26. 09. 2016

Don’t Be a Bull in a China Shop: How to Behave Towards People with Disabilities

Some time ago, I traveled on the subway with a lady who had a paralyzed hand. One stop later, an elderly man got on and sat next to her. He fixed her with a compassionate gaze and started: "Excuse me, may I ask you what happened to your hand?" Until then, the woman had been smiling, clearly enjoying her day, but this wiped the cheerful smile from her face. She mumbled something with irritation in her voice in hopes of silencing the man. I guess this is what went on in her head: Not again! I'm not a poor thing! Why??? She hoped in vain. That man, clearly charmed by his own chivalry, was unstoppable: “I feel really sorry with you, it must be very hard..."

Then it happened. The two pairs of thick horns started to grow on the man's head, his nose was quickly replaced by drooling nostrils, and my sensitive ear recorded the sound of crushed china plates....The described story is an extreme example of the bull’s complex, which results in the demolition of many china plates, the damaged dignity of a handicapped person and ridiculing of those who act in this way. I believe most people wouldn’t have acted as foolishly in that situation. But maybe it feels sometimes a bit awkward being around people with disabilities, when you’re unsure of how to act or what to say. Or maybe you are disabled and feel like some people would benefit from tips showing them how not to behave. Maybe you’re a conscientious parent who wants to show their child how to treat people with disabilities in a respectful and positive way. Even in this case, you have to start with yourself. Children learn a lot from watching how you act when you’re around others. If you behave nicely and politely, they are likely to behave the same way. This is also true for behaving towards people with disabilities. Empathy is key. But  it can be difficult to imagine how other people feel, especially if you are fit as fiddle. Here are some ideas to help you and your kids avoid any awkward or disrespectful situations with the disabled.

Show Respect and Be Positive

If you meet someone on a wheelchair or with a walking stick, don't forget that they are unique human beings. They don't belong in a separate group, they don't have a special label on their forehead that says "disabled". Each of them has a personality in their own right, with their own hobbies and problems. They may not feel handicapped at all and don't want anybody else to force this on them. So, don't do that! Communicate to your child that being different is ok and that the majority of disabled people don’t like it when other people feel sorry for them. They don’t want to feel inferior or strange. We need to respect that a lot of the time they don’t want to talk about their disability at all. Discussing common interests, hobbies, or other everyday things is best, just as you would do with your non-disabled acquaintances. Leave questions about a person’s disability for the time when you know them better and even then watch for signs that show you if the person feels comfortable sharing. Speak to the disabled person directly if he/she has a companion or aid. When talking with children about someone with disability, use respectful language. Children may often ask questions, but we shouldn’t hush them up. Instead, we can offer simple explanations such as, "She uses a wheelchair because a part of her body does not work properly. But it’s ok, you can still play with her."

Don’t Force It and Be Patient

You may suffer from the Mother Teresa complex. However, don’t assume that every person with a disability needs your help. Very often they are trying to be independent and take pride in being able to take care of themselves. Offer help only if you can see that the person needs it and even then ask if your help is desired. If they say no, don’t insist. Very often people with a disability will be the first to ask. You should also make sure what type of help they prefer; don’t assume you know the best. You could easily cause more harm than good and join the ranks of an bull’s herd. In case you are out with a disabled friend, be patient when he or she takes a longer time to accomplish tasks. Just relax, enjoy the moment and remember that the time you spent together is more important than losing a few minutes of your precious time.

Stories Have Power

People have been telling stories for centuries. Stories have power, stories bring us fun, fascination and very often they can teach us many important things. Children enjoy learning about the world through stories very much. You can read stories together that have strong characters with disability and that introduce positive messages: for example, how disabled children enjoy life, love playing, and have friends just like anyone else. Children love stories that are written in an entertaining way, such as the book Wonder ( about a boy with facial deformity, or those that show disabled kids as heroes. One example is the story Zoom ( about a girl on wheelchair who saves her brother. Talk with your kids about these characters, imagine how they feel and what it would be like to have them for friends.

What to Tell Your Child About Disabilities

Surely we all want to live in a society where we all feel good. So when talking to your children about disabled people, stay positive and show them that:

  • Being different is ok and having a variety of people actually makes our world more interesting;
  • People with disabilities are like anyone else and they have many other characteristics and hobbies;
  • Their disability is only one characteristic, even though it may be the most visible one;   
  • Children with disabilities are like all children: they like playing with friends and they want to feel included and respected;
  • When a child has a physical disability it doesn’t mean he/she is less clever, and children with disabilities can do many of the things you can do, but it might take them longer.
Ladislava Whitcroft is an expert on education, namely on reading literacy and the development of both creative and critical thinking. Her current activities center around the work she does for Lipa and Charles University's Faculty of Education. Along with co-authoring an electronic handbook of reading for teachers and an interactive e-book for children, she has created several e-learning projects of her own, including methodologies and articles. Time permitting, Ladislava writes for the kids' website Šotkoviny (, and she loves to translate and take her adventurous spirit on travels around the world.


By Ladislava Whitcroft, Educational Specialist at Lipa Learning

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