Understanding disability

Published On: August 31, 2019 01:05 AM NPT By: Usha Pokharel

Children should be taught that disability is a part of human condition and that everyone will be temporarily or permanently impaired at some point in life

Parents please don’t make a face just yet. This is a very important topic.  When I start to talk for the rights of people with disability, I often get asked if someone in my family has some form of disability because I do not have any disability.  Without my glasses, I would be one. Let us face it. Challenges to a person’s health can happen to anyone, at any age and at any time.  Just remember those people impacted by the earthquake. They were abled people before.  Now within a very short time they have become people with disability.  Their lives have changed.

Not just earthquake, disability could be a result of any number of different causes. We all know that people with disabilities are more likely to experience a discriminatory attitude.  I, for one, don’t want our children to grow up with such attitude toward people with disability. It is important for the parents to understand the concept of disability before explaining it to their children. ‘So, what exactly is disability?’ you might be thinking. 

Disability conditions 
We all know disability is when there is limitations to one’s normal functioning—as a result of medical condition that has negative effect on the daily activities that we take for granted such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing, learning or working—a person is said to have a disability.  The other thing we have to be clear about is that disability is not by choice. Hence, it is our responsibility to make people with disability feel as normal as possible.  I do not want to scare you but the fact remains that, no one is immune from the potential onset of a disability. A baby can be born with profound deafness. A child can become paralyzed from a playground injury. A young adult can develop depression and drug abuse. A woman in her early 30s can be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. A man in midlife can develop Type II diabetes and older adult can lose vision because of glaucoma. The list goes on. Surprised to see Type II diabetes also there on the list?  Yes, why not? Those with diabetes are also people with disability because certain part of their body is not functioning normally.  

These are just some examples.  There could be multiple other reasons for someone to be a victim of disability.  It is very important to recognize that disability is not an illness. Just as health and illness exist along a continuum, so does disability. Just as the same illnesses can vary in intensity from person to person, the same condition can lead to greater or lesser limitation in activity from one person to another. Some medical conditions are more likely to be accompanied by limitations or changes in activity.  Some people with disabilities never perceive themselves as having limitations. I know you are thinking ‘why am I talking about disability all of a sudden?’  

After all, your children will go to school, face the world, meet different people with different ability and some with disability.  Your children’s life will become much easier after better understanding disability.  It is, after all, very important when they come in contact with someone with a disability: a classmate, friend, a teacher, a family member, or a neighbor.  Their knowledge about disability can help them better understand their situation and react accordingly, function appropriately, make friends and help them lead a normal life. Hence, you need to talk to your children about disability in a way they understand and prepare them for the future. They need to understand that, disability is an impairment that limits one’s ability to function normally. Making it even simpler, something has happened to the person that changed the way they do things or the way in which they live their life. Maybe it affected the way they learn, the way they get around, or the way they take care of themselves. A disability is just another part of who they are, like having brown hair, green eyes, or being tall or short. They need to understand that people with disability do not need pity. Rather they need friends, support and encouragement. Children need to understand that knowledge of disability will help them become good friends, be appropriate while being respectful and supportive.  

Children need to learn a lot about empathy and understanding.  They need to understand that disability is a part of human condition.  Almost everyone will be temporarily or permanently impaired at some point in life, and those who survive to old age will experience increasing difficulties in functioning normally. If we sit back and relax and start thinking, most extended family will have at least one person with disability in their family and there is a whole group of people without disability taking the responsibility for supporting and/or caring for them. As parents, it is our responsibility to teach our children to learn to accept one another as uniquely different individuals, to celebrate their individuality and recognize the talents they have—regardless of whether they have any disability or not. They should also learn to share and contribute. Please also make sure that your children are aware of the disability etiquette. Yes, there is such a thing. 

Teach the etiquettes 
Disability etiquette basically involves treating people with disability with respect and dignity.  It means, speaking to the person directly and not through the accompanying person. They should be aware that people with disabilities do not wish to be referred to indirectly.  It also means not making assumptions about their ability to do things because the impact of specific disability can vary widely from a person to a person.  At the same time, it also includes offering help only if it appears to be needed. It is important for children to learn to respect and acknowledge the fact that the individual can decide for themselves about their affairs. Children need to learn to use ‘people first’ language, like using the terms like people with disability and not ‘the disabled’ or ‘the handicapped’.  They should also learn not to refer to people by their disability.  They should be sensitive enough to not address wheelchair users as “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.” You will be amazed to know that most wheelchair users perceive their wheelchair as liberating, not confining. Do teach them to say “s/he uses a wheelchair” instead. Make sure your children do not use demeaning and outdated terms like ‘retarded’, ‘cripple’, or ‘deaf and ‘dumb’. They should also learn to stop using terms like ‘physically challenged’ or ‘differently abled.’ 

Finally, the underlining reason for my writing about understanding disability is because I have seen enough discriminatory attitudes prevailing in different fields: education, health, social economy, employment and even in the field of justice. People tend to undermine people with disability making their life very difficult. I think disability awareness for children is very important, and the schools do not do a good job at it. We want our children to become better, caring and understanding citizens when they grow up.  Now that is not too much to ask for, right parents?


Pokharel is an educationist and author of several children’s books

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