Hello Nicole – June 2001

Dear Nicole, My daughter is disabled and just turned six years old. Part of her disability requires her to wear […]

Dear Nicole,

My daughter is disabled and just turned six years old. Part of her disability requires her to wear leg and torso braces. She’s never been troubled by the braces, and most of her friends have seen them, but now this spring she won’t wear certain clothes in public because she doesn’t want her
braces to show. I’ve tried to bring her up to know she doesn’t have to hide her disability. Where have I gone wrong? Is it best to make her wear her shorts, or let her suffer in the heat because she is ashamed of her body?

Sincerely,
Upset Mom

Dear Mom,

I don’t think you have gone wrong! Even if you’re a perfect mom, your daughter is still growing up in a society where the prevailing view is that we should be ashamed of our disabilities. Your daughter needs time to come to terms with this view and find her way toward acceptance of her
disability. It’s very natural that during her process, she will need to experiment with her own feelings about her body and her sense of dignity.

I understand that it’s hard to watch your daughter feel ashamed, and that you wish she didn’t need to go through this. However, she does need to try out various styles of coping with her disability and dealing with the pressures and preconceptions that others place on her because of her
disability.

On the other hand, what your daughter is going through is just normal child development. Around age six, children are starting to understand how they fit into society. Many children at this age will suddenly become shy, develop a concern for their physical appearance, and worry
about what others think of them. Children with disabilities often get their first inklings of prejudice at this time and begin to see that they have reason for concern over their social acceptability.

I definitely don’t think that you should force her to wear clothes that she is uncomfortable wearing. The last thing you want to do is put yourself in opposition to your daughter. Give her unconditional support. This doesn’t mean you agree that hiding her braces is best or necessary,
but just that you respect her feelings at this time. Sometimes disguising or hiding our disability can give us a sense of power or control over what people think of us; perhaps your daughter is seeking her power in the face of societal prejudice? Whatever the reason, the more you can see her feelings in a positive and compassionate way, the less negative emotional energy you will add to her process. Don’t ridicule her or put her down, but make light of the situation and joke with her to lessen the seriousness and help keep things in perspective.

I always recommend to parents that they introduce their children with disabilities to adults with disabilities who are active in life and/or advocating for disability rights. It so hard for children with disabilities to find their dignity when they grow up without disabled role models. Your daughter should know the history of the disability movement and how we have fought for independence, equality and access.

This background will not only help her better understand where prejudice and discrimination come from, but encourage her to speak up for her rights when there is an issue at school, with her friends, etc..

Obviously, you’ve already given your daughter a lot of the vital foundation of support and awareness she needs to constructively work with her disability. You have laid some very important groundwork that I’m sure will be a source of strength and confidence throughout her life. Continue to be firm in how you perceive disability, but at the same time work to honor your daughter for who she is: an individual with a disability making her own choices about her life.

— Nicole