheelchair…don’t get embarrassed and try to hush them up.  This may come across as something to be feared or secret.  Simply explain to them that they need the chair to be able to get around because their legs don’t work like yours do.  Then try to compare it to something they can understand…like how some people need glasses to help them see.

8.  If the disabled person overhears your discussion, they may even join in and give your child a bit more explanation.  I ALWAYS appreciate it when this happens because your child will be able to see that they are just like them.  It can take away some of the fear of the differences.

9.  Do not talk down to someone with a disability or use “baby talk”…or one of my personal pet peeves…talk loudly (unless the person is hard of hearing). 

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10.  Respect and understand a person’s confidentiality.  People with disabilities have a right to privacy.  They are not obligated to tell you about their disability.  If someone does tell you about his/her disability, do not assume that he/she is comfortable with you telling other people about his/her disability.  Always ask permission to discuss the disability before you do it.

I hope some of these tips are helpful.  The most important thing I would like to get across is that kids need to be taught how to interact with others who may act or look different.  And just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean that they are any more different than you and I.  They have the same thoughts, feelings, goals and aspirations as you do.

Do you or someone you know have a physical disability? What have you learned that could help others interact in a respectful way?


  1. Tricia says

    Great post on interacting with peoople who have disabilities. Thank you for your service!

  2. Robyn says

    My daughter is deaf, and it has given our family opportunities to get to know people with a wide range of disabilities and backgrounds. We encourage her to be as involved as possible, and I think that having kids get to know my daughter is a service to them as well as to her, because it helps prepare them for future encounters. I’m always pleased when parents are willing to help their kids reach out to my daughter.

  3. Sheryl says

  4. says

    I’m deaf myself. My friend’s daughter has cerebral palsy, and is in a wheelchair, she’s also blind, and other issues. Love her no differently. :)

  5. aimee says

    My son has Dravet Syndrome, a rare and severe form of epilepsy. He wears a helmet to protect his head from the hundred+ seizures he has daily. We always get stares and looks wherever we go. I wish I could protect him from the cruel gaze of the world but it’s impossible.
    I have always had a special place in my heart for people with disabilities. I received my degree in Special Education and have some incredible friends with special needs.
    I too have a strong desire to teach my children how to interact with people who may not look, sound, walk or behave the same way they do. This precious opportunity with which we have been blessed, to have our little Ben in our home, has been a priceless teacher and profound experience. I just wish that when people looked at my son, instead of seeing his helmet, they would see his remarkably brave and loving spirit…because that is who he is…that is what defines him.
    Thank you for this wonderful post Amy. Bless you.

  6. says

    You make many great points and offer wonderful advice.

    My five year old has cerebral palsy affecting his whole body. His only form of mobility is a wheelchair and he has a hard time sitting. We get stared at a lot, but it is even worse to be ignored and left out. People seem to define Thomas by his disability. He is actually a spunky, social, quickwitted, and loving boy, but to many people, he seems to just be “a kid in a chair”. We would love if more people would invite us on playdates that my son can participate in & if parents explained very simply to their children that he is a little kid just like them, but that his body behaves differently.

    I think your point about staying off of a disabled person’s equipment is a great piece of advice which is often overlooked. I am shocked by how many parents let their child climb on the back of my son’s chair or try to use his joystick. It is very frustrating to him, but also causes him anxiety because he is afraid his chair will hurt them.

    I loved this post – – thank you!

  7. Mandy Kirk says

    From a mother of an 11 year old son with special needs, I say thank you for this post. Caleb is no different than any other child, he just wants to be happy, and that has become my life goal to make sure he is, no matter what others think about him!

  8. Sonja A. says

    (I found your site via Pinterest for the family store post. Your blog looked neat, so I checked it out.) I just want to say thank you for this post. Our daughter is a little person. She’s almost 12 and looks like she’s 5. Sooo many people don’t understand many of the points you just asked. We have kids around where we live which are the cruelest…saying she’s a baby and not wanting to play with her at all. She has the kindest heart ever and just wants to be a friend. We talk to her a lot and make sure she’s okay; and we encourage her to speak up and say “I’m (her name) and I’m 11 and I’m just a little person” with a strong voice.

    Again, thank you! :)

  9. Marnie says

    Amy, volunteering at MDA camp the last 3 years have made me a better person. I can’t until camp this year. It is one of the best weeks of the year for me. Thanks for this post. My niece has a muscular dystrophy disease and loves camp. I also have a newphew on the autism spectrum. I hope people read this post and realize how it easy it is to make those with disabilities feel like they are good enough. I hope you’ll be at camp the first week. We had such fun in your group last year!

  10. says

    Thanks for posting this, Amy. You are absolutely beautiful and I love to think of the difference you’ve made for so many kids and families (with or without disabilities) on this subject because of what you do. I know you’ve made a difference for mine. Miss you.

  11. says

    I visited our local MDA camp this past week and love watching kids have this experience- I had known some of them since they were babies and several were students at the school where I teach. I think your post contains good advice not just for kids, but for a lot of adults as well! I love that you included pictures from your years at camp.

    • says

      Totally agree with Heather, everyone can benefit from this. Thank you for sharing yourself with these wonderful souls, and your experience with us!

  12. Comet says

    I am an adult with a below the knee amputation. I rarely wear shorts but on the times when I do I tend to get “looks” which is fine–but kids are not shy and will either LOOK or say something. I view this as a way to help them understand that not everyone is made the same. Sometimes we will be somewhat “silly” about it if we think the kid is old enough to laugh with us–“A Land Shark bit me!”

    And when people see a motorcycle pull into a Handicapped space–please wait til you see who gets OFF the bike before you knee jerk to “Those evil bikers taking up the handicapped space for their own use”—-until you see my husband clip a HANDICAPPED tag onto the windscreen and then unstrap my walker from the back of the bike. Yes I am handicapped. And yes I do what other people do. I just get up every morning happy that I didn’t wake up dead. And when you see me using a step-stool to get back ON the bike—don’t be the person who tells me that I am “brave”. I am not “brave”. DO be the person who comes over and tells me that they can’t WAIT to tell their former biker pal who no longer rides that they might have a SOLUTION to their problems getting ON the bike!

    Solutions! Glasses are the solution for poor vision. Wheelchairs, braces, walkers, casts—they are all solutions for body parts that don’t work. This has been the “take away” for me…..that people don’t GET IT until they are in contact with someone who LIVES IT every day.

    The one thing that “Got Me” was when someone on an on-line forum told my daughter that people like me are “The WORST kind of disabled people” because at first glance they can’t TELL how we are disabled! As if a person with a bad heart should wear a large red heart broken sign! And people who use a wheel chair are not usually also BLIND DEAF AND STUPID as a lot of other people “assume”! These ignorant people will ignore me; pass my change to someone else in the check out line-!-ask others what I want as if I can’t speak for myself!

    If we teach ourselves and our kids to look past the obvious then we can get them to see the inner person–something I am extremely fortunate to have in my (grown) kids and my two grandkids who have not known me without my “handicap”.

  13. Nicole says

    Great post, thanks! I was looking for guidance after having an experience with my 4 year old son on the bus. Because I was in such close proximity to the person, I did hush and tell him not to be rude. Also told him that everyone is made differently. I could see the person was extremely uncomfortable and I felt horrible.


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