Time to break and remove the disability stigma: teaching children to embrace inclusion.

Too often I find myself asking my kids how we live in a world where bigotry and racism still exist.  In an age where we are so high-tech and have artificial intelligence and self-driving cars, how are some people’s mindsets still so primitive.  How do we break through these barriers of fully accepting everyone regardless of our differences? And believe me, it dismally is much more than religion, race, and gender.  Two additional areas where I find many people still struggle with acceptance are mental health and disabilities.  It’s time to break and remove the disability stigma. We must encourage our children to include peers with disabilities and embrace all similarities and differences.

Impact of stigma on the disabled

How can we break through these barriers so that kids with disabilities do not have to grow up in a world feeling so different and even inferior at times?  Shouldn’t we be building up all children to become the most resilient, authentic, and best versions of themselves?  Research has indicated that self-esteem reaches a low point in the early part of adolescence.  Though there are mixed findings, it is generally accepted that many children do experience a decline in self-esteem from about age 11 to 15.  After age 15, self-esteem begins to increase rather quickly. This increase is primarily due to an increase in personal autonomy and freedom in choosing activities and relationships that resonate with their own personalities. 

But as a child with a disability, there are additional hurdles that affect self-esteem.  Depending on the disability, after age 15, they may not have the adaptive skills to get that boost of self-esteem that their non-disabled peers receive.  They may miss out on the freedom that comes with choosing social relationships and activities that align with their values and personalities because sometimes those adaptive skills are lacking and thereby prevent this liberty. 

Stigma often leads to bullying

As an educational advocate, I represent children with disabilities and their families and can tell you firsthand some of the struggles these children face on a regular basis.  The lack of acceptance is sometimes deplorable and numerous studies have documented that students with disabilities are at a greater risk of experiencing bullying. Negative attitudes towards those with disabilities can lead to bullying’s most dangerous outcomes:  depression, isolation, fear, and anxiety.  If you have any concerns that your child is being bullied, request a school observation. Don’t get me wrong, non-acceptance does not come from everyone.  There are always the good seeds around spreading peace and full acceptance.  As a parent I sometimes find myself asking if I have done enough to raise three humans that are fully accepting of everyone, regardless of our differences.  It’s something I think many parents question but keep persevering.  I truly believe that what is taught at home can win over the negative social influences from the outside and help break and remove the disability stigma.

I firmly believe that including special education students in the general education classroom is the best way to start to de-stigmatize those students.  Not too long ago, inclusion was quickly bypassed and special education students were put in a special education classroom for the entire school day.  This sets the “them” from “us” that often results in discrimination.

Stigma shifts throughout childhood

Stigma against those with intellectual and developmental disabilities begins in childhood.  From here it only increases with age and is retained through limited exposure to individuals with disabilities. For instance, by age 9, children without disabilities have unmistakably negative perspectives of children with disabilities, and that negativism only increases with age and those with less contact with students with disabilities. Middle school students without disabilities report that they have limited contact with peers with disabilities.  This leads preteens and young teens to believe that those in the special education classroom are unable to participate in academic classes.  From here, the divergence is introduced.  This often leads many non-disabled kids to veer away from interacting socially with those with disabilities.

Inclusion is so fundamental.  There is a stigma that begins in early adolescence and the less inclusion, the greater the gap between disabled and nondisabled.  What starts out as an observation of differences snowballs throughout adolescence and the subtle forms of stigma from early childhood become significantly more extreme and pronounced. Students with disabilities need to be in the general education population to the greatest extent possible and get out of isolation.  With personal 1:1 aides and other resources, it is possible for many students with disabilities to receive an appropriate education in the general education classroom. Inclusion in school is a great start but it does not address altering implicit attitudes towards those with disabilities for the better.

Ways to break and remove the disability stigma at different ages

We need to implement neurodiversity-oriented approaches that promote positive perceptions of the disabled community before stigmatizing attitudes develop. To begin with, I certainly believe teaching children about disabilities at a younger age would make a positive impact.  It is something that needs to be discussed in order to prevent it from being foreign and unfamiliar.  It is imperative to teach young children that people who are different from them do not need to be feared.  Children must learn that difference should not correlate to fear.  The earlier we start educating, the better chance one can foster a positive perspective of disabilities before negative perspectives develop. From early childhood, disability education should be revisited at different ages to help children learn more as they mature, develop empathy, and build an understanding of the world and their role in it. 

There are many approaches to teaching children about disabilities throughout their childhood.  As infants and toddlers, use picture books that represent people who look different and similar to them.  Toddlers are able to comprehend physical differences and we need to let their curiosity lead the learning path.  Communities, parents, preschools, and friends can help them make sense of the differences, normalize them, and talk about what is the same and what is different. Small adjustments even at a young age can help break the disability stigma.

As children grow up, they are able to understand disabilities that are not obvious at first glance.  Try explaining developmental and learning disabilities in order to help children understand that some disabilities are not always identifiable by just looking at a person.  Additionally, older children are beginning to associate feelings with experiences. Often there are conflicted feelings on peer pressure when including others.  Let children know it is normal to feel confused about how to best include others, but emphasize the importance of overcoming the fear rather than singling others out. Lead by example and others will follow.

In the teenage years, focus on empathy and kindness.  Urge students to invite others into their friend group, intervene when witnessing bullying, and be aware of classmates who seem to be isolated.  Explain how isolation can lead to depression, anxiety, and other health issues.  Most of all, teenagers are able to understand the concept of continuums.  They can begin to discuss physical and mental abilities and how everyone has different variables in all abilities. 

Children with disabilities need an accepting community and core group of friends that understand they are no different.  Just like their nondisabled peers and family, they will thrive in a supportive and loving environment.  Acceptance can make a difference in lives.  It does every day.  Stigma influences public health.  It’s time to break and remove the disability stigma.