Disability Pride Month is celebrated in July by people across the U.S. supporting unity, visibility, and equality among people with disabilities. Children all over the world live and thrive with disabilities, yet face daily prejudice and inequalities that go unaddressed. They’re also more vulnerable to bullying. All too often, these challenges extend into adulthood—85 percent of adults with developmental disabilities are either unemployed or underemployed. Though a seemingly intimidating conversation, it is important for parents to teach their children with a disability how to love themselves in a world that can be harsh to them.
My son, Isaiah, has high-functioning autism—a disability that puts him at risk of high unemployment as an adult. He is also the inspiration for Victor Wear—an activewear brand I founded dedicated to inspiring triumph over obstacles. Together, we aim to grow the company into a highly profitable enterprise that primarily employs people with differing abilities. A key aspiration of our brand is to help empower everyone—regardless of ability—to love, accept and embrace who they are, just as they are. In honor of Disability Pride Month, I wanted to share some ways parents can empower their children with disabilities to do just that.
Be a role model
As a parent, you have an opportunity each and every day to model self-love and acceptance for your child, but you can’t do that unless you first love and accept yourself. And yeah, I know, that’s easier said than done. We all have insecurities and things we wish we could improve about ourselves and our lives. But focusing on all you have—all the blessings of your life—versus what you don’t have, can help you find joy and gratitude for all you are.
Accept your child just as they are
As parents, we all have dreams for our children’s future. And it can be challenging to realize that some of those dreams may look different or may never come to be because of our child’s abilities. I struggled with this firsthand for years. I thought that another school or therapy or specialist would somehow take my son’s developmental challenges away. Eventually, I had to realize that those delays I thought would go away were just who he is and that the intensive education and therapies would only enhance his ability to thrive as the person he was. They weren’t going to fundamentally change anything.
Once I gained this realization, my focus changed to empowering my son with the skills he needs to successfully navigate his challenges and make the most of his strengths like giving him checklists to remember things and stay organized instead of investing in another expensive therapy. With fewer therapies on his schedule, we gained more time to explore interests that helped him feel successful. My son, Isaiah, and I had to learn how to accept our challenges, live with them, and make the best of our lives where we were and with what we had.
Nurture your child’s strengths
Nurturing your child’s strengths is very important while explaining their differing abilities. Children with different disabilities have amazing gifts. Identify their interests and strengths and take every opportunity to nurture them through classes, therapies, and community activities. Those strengths will be critical to their self-esteem and ability to survive in the world.
As human beings, we all have strengths and weaknesses, and it is important that your child understands that. We each have different sets of skills, levels of knowledge, attributes, and talents. Celebrate the fact that people have different things that they are good at and things that are harder for them. Then elevate your child’s strengths to the greatest possible extent and teach them what they need to process information effectively and manage anxiety or sensory challenges—such as visual supports or sensory monitoring cues.
Most of all, always remember to praise and celebrate every achievement. Every victory, no matter how small, deserves respect and attention. You must also support and encourage the child when a failure occurs. It is important to recognize when a child is trying their best along the way rather than focusing on them getting things right all the time. Without failure, they cannot learn or improve. Model that it is okay to get things wrong, and provide constructive feedback that allows your child to progress more effectively.
How to talk to your child about their disability
Knowledge is power. And the more you can help your child understand who they are, the more empowered they will be to navigate life—just as they are. I guarantee you that your explanation of your child’s disability will land much better than anyone else’s, so pay attention to your child’s interest in understanding themselves and why they may be different and provide honest answers.
Your child may notice that they’re different from their neurotypical peers. And children, eager to fit in, may frown upon those perceived as “different.” As a parent, you’ll eventually want to explain and teach your child what being disabled means, but do so in bite-sized chunks that they can handle. Social stories that are simple yet instructional and visual are very effective, particularly for children on the autism spectrum who have more literal and visual learning styles. Role-playing can also help to bring those stories to life and deepen their understanding. Using facial expressions, vocal sound effects, and body movements make the story exciting and engage your child.
Early on in middle school, Isaiah started asking, “Mom, what is ADHD? Kids ask me if I have ADHD.” That was my cue to start discussing his autism diagnosis and what it means for his life. I gave him this information in the bits and bites he could handle and used books to help him connect the dots. This process wasn’t easy and it took a while, but I was consistent. It took over three years for Isaiah to feel comfortable with having autism. He wanted to fit in, but he struggled to. I had to encourage my son to form friendships with those who accept and value him right back.
Resilience is key to successfully navigating your child’s disability. Awareness and support are crucial for your child. Understanding who you are as their parent and how to overcome obstacles is an important step toward learning and growing. Reevaluate teaching your children about their differing abilities at every age and help them to continuously recognize and celebrate their differences.