Raising a differently-abled child is undoubtedly one of the hardest things a parent will ever do. There are so many unknowns, so many questions. The stakes are higher, the barriers more real. There are trillions of ways to fail them, after all, no parent will be perfect. But there are also trillions of ways to succeed in raising a capable, independent differently-abled human. I speak to you, not as a sympathetic parent, but as a former differently-abled child.
Today I will reflect on my childhood and suggest ten things parents can do to help their differently-abled children succeed. Some of these ideas I stole from my parents, because they helped me more than I can say. Others I made up on my own, because I feel they would have helped if my parents had adopted them. Any one of these suggestions will have a positive impact in a differently-abled child’s life.
The Top Ten Ways to Help Differently-Abled Children Succeed.
- Socialize your differently-abled children from as young an age as possible.
Having close social ties is a huge buffer for self-esteem, and young children are notoriously chill at making friends and unbothered by someone being different. Hopefully these friendships and connections will last throughout the ups and downs of the teen years.
- Nothing is harder than growing up the only blind kid. Trust me, I would know.
If at all possible, help your child make friends with other blind kids their own age. Parents will always do their best to understand their children, especially their differently-abled youngsters, but parental understanding and support can only go so far. Having someone your own age who goes through the same daily struggles is incredibly important. It shows you’re not alone, that your experiences are not shameful or isolating, and that others go through them, too.
- Help differently-abled children become independent.
Don’t force it upon them. Instead, gently ease them into independence. Make sure they have orientation and mobility training, even if it’s just around the block at first. Confidence will come in time, and every new adaptive skill they learn will build self-esteem and establish independence. Get them used to assistive technology, so they can do more and more for themselves. Assist them in learning Braille, so they can read elevator buttons and room numbers. Take a stab at learning Braille yourself, so you can read their Braille birthday cards.
- Make sure they are aware of social norms.
Leg jiggling, rocking back and forth, flailing hand movements. Blind children can’t copy what those around them are doing and may be unaware that they are behaving differently. It’s much better if they hear it from you, rather than getting teased or mocked by others.
- Involve them in hobbies.
Whether it’s the stereotypical love of singing or music, a one-on-one dance class, or long, adventurous hikes up mountains, help them find things they like to do and are good at. This is important for all children but can really help build confidence for differently-abled kids. It shows by example that if they really want to do something, likely there is a way to do it, even without sight.
- Make sure you give them opportunity to go shopping.
This one is especially important for blind girls, but it also applies to boys. Help them feel confident that their clothes are stylish, that their outfits match. Make sure they are comfortable with hair gel, earrings, makeup, and a myriad of other accessories. Encourage them to find their own style. Be their mirror. This can be difficult for parents, I know. “Hon, you’re wearing way too much makeup.” “Sweetheart, that dress is far too short.” But are all the other kids wearing outfits like that, and do the other girls wear that much makeup? Try to balance parental admonitions with how you would want to fit in twenty years ago.
- Help them learn to advocate for themselves.
This is separate from learning independence, because self-advocacy is a huge part of being a competent blindy. Ease your kids into speaking up for themselves and asking for help when needed. School is probably the place where this will be learned, and it is essential for success in college.
- DO NOT favor one child over the other.
You’re probably sitting there shaking your head going, well, that’s a given, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to favor one kid over another, especially in families where some children are differently-abled and others are not. It is easy to pay more attention to the differently-abled child, because you feel they need that extra attention and help. But let me tell you, you’re not doing them any favors. Not only will their siblings resent them for it, but they may develop to great of a dependence on you, and this could inhibit their development. It can also go the other way. Some parents feel they relate better to their able-bodied child and may naturally pay more attention to them because of this. This can do a lot of damage to a differently-abled youngster and make them feel as if they are growing up second class. These feelings can internalize quickly and have lasting effects on their self-worth and self-esteem.
- Don’t be afraid to teach them anything you would teach a non-disabled child.
Keep in mind that, though differently-abled children will do things differently, this does not mean they cannot do them. You might need to adapt the task or activity, but with a little creativity and the courage to think outside the box, differently-abled children can do almost anything. Show them how to cook. Help them learn to clean the toilet. Give them the independence to take care of themselves when they’re out on their own. Learning age-appropriate tasks at the age their sighted peers learn them is much easier, and way less embarrassing, than learning them years late or not learning them at all.
- Encourage your children to read.
Whether they enjoy reading Braille, whether they prefer you to read to them, or if they’re all about audio books, reading is a great way to learn about the world. Any child can benefit from books by enhancing their vocabulary, unconsciously improving their spelling and grammar, and furthering their imaginations. There are two extra benefits for blind children. Connecting with your sighted peers through entertainment is a great way to make friends. Tons of books have been made into popular movies, and these movies are often best understood if you read the books first. I spent half my childhood wowing friends and family with my extensive Harry Potter knowledge. Instead of pausing the movie to explain to me what was going on, they would pause the movie so I could explain why things were happening. Reading makes you smarter! It also provides the most descriptive lens into the sighted world a blindy may ever have. Through books, I picked up and began to understand hundreds of visual and social phrases. Color took on texture, trees bloomed in my mind, and a look, a frown, one raised eyebrow held hither to unfathomable meaning. It is definitely possible for blind people to understand visual things without reading books, but in my experience, the descriptive phrases within a story brought the visual world to life.
Thanks for reading! As always, please share any questions or differently-abled tips in the comments.
Be kind, and be aware.
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