Childish curiosity around disability : 10 things a wheelie wants you to know.

Once again mothers grabbed their toddlers and ran, screaming for the hills! Some took action-movie style leaps for cover, shielding their toddlers with their whole bodies as the mutant came into their line of sight. Okay so maybe there’s a little bit of creative licence there, but as I watched at least the tenth mother engage in uncomfortable small talk when their small child began pointing at my wheelchair and asking questions my heart sank momentarily. Thankfully my own three year old rounded the corner of the aisle of the supermarket and took a running leap into my lap, giggling and hugging me. Her wild curls and twinkling eyes instantly made me forget about the uncomfortable exchanges of the last couple of minutes. But it also drew the attention of the small children populating the fruit aisle even further in my direction, and I’m absolutely a-okay with that. In fact, here are ten things that I want parents of young children to know about wheelchair users and the curiosity of small children.


I. Of course they’re curious. They think I’m a transformer!

Of course they're curious. They think I'm a transformer!

We spend the early years of a child’s life plying them with toys which turn into other toys. The parts of my wheelchair resemble a great many of those toys. We also spend the early years of a child’s life idealising super hero’s, some of whom bolt into funny suits or have cool vehicles which look nothing like real cars. To your small child my wheelchair is my iron man suit. I’m cool with that. Who wouldn’t wanna be iron man for a day eh?


2. It’s rude to point when you’re 33, but when you’re 3 it’s allowed!

 It's rude to point when you're 33, but when you're 3 it's allowed!

There’s a lot of new things yet to see, and lots to learn about when you’re 3. How can you learn about things if you can’t draw someone else’s attention to them, and how can you draw someone else’s attention to something if you don’t know what the heck it is? For that reason, pointing at 3 is a-okay too!

3. It’s my body that doesn’t work properly, not my common sense or understanding of appropriate conduct.

It's my body that doesn't work properly, not my common sense or understanding of appropriate conduct.

If your child wants to talk to me I will happily talk to your child. I will not give your child inappropriate detail. I will not make physical contact with your child. I will happily answer questions and explain things about the chair, or living in the chair, in an appropriate manner. How can your child learn about the world outside their own little shell if they don’t have the opportunity to ask questions and get answers ?


4. But I will not talk to your child without your presence AND your explicit permission.

But I will not talk to your child without your presence AND your explicit permission.

People in wheelchairs are as individual as everyone else. We all have different capabilities, different levels of understanding, and different character traits. Some of us are saints, some are sinners. Some are not safe to be around your child for the same reasons that other adults aren’t safe to be around your child. Stranger danger is still as relevant with a wheelchair user as it is with any other adult.


5. I am happy for your child to touch the safe parts of my wheelchair.

I am happy for your child to touch the safe parts of my wheelchair.

By allowing children to become familiar with medical aids, such as splints, crutches, walking sticks, frames, wheelchairs, etc, the fear factor is removed and the curiosity that caused your child to point in the first place is reduced significantly. But I wont do this without you there because your child is ultimately your responsibility.


6. I know there is a 3 year old sitting on my lap, but no, your 3 year old can’t sit on my lap. Sorry.

I know there is a 3 year old sitting on my lap, but no, your 3 year old can't sit on my lap. Sorry.

There are several reasons for this, and not one is because I’m a mean, moody old lady. The first hails right back to stranger danger, you just don’t know whether I’m safe to have that level of contact with your child. The second is because I am actually in constant, extreme pain because my nervous system is hateful. And the third is because I do not want to create a misconception in your child that it is okay to sit on any wheelchair users lap, and that they’d all instantly be cool with it. I believe that the majority wouldn’t be.

7. Disability is not contagious.

Disability is not contagious.

Funny this one, I didn’t catch it. I was born with it. My genetic code went through the washing machine wrong and came out skewed. So while I’m stuck with it, and very occasionally I wish that someone else could do the harder parts of disability for me, actually I can’t gift it to anyone else or pass it on like a cold.

8. I’m a person with a capable mind and the same feelings as anyone else.

I'm a person with a capable mind and the same feelings as anyone else.

When you try to tactfully steer the ball of indiscretion that is your curious child away from my chair it’s actually about as tactful as hitting me with a baseball bat. Sometimes it’s quite isolating from my point of view. My children have also found it rather upsetting at times, after all, why wouldn’t someone want to talk to their Mummy? You could actually save us both a shed load of blushes by just allowing your child to express themselves.

9. Sometimes your child will make a rude comment, or ask what feels like a very rude question. It’s actually not a reflection on you or your parenting!

Sometimes your child will make a rude comment, or ask what feels like a very rude question. It's actually not a reflection on you or your parenting!

It’s that curiosity thing again, and it comes with no filter at three years old. As a psychologist I’d be more concerned if I did see a young child trying to filter those questions and rude comments. I’d take a dimmer view of you if your child appeared to be biting their tongue at such a young age. So don’t worry. Rude questions and comments, again a-okay!


10. Don’t steer your child away from disability. It exists, and there’s no escaping that.

Don't steer your child away from disability. It exists, and there's no escaping that.

There is a world of difference between contact with disability through hypothetical conversations, T.V programmes, and stories and actually interacting with disability, and being able to explore through questions. If you steer your child away from wheelchair users and disability you are adding to continuation of prejudices and creating confusion and fear of a perfectly common set of circumstances. Setting your child up to be comfortable around disability as a normal set of circumstances now will be a massive help if there comes a time when disability is a feature of every day life for your child in any context.


Thanks for sticking it out  to the end of my sass! While I’ve written this article around three year old children it is generally applicable throughout childhood (especially the comment about sitting on my lap!). If you’ve liked this article then let me know by hitting the uprating arrow on the left of the header graphic. Maybe this article has resonated with you and you’d like to add your thoughts? Drop me a comment in the comments section at the bottom of the page and I’ll always try and drop you a reply. Or maybe you have a question about introducing your child to wheelchair users sensitively ? Fire away! I’ll always help if I can.

Dorne Warner

I'm a freelancer with a diverse range of professional experience and a passionate interest in the human experience. I've spent 20 years working across a range of communicative platforms and online communities. My absolute favourite was 7 years in a voluntary capacity with iVillage UK. In this role, I was able to break the constraints of contracted work and discovered a passion for connecting with service users in order to feedback to HQ. This role generated a depth of understanding of the client experience from which the management was able to improve their service. I refer to this as my favourite because although voluntary iVillage UK helped me to find my speciality and develop my professional skill set. I currently manage an osteopathic practice. By implementing the deeper level of client understanding I have successfully enhanced the treatment experience, dispelled patient anxiety, and shortened prescription lengths. This enhanced service has improved client return rates and word of mouth recommendations. I've also successfully enhanced staff experience. Happy staff are integral to achieving happy clients. My strengths include safeguarding and risk assessment. At a personal level, I am highly motivated and self-critical. I strive to improve myself in order to deliver better results for my employers. My colleagues describe me as intuitive, supportive, and 'useful to have around'. I thrive in positions in which I can support others. I also thrive while self-improving. I remain a student with the open university, with whom I studied for my BSc (Hons) Psychology & am reading an MSc path with. I thrive in support roles. I am freelancing and available for ghostwriting, project management, short-format feature articles and charity work.
  • Donna Caldwell

    I try very hard to answer my kids questions about wheelchair users. Why are they in the chair? Why can’t they just walk? Etc. Thanks to a lovely wheelchair owner I know, if I’m in near contact with the person, I ask if it’s ok for them to speak to them – while making it known that it’s acceptible to say no if they are uncomfortable with that. I’d much rather they ask the questions than have me shush them like it’s something the person should feel embarrassed about.

    • Dee Warner

      It sounds like you’ve got the perfect balance Donna. Excellent. 🙂

      • Donna Caldwell

        They’re used to me with my sticks and my gran in her chair. They also watched the Paralympics with me and asked about things they obviously hasn’t seen before. Having the athletes do videos explaining their disabilities was a big help to let them understand that we arent all built the same and we shouldn’t take healthy bodies for granted x

  • Anh Ha

    You’re a beautiful person Dee, with a wonderful sense of self-deprecating humour.

  • Joseph Paul John McCarthy

    Wow, this is a great article. As someone with a lot of social anxiety who is about to bring a child into the world this article is extremely helpful. Knowing the line between rudeness and being inquisitive is difficult. Thank you for this article.

  • Jimmy Regan

    As always, brilliant. Thanks