When you help a child learn about disabilities, the child learns about differences in people. That knowledge helps the child learn ways to interact with and include people with different abilities. The home, school and community provide many opportunities for teachers and parents to use activities that allow the child to experience and explore disabilities. Children learn in different ways; therefore, using a variety of activities increases understanding. Most activities require minimal changes to apply to children of different ages.
Provide an easy introduction by reading stories of people with disabilities, such as those about Helen Keller and Stephen Hawking. Contact your library and online sources, such as Columbia College's Selected Juvenile Books on People With Disabilities (see Resources), for book lists. Ask the child to discuss the issues faced by the person in the book and talk about how such a disability would affect his life. Look at books on sign language and feel Braille books.
Create a list of disabilities of famous people, making one list of the people and one of the disabilities. Include people with obvious and hidden disabilities. Instruct older children to conduct an online scavenger hunt to match the disability with the list of famous people. Discuss how the disability affected each person and how his abilities helped him overcome adversities. Help the child perform web searches for possible guest lecturers or activities for disabled people and attend any in your area.
Watch age-appropriate movies, documentaries and television programs that depict people with disabilities, such as "Blindsight," "The Magic School Bus," "The Secret Life of an American Teenager," "Forrest Gump" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." Discuss how others treat the people in the movies and what ways she could help include the person in her life and activities. Discuss the effects the disability creates for the family. Watch artists with disabilities, such as Marlee Matlin, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Christopher Reeve, and discuss the relationship between their disability and their ability to perform.
Children often learn best through physical experiences. After exploring types of disabilities, write down at least 10 types on individual pieces of paper, fold and place in a box. Allow the child or each child in the room to draw out a paper. For at least one hour, or several hours for older children, help the child to pretend to have the disability. Use blindfolds, earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones, wheelchairs, canes and other instruments to help mimic physical disabilities. A child tying her shoes while wearing socks on her hands or eating with a blindfold gains understanding of the challenges disabled people face.
Talk to the parents of children with disabilities and arrange outings and recreational activities that include children with and without disabilities. Contact local resources, such as the YMCA, recreation centres and parks, for activities available for disabled children. Encouraging contact with disabled students during recreational activities helps form friendships and break down stereotypes.