As parents, we want to raise our kids to be sensitive to people who are different than them. Obviously, we will never know exactly what someone else's life is like, but raising our kids with the awareness that there are people who experience life differently than they do is important. Sometimes the situations that lead us to teach our kids about empathy for others can be incredibly uncomfortable, but they're necessary for growth. So, if your kid stares at a person who has a physical disability, it's better to use it as a teachable moment rather than try to dwell in the discomfort of the moment.
Naturally, our first instinct is to shoo your kid away because we are absolutely mortified. But that's actually the wrong approach. Many parents of children with disabilities would rather that we don't try to disappear, but instead, acknowledge the child. Saying hello is great way to diffuse the tension. You don't necessarily have to have a full blown conversation if you don't want to, but by trying to rush your child away, you're invalidating the existence of the child with disabilities.
It's not as if they're unaware of the disability, and treating them with a little kindness will make everyone involved feel a little less awkward. "If they’re too nervous, a wave is fine. “In some way, acknowledge that this is a person,” says Daniel T. Willingham, father to a daughter with a disability.
If you find yourself in this situation, encourage your kids to ask appropriate questions. "What's your name?" is a great way to start, and then, if they have additional questions, follow the parents' lead. Chances are, they don't mind asking basic questions about their kid's disability; it's a pretty big part of their life.
And for most people, if they know about the disability, they're more likely to be more empathetic in the future. Plus, parents of kids with disabilities usually like to spread awareness. It's not invasive to ask simple questions; they've likely heard it all before.
Our kids need to know from a young age that there are many different types of people in the world. It is normal for kids to be inquisitive, especially when it's something they've never seen before. Giving our kids the space to meet kids with disabilities rather than shy away in embarrassment means we're giving them the tools to be better allies to those kids in the future.
Because by talking to them and getting to know them, our kids are seeing them as more than just their disability.