I live in a suburban family neighbourhood so I regularly encounter small children on my walk to work. My white cane totally fascinates them and I almost every day I over hear a loud “WHAT’S THAT MUMMY?”
Parents seem to have two responses to this question, they either answer it or they shush the child, pulling them away and telling them to be quiet.
It always devastates me when parents shush a child when all they’ve done is try to learn more about the world. Shushing your child tells them that my white cane, my disability and therefore my existence is taboo. It teaches them that disability is shameful, it mustn’t be acknowledged or spoken about. It makes disability frightening.
It’s not rude or embarrassing to explain to your child that blind people exist in the world.
Shushing your child also sends a message loud and clear to me that you won’t teach your child about disability. It says that I am something that makes you feel awkward as an adult. You don’t know how to interact with me. It tells me that you were probably shushed as a child when you asked an innocent question.
The honest open curiosity of small children is a powerful thing. In my experience they love to learn about the world. Each day their lives are full of new experiences. I love to be part of that teaching moment, as long as I’m not late for the bus! Also, I hope it will save my knees from another set of micro scooter handlebar bruises.
For example, when a child asked their parent “how does the blind lady cross the road?” I could help the parent explain about the special bumpy pavement, the beeping sound the traffic lights make and the fun spinning cone under the button box. Then we all safely crossed the road together. The child was overjoyed to learn all this new information. I heard them stomping their feet joyfully on the tactile paving and announcing they were off to find the spinny cone on the next crossing.
That child will grow into an adult who will understand the awesome power of accessible infrastructure. They won’t panic when they see a visually impaired person at a roadside. Hopefully, they won’t feel the urge to grab them and drag them across, because they might just remember the blind lady who told them about the magical spinning cone and the bumpy pavement.
Of course kids can get confused. Sometimes they don’t quite understand something like visual impairment because they aren’t old enough.
However, their mistakes are more adorable than offensive!
There was the time a little one stopped in the pavement and the parent said “now remember why we wait for this lady?” and the kid shouted proudly at the top of his lungs “BECAUSE SHE HAS NO EYES!” The parent was evidently mortified because she stammered “no, well um that’s not the point, just move out the way!” I laughed loudly, which I always do to show that I’m not upset, also it was hilarious.
Or the occasion my partner was guiding me down the high street and a child said in a conspiratorial voice “that lady has a metal detector!” I chuckled as I overheard the parent explain that they weren’t quite right, but it was a very important stick.
Honestly, I love being the moment of discovery when a child learns about disability in a positive way.
I recently had a wonderful interaction when I overheard a grandparent explaining what my white cane was and what it meant. They put such magic and excitement into the explanation. For the child my white cane was a very special stick that helped me find my way and feel all the bumps in the pavement. It was joyful and special, rather than scary and confusing. I thanked the grandparent, telling them how much it meant to hear a child being answered honestly and not being shushed.
They responded “of course, my granddaughter is going to learn about everyone who is different”
So parents, please answer the questions you kids ask about disability, even if they feel a bit awkward at the time. Turn them into the adult who happily reads out the train schedule when I ask them, not the person who avoids me in the shop when I call out for help finding the right box of cereal.
We learn prejudice by example. For small children difference is just part of the world.
Like the kid who after asking their parent about my white cane, and on receiving a fairly comprehensive explanation, responded: “ok, but why are there brown leaves on the floor?”
Feature image is my awesome nephew who will grow up always knowing what a white cane is!