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Differently Abled: Teaching Children About Physical Disabilities

written by: Stephanie Torreno • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 1/5/2012

Students come in all shapes, sizes, and abilities. As more children with disabilities are included in the regular classroom, other students need to understand disabilities and accept people who live with them.

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    The classroom is an excellent place for students to learn about disabilities. Since many classes might have one or more students with disabilities, teachers should take a lead role in talking to a student with a disability or helping her with a task. Children are more likely to talk to the student or help him/her themselves when they see how a teacher interacts with a child with special needs.

    When teaching other students about physical disabilities, teachers should introduce them to "people-first language." Teachers should use the term "students with disabilities" rather than "disabled students." Teach children to place emphasis on the person first. Then, mention the disability as a characteristic of the person.

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    Promoting Similarities and Emphasizing Strengths

    Teach children that differences are normal, but people have many similarities. By focusing on what people have in common, encourage children to bond with each other over common interests. No matter what differences children may possess, they like to have fun and laugh. Children with physical disabilities are not really different, they just need extra help performing certain tasks.

    Explain to children that while people have a lot of similarities, they also have different strengths. For example, a boy who uses a wheelchair may be fluent in both English and Spanish. A girl with cerebral palsy may be the fastest reader in class.

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    Encouraging Children to Befriend and Help

    Encourage friendships between children with typical development and children with disabilities. Students without disabilities can learn by talking to friends with special needs and asking them questions. Tell students that if others are teasing a child with a disability, they should tell them to stop or talk to a teacher.

    Ask students to help classmates who have physical disabilities by asking them if they can push their wheelchair or help them gather their school supplies. Remind them first, though, to ask because children with disabilities may not need as much help as others think.

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    Leading Activities to Teach About Physical Disabilities

    To begin teaching kids about physical disabilities, read one of the many children’s bookswritten about children with disabilities. Reading one of these books to the class will raise questions and help initiate discussion. For hands-on participation, play "Disability for a Day" with these activities:

    • Borrow a wheelchair from the nurse’s office and allow students to sit in it and steer themselves
    • Ask children to wear mittens and try to button their shirt
    • Play with clay with rubber bands on fingers
    • Ask children to try to speak and be understood with something sticky in their mouths
    • Put vaseline on plastic glasses

    While all of these special activities can teach about disabilities, everyday classroom opportunities can do much to increase understanding of others. When students see classmates with various abilities included in educational experiences, acceptance of and relationships with individuals with disabilities will happen naturally.