Marisa Howard-Karp, MS
August 23, 2021

Six things not to say to children with disabilities (and some things to say instead)

It’s easy to say the wrong thing, even when we mean well. Here is what not to say to a child with a disability - and some great things to say instead.

  1. “Attitude is the only real disability.”

    Sure, attitude goes a long way. But a great attitude won’t help a wheelchair user climb the stairs and it won’t regulate the blood sugar of a child with Type 1 diabetes. The barriers people with disabilities face are real, and children with disabilities are navigating these barriers every single day. Don’t dismiss their experience.

    Instead, try:

    “Let’s figure out what we can do so you can participate.”

  2. “I am so sorry.”

    You’re sorry they are who they are? I’m sure that’s not what you mean, but that’s what it sounds like. Ouch. For a child with a disability, this is just daily life. Their life is not a tragedy.

    Instead, try:

    “What’s your favorite subject in school?” or “Did you see that new movie yet?” Or anything you might say when you meet any other child.

  3. “Let me do that for you!”

    As adults, we’re always working to help our kids become independent. This is true for kids with and without disabilities. We need to create space and support for all children to learn and try things on their own. It’s ok to offer help when a child is struggling, but don’t assume that a disability means they can’t do something on their own. 

    Instead, try: 

    [Pause and watch. Say nothing if they don’t need help], or “Can I help?” 

  4. Use baby talk. Or talk really loudly. Or really slowly.

    I mean, unless you’re talking to an actual baby. Children, like adults, know when people are talking down to them. It doesn’t feel good.

    Instead, try: 

    Exactly what you were already going to say — but, you know, in your regular voice.

  5. “You’re a superhero!”

    Sometimes children love to be called a superhero. Maybe when they ran a race or learned a new skill. But not just because they are going about their day. That’s not really a compliment, even if you mean it that way.

    Instead, try:

    “I like seeing what you’re learning, or “Thanks for teaching me a new way to do this.”

  6. Ignore them. Or shush your child when they ask questions.

Children know when they’re being ignored, stared at, or talked about. And if you shush your child, you’re giving them the message that there’s something to be ashamed of. Children are usually pretty straightforward talking about things that adults are uncomfortable with. This is a great chance to show your child that disability is a normal part of life.

Instead, try: 

“Do you have a question? We could see if they are willing to answer your question.” 

Or you could just say “Hi.”

Do you see a pattern here? Kids are kids first. A disability is an important part of who they are but not all of who they are. Pay attention to the child in front of you, notice their cues, and apologize if you make a mistake. 

Would you want someone to talk to you the way you are about to speak to a child with a disability? If the answer is yes, go ahead! If you lead with respect you’re off to a great start.

  • Marisa Howard-Karp, MS

    Chief Operating Officer

    Marisa Howard-Karp has spent her career focused on improving access to health care and education, including 15 years providing professional development training to educators and social workers. As a parent and caregiver to four children with disabilities, she has been part of more than 40 IEP meetings (and counting) and has more experience than she wishes she needed navigating complex services and systems. She loves the work of making these systems easier for other families. She’s a non-profit lifer and a Georgia native who has made her home in the Boston area.

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