Last week as we were loading into the car after a triple-kid doctor appointment (we're all much better now, thank you for the well wishes), a mom in the car next to us was unloading her three children, the oldest of whom was about 8 and in a wheelchair. Both Katherine and Clara watched intently as the mom settled her son into his chair. By "intently," I mean staring and captivated.
I smiled at the mom as I would any other mom with three kids and then went about putting mine in their carseats. But I wondered, what does that mom want me to do about my kids staring at her kid? What does she want me to tell them to meet their curiosity about her son? What does she want me not to do or say?
As I was buckling them in, Katherine was silent, but clearly thinking about the boy. So I asked her, Katherine, do you have any questions you would like to ask me about the boy in the wheelchair? At first she hesitated and shook her head, but then she asked, Why was he in a wheelchair?
Me: I don't know. Maybe he came out of his mom's belly a little too early and his muscles don't work properly. I'm not sure.
Katherine: Can he walk? Or talk?
Me: No, he can't walk, but he can talk. He might not sound the way you do when you talk, but he probably talks just as much as you do and I bet his mom has to tell him to talk more quietly when his little sister is sleeping!
Katherine: What else does he do?
Me: I bet he loves to read - he looks like he's 7 or 8, so he is probably learning to read at school. And I bet he likes when his mom and dad read to him before bed.
Katherine: Does he sleep in his wheelchair? Can he get out of it?
Me: He sleeps in a bed and he can sit on the couch or play on the floor.
Katherine: Will I be in a wheelchair someday?
Me: No, you won't. Your muscles work properly.
Katherine: Oh, ok.
Me: Do you have any more questions? I'm happy to talk to you about this and answer your questions.
That balance between answering their questions, but not providing more information than they are asking for, or are ready for, or can handle at one time, is tricky. And questions like that aren't usually the ones you can prepare for. I didn't know why the boy was in the wheelchair, but I thought that Katherine needed some sort of simple explanation. And of course I can't promise anyone that they won't be in a wheelchair someday, but at her age, she shouldn't have the burden of worrying about the turns life can take, and so I just answered, no.
Katherine seemed satisfied with the conversation, but I do wonder how to raise children so that disabilities are simply accepted and do not cause a barrier in making a connection with someone.
Anyone have any experience or advice in this area that they'd be willing to share?