By CELA on 29 Nov, 2021

“Inclusion is about having a sense of belonging. When children feel a sense of belonging they are more likely to thrive because they feel safe, nurtured and valued. We believe everyone has the right to the following three dimensions: access, participation and outcomes.”
(2012, Early Childhood Australia (ECA), Statement on Inclusion)

According to People with Disability in Australia 2020, a report issued by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, more than 4 million Australians have a disability, representing some 18% of the population. The good news as we head towards International Day of People with Disability is that we have become better at talking about it.

Embrace the disussion, allow children to be curious

Leanne Fretten is the CEO of Sylvanvale, parent organisation of Mikarie Child Care Centre, which is an Exceeding rated service recognised for its all-abilities practice. She encourages educators to welcome questions about disability and respond in a respectful and age-appropriate way. “It's really important that we don't shy away from talking about disability. At our childcare centre we allow children to be inquisitive and curious about disability. We find by educating or exposing children to those who have a disability we're changing attitudes from a very young age.”

Remind children that everyone's unique, in so many different ways

Mikarie takes a child-first — rather than disability-first – approach in its language and uses the wider concept of “everyone’s unique” to talk about difference and why one child might do something one way or have an aid compared to another. “We don't typically refer to any diagnosis or disability unless it's required for a specialised meeting where there might be medical professionals or the like, or what accommodations we can make as a centre,” says Leanne. 

Exposure, via an all-abilities setting has helped children understand difference and disability and organically, “inclusion has happened,” Leanne notes. This encompasses staff, some of whom are disabled. She also recommends Shanon Bates’ Push the Limit workshops for 2-5-year-olds (, where he uses devices to help children understand what it might be like for children with different impairments to encourage empathy.

Introducing playful resources in the right way

Toys and stories that illustrate and embed the concepts also help. One example involved a child with epilepsy who had a seizure. “We utilised resources from the Epilepsy Foundation to turn that into a story with a much simpler way of explaining what happened. In that case it was, ‘his brain had gone to sleep’ and all of the children were like, ‘okay, we understand that’,” Leanne explains.

Supporting this is a wider range of resources that are becoming more affordable, she adds. “When we first opened [in 2011], you had to buy specialised toys and resources. If you wanted a doll in a wheelchair that was really difficult to find and you had to pay a lot of money. Now you can go to nearly any mainstream manufacturer and there's diversity there.”

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Having toys that represent disability is important as it normalises disability in the community, says Rebecca Atkinson, who started international movement #ToyLikeMe. Representation matters, whether the children playing have disabilities or not, as it helps children “grow up with a more positive attitude to human difference”. If an educator chooses to add these to the toy box without comment and allow children to treat them like any other toy, it is helpful to be prepared to field questions if they arouse curiosity. Some educators may choose to use the toys to start a discussion, or to support other resources such as books.

Rebecca says whichever route you choose, remember to use child-first rather than disability-first language and embrace the fact that children will choose to play with the toys however they feel, allowing room for fantasy. “Give a fairy a white cane with flowers adorning the handle or a pirate an electric chair with a skull gear stick,” she suggests. “It doesn’t have to be an accurate representation! Most toys aren’t!”

Avoiding the inspiration trope

“The other thing we discourage is language that's inspirational towards the children who have a disability, because having a disability doesn't make them heroic,” says Leanne Fretten, CEO of Sylvanvale. “Reinforcement and praise is important for all children.”

The inspiration trope is one that UK-based literary agent and author James Catchpole notes in his article ‘9 Unhelpful Disability Tropes in Kids’ Books’.

"Disabled characters often come packaged with a “never give up!” motivational message," writes James. "Realistically, every disabled person has things they can’t do. And we don’t exist to inspire!"

James is the author of a book called What Happened to You?, an own-voices picture book that follows a boy with one leg who fields the question 'what happened to you'?' repeatedly. James, who has one leg, and his wife Lucy Catchpole, a wheelchair user, publish a blog about disability, raising children and children’s literature.

He wrote What Happened to You? because he was tired of intrusive questions about his leg, people creating a narrative around what happened, and seeing too many books written by abled-bodied writers – including non-disabled parents of disabled children, who often mean well – that do not centre the child. “People want to spread awareness but the outcome is always awry. If an author has hearing loss in middle-age and then writes a story about a d/Deaf child, that doesn't end up going well.” 

For children, empathy is key

James says that when it comes to talking about disability with children, empathy is key. “It isn't to say, ‘this is how you behave around people’. It's to say, ‘imagine if this was you’ and then they get it. I simply want readers to have the capacity to try to imagine what it would be like to look different and be asked questions about it all the time.” 

Gauging appropriate material: imagine the disabled child as the reader

In an ideal world there would be an own-voices book for every disability but James admits this would be difficult – his own book took four years to come to fruition (“it's really hard to get the messaging right”). But there’s a simpler way to find out if material is appropriate: place a disabled child as the reader.

“Whenever a picture book has a disabled child being born, almost always the parents and siblings are traumatised. And that’s because authors don't expect actual disabled children to read the book. Would they want their disabled reader to go, ‘oh, my birth traumatised my parents’?” he poses.

The other factor is simply more exposure to different types of disability. Channels such as Instagram have helped, he says. “It’s funny because it’s this very self-centred medium. People put up photos of themselves and just yak on about themselves all the time. For us, it allows us to be friends with, and hear directly from, an enormous array of people with different disabilities.”


Can I use the word ‘disabled’?

Generally, yes. However, in an early education setting, avoid reducing a child to their disability or mentioning it unnecessarily. Most children don’t see disability as part of their personality – they would much rather be known as Sally, who likes dogs, pizza and the colour blue. Mention a child’s disability only when relevant, for example requesting accommodations: “Our class is coming to see your show, one child uses a wheelchair. Are there accessible ramps at the venue?”

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Further resources: 

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.



Jane Courtney
Posted on 8 Dec, 2021
Hi, just wondering if you are able to provide a PDF of these types of articles/info resources? I like to include them in our Teaching Journal fro all staff to read /discuss and comment. A PDF would be very useful Thanks for being awesome CELA. We love the website and all the professional resources
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