The little boy peeked around his mom's leg with wide eyes.
"Mom, what happened to him?" he whispered.
She looked over at us with equally wide eyes and quickly shushed her son.
"But, why is he in that?" he persisted.
"You can't ask that," she hissed, as she pushed him behind her leg again and continued to watch the show.
The boy peered out again and I caught his eye this time, as his mom looked over at me and made an embarrassed gesture.
"It's okay," I assured her, then crouched down beside Kingsley so that I was eye level with both boys, "He was born this way."
"Do his legs work?"
"Nope, that's why he has a wheelchair."
"Can he feel them?"
"Nope. It's kind of like if your foot fell asleep and you couldn't feel it."
He smiled up at his mom and then turned back to watch the show. Kingsley continued watching, oblivious to the conversation.
"That's Rachel's brother!"
"Ask her! Ask her!"
"Rachel! Why does your brother have a wheelchair? Hey, Rachel! What happened to your brother? Rachel!"
Rachel chatted on with her girlfriends, oblivious to the small group of boys behind her, pointing to Kingsley. At the same moment, two of them glanced up and saw me watching them. Their mouths snapped shut, but their eyes were wavering between curiosity and guilt. One bravely stammered: "Did he get hurt?"
"No, this is just how he was born."
"Do his legs hurt?"
"Not at all."
"Oh," they looked at each other and one shrugged before they turned away and carried on with their First Day of School reunions.
"How old is he?"
The little boy was standing with me just behind Kingsley, watching as he giggled and tapped the soccer players on the computer screen.
"That's like me!" he said delightedly, "E'cept I'm four."
I nodded, smiling.
"Can he stand up?"
"Can his legs work at all?"
"No, not really."
The boy thought for a second, then asked with a horrified expression, "But how does he PEE??"
I sat back on my heels, for once stunned by a child's question and unsure how to answer. Who was this kid and what in the world made him know to ask that? "Um... just like you..."
"E'cept sitting down?"
He slid in next to Kingsley and they kept playing together until it was time for us to leave.
The girls eyes followed us as we entered the room and sat down. Their table was not far away from us, so I heard as she turned to her mom and asked, "Mom... why can't he walk? Why is that boy in a wheelchair?"
Her mom glanced up casually at us and looked at Kingsley wheeling along behind his sisters.
"Well, some kids are just born that way. Their body can't tell their legs to move," she watched a second longer and then added, "His wheels light up, did you see that? Pretty cool."
As her daughter turned back to her ice cream, the woman glanced up at me, as if to gauge my reaction. I smiled and gave a small nod.
Kids ask me about Kingsley all the time. Kids are naturally curious about the people and things around them. I am sure that adults are equally curious, but we have been taught to squash the urge to ask (or if that hasn't happened, we have a tendency to ask in incredibly awkward ways).
Kingsley is three. His speech is not entirely clear, when he chooses to acknowledge strangers at all. He doesn't respond or appear to care when people ask questions about him, so for now it's up to me to field the questions and I don't mind at all. I don't know if King will want to answer these questions or if he'll one day wish everyone would just shut up and leave him alone. Because of this, I feel a little bit inadequate as to what the universal 'right' way to deal with inquisitive children/people, but in my experience, most parents of children with a disability or adults with a disability would prefer you let your children ask, respectfully, and answer them as frankly and calmly as you can.
Here are a couple great tips on talking to your children about disabilities:
There was also an episode of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood this past week that addressed a lot of the common questions I get about Kingsley when he makes friends with a girl who uses leg braces and crutches. It would make a great ice breaker for kids to get talking about disabilities: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqjBSulEqYU
It's important to talk to them. To break down the fears of disabilities, differences, diagnoses, and equipment, we have to let children know that they're all okay. Wheelchairs are a wonderful thing. Communication aids are phenomenal. Hearing aids are fantastic. Feeding tubes are divine. They aren't scary, they aren't contagious, they just let kids be kids.
I talk to Rachel and Cordelia (and Kingsley) about differences and disabilities all the time. We recently read a couple of books about kids who use wheelchairs who are bullied (WHY OH WHY are all 'wheelchair' books about this?) because the other kids think they're different. They were flabbergasted. They literally could not understand why these fictitious kids could not see past the wheelchair and realize that the wheeler was just a normal kid. I love them for that and I so desperately wish that other kids felt the same way.