5 Things Adults Unlearn about Disability

The author poses with her two children in front of a door, all hold out their hands wide By: Emily Beitiks

If my kids (age 4 and nearly 2) and I woke up tomorrow morning and found a dragon in our living room, my son’s top concern would be “What should we name it?” and my daughter would probably try to hug it. I haven’t yet taught them that if you see a dragon, proceed with caution, as we believe them to be fictional and quite likely dangerous.

Every single thing we know today as grown-ups, we had to learn at some point in our development.

But there are some things my kids intuitively grasp without my help. To my surprise, nearly everyone I meet below the age of 4 just rolls with it when it comes to disability. Ableism hasn't taken hold yet. Here are 5 things I’ve seen young children totally understand about disability that unfortunately, most adults struggle with (And feel free to share more examples in the comment section below!):

1) There’s nothing shameful about having your butt wiped. We recently had one of my son’s friends over to our house, and my son was really trying his hardest to impress her. He showed her his extensive dinosaur collection and even let her hold all the items in his treasure chest, the highest honor. Yet without the slightest ounce of modesty, he interrupted their play date to loudly announce, “I have to poop!” He then ran to the toilet and carried on a conversation with her while taking care of it. Shortly after, she too needed to poop and didn’t think twice about asking me to come in when she was done, already waiting with her butt in the air.

People with disabilities and their personal care assistants know this lesson. Dependence in the bathroom becomes mundane, and taboos surrounding bodily functions go out the door. Yet, when nondisabled people think about disability, needing to rely on someone else’s help for transferring to a toilet or wiping often instills fear and disgust: if I had to live like that, I’d kill myself, they say, forgetting that it was once commonplace for all of us.

2) It’s okay to ask for help when you need it, and at other times, to turn down help. A young child getting her bike helmet clasped my a male hand. My daughter getting help.

My kids can’t tie their shoes, read a book, (and we’ve already covered the whole butt wiping thing), so they call on others for help constantly. However, when they don’t need help, they really let me know it. Typically, it involves a shout of “I CAN DO IT MYSELF!!!,” deeply insulted that I would try to assist them with something that they had now mastered.

People with disabilities might ask for help at times, and at other moments prefer to do something without help, knowing that help can be counterproductive (e.g. you should never push a wheelchair rider’s chair or open a door for someone unless you have been asked to). Children get that it’s okay to be complicated when it comes to what your needs are.  

3) We should search for commonalities before differences.Here’s a recent conversation I had with my son (pictured right), looking at a photo of the Geico gecko (pictured left):

a green CGI geckoa 3 year old blue eyed boy, apparently nondisabled and not gecko-like Carver: Hey, he looks like me!

Me: I don’t see that. Like at all.

Carver: Really? Huh.

I didn’t press further. Apparently, the lines between his body and the gecko’s weren’t as different in his mind as they were in mine.

When you think about it, several children’s movies (ET, Lilo and Stitch, The Iron Giant) show kids befriending and harboring aliens that everyone else wants to cage up or eliminate…while fictional, the impulse of children to embrace difference or even celebrate it as something cool, rather than stigmatizing, is grounded in reality. Like my son’s mysterious connection to the Geico gecko, kids see commonality before difference, and my guess is it’s because they simply haven’t lived long enough to learn a cemented version of what “normal” is.

4) Devices are really useful and cool! Author poses with baby attached to chest via wrapped cloth. An assistive device!

Too often adults think of anyone who uses a wheelchair as “wheelchair bound,” suggesting the device is a tool of oppression rather than one of mobility. Children do not, however, share this perspective. My son recently said to me, “I wish I had a wheelchair, don’t you mom?” (in part because he knows he’s not allowed to play on the elevator in our house, that’s only for when a wheelchair rider visits).

And why would kids think negatively about assistive technology devices? They too rely heavily upon them, from their strollers to the stools in front of the sink to their own potty chairs and “special” scissors. Next time you see a parent toting a baby on their back, ask them how they are coping with having an “bjorn-bound” member of their family!  

5) The built environment determines what you can and can’t do.Imaginarium door shows two upside-down U-shaped doors, one smaller for children. I bet this helped sell a lot of toys...

Ask any kid who grew up in the 80s anywhere near the Stonestown Galleria in San Francisco, and they’ll likely remember the joy of walking through the small door at the Imaginarium toy store. In a world build for adults, there was something magical about encountering that door, knowing that it was meant for you. I’ve seen my son react similarly when we’ve visited children’s museums that have lowered sinks and toilets at his height. And when kids encounter the converse, they’re similarly frustrated. Why is that cool toy (that I’ve taken away from my son because he hit his sister with it) out of reach on the top shelf of the bookshelf?! Kids are constantly learning what people with disabilities experience every day: what you can or can’t do and even your sense of belonging vary with the surrounding environment.


I wish I could say that what I’m taking away from these observations is optimism that the new generation of children is growing up with a keen understanding of disability. Alas, my hunch is that instead, it reminds us that we are gradually learning to make different assumptions about disability (negative and stigmatizing) that take over.

As children grow up, they often become fixated on difference, and don’t hesitate to point it out, whether it’s “Your teeth are yellow!”, “That boy is wearing a dress!”, or “You don’t have an arm!” When they do this in front of their parents, it is often quickly shut down with “Don’t stare!” or “That's rude!” teaching them that the difference is shameful. And when our door for acceptance of difference slams shut, children can be especially cruel to other children, resulting in social exclusion and bullying.

Ableism is a learned process. However, that does give us hope that we can teach different lessons that allow us to reconnect with the lessons we grasped more easily in our youth. I’m working on that with my kids every day (so that warning about dragons being fictional and potentially dangerous might have to be on the back burner).