“Hey Jen!”--Age Appropriate…Or Not?

by Jenny Addis

Courtney (MW reader) asks…

Hey Jen! I grew up with a disabled father who was in a wheelchair my entire life. As a result I have always felt strongly about teaching my children that just because someone is using special equipment to help them get around, such as a wheelchair, they are no different than anyone else.

What is the appropriate age to begin discussing with your children the physical and mental differences amongst individuals?

 Hey Courtney!

In my opinion, from the moment a child is born, he or she should be introduced to the diversity that exists in this world, whether it's his or her own differences, a family members or a stranger. I am not a parent, but I am an Auntie to six beautiful nieces and nephews. All of them, but one, were exposed to their quadriplegic Auntie from the day they were born.

When paralysis hit my world, like most, I had a difficult time accepting the fact that I had lost the ability to do certain things in my life and be as independent as I always had been before, especially regarding my role as Auntie. At the time, I had a 4-year-old nephew who was my little buddy. I would regularly take the day off of work and pick him up so we could have a play date, just the two of us; but then I became a quadriplegic. Some of the losses I endured were the use of my arms, fingers and the ability to walk, so I couldn't get in my car and just pick my nephew up anymore or even be alone with him for long periods of time.

I was left with a void and many questions. How could I be that same Auntie as I had been prior to my paralysis? Would my nephew ever look at me again with that excitement in his eyes, the way he always had? How would he handle the wheelchair, the brace that stabilized my neck, which all made me feel so different? I was an adult, and I was confused. How would this young child understand and deal with this life-altering change? It was difficult being in the hospital, in that condition, and imagining how the first visit would go in a positive manner. It seemed nearly impossible.

Jenny with her niece and nephew
Finally, my nephew's first visit to see me in the hospital was planned. I remember how ecstatic, yet extremely concerned and worried, I was about how he'd react towards me and whether he could accept his Auntie in this new capacity. When that day came around, I was on the verge of tears, not only because I missed him so much, but not knowing what his reaction would be. I knew I couldn't cry, though, so I put on my usual Auntie happy face, the one that he'd remember and always knew. As my brother, sister-in-law and nephew walked into my colorful, decorative hospital room, my nephew was a little quiet while he first observed the new environment, but then something very unpredictable happened that caught me off guard...


All those fears and the anxiety I had about his reaction were for no reason. He loved his Auntie unconditionally and the future only solidified it. From the beginning, he always sat on my lap, whether we were going to the park, a happy meal and the playground at McDonald's, turning up the stereo for a spur of the moment dance party at home or a day at the mall, which always turned into nap-time on my lap at the end of the day. As he grew up and my lap wasn't such a perfect fit anymore, he began standing on the back of my electric wheelchair and holding onto the arm handles as we cruised along.

I was looking online for some great children's books related to disabilities and inclusion to share with my nieces and nephews when I realized that there were many books out there relating to social issues and disabilities that children face and struggle with on a daily basis, even more than we realize. Amazon.com is a great website to find and purchase books related to disabilities. I found books relating to Autism, speech impairments, Tourette’s Syndrome, race differences, cerebral palsy, divorce, and disabilities in general, just to name a few. Plus, you can look at what ages or grade level each book leans towards.

Of course, as a parent, you'll know if something is not appropriate for your child at their age level or if it’s a book they can grow into. I find that sometimes, with younger children, you can improvise if needed. The point is that you are opening those little minds up to help them feel comfortable in real life scenarios, such as day care, school, the grocery store or the park, to be accepting of others who may look a little different and, most of all, encourage them to ask questions.

Here is one book that was recommended to me and that I found not only to be educational, but it also left a positive and appropriate message. I was also able to relate to this book in my own life.

"Mama Zooms," written and illustrated by Jane Cowen-Fletcher, really touched my heart because it reminds me of my interaction with my nieces and nephews. I haven’t had the opportunity to share it with them yet, but I’ll improvise it to fit our lives by calling it “Auntie Zooms.”

I found this book to be a great learning and teaching book for not only the child, but a parent themselves who uses a wheelchair. With imagination mixed with his real-life scenarios, this little boy sits on his wheelchair-using mother's lap and imagines himself as a racing jockey, a ship captain at sea, a race car driver, an airplane pilot, a train engineer and an astronaut, all the while the extraordinary key to the whole story revolves around his Mama's zooming machine, her wheelchair, that transports them everyday to work, school and play. This book uses imagination in a way every child displays their curiosity and engages their minds on a daily basis, but the remarkable example is that it is preparing them for their future. The pencil illustrations capture the detailed costumes and facial expressions in every adventure in a way that is so detailed you and your child will feel as if you are "zooming" right along with the author, so articulately drawn that you see the joy in the mother and son's faces in every scene. 
Jenny and her niece
I highly recommend this book because I am in a wheelchair and use imagination to interact with my own nieces and nephews, so I know firsthand how this technique is a great way to interact and it helps to remove any fears your children may have. Most of all, “Mama Zooms” presents a physically challenged individual in a positive light.

The first photo you see in this article is from Thanksgiving 2010. I am holding my 3-week-old nephew and my 2-year-old niece, his big sister, is standing on the footrests to my wheelchair. We were discussing sharing and that we had to take turns sitting on Auntie's lap. It was hard for her to understand at first that she had to share that space with her new baby brother, because for the majority of her life, she was the only one sitting on Auntie’s lap. We all know how change can confuse and disrupt a child, but on this day she accepted that fact and was willing to share her Auntie with her baby brother.

The second photo shows my 2-year-old niece helping me apply my make-up.

Overall, I want to highly express that when we are faced with questionable and challenging real-life experiences, we must keep in mind our children are as well. Instead of sugar-coating them, we need to face them head on, because if we are questioning them, our children are too. You know, as a parent, to what degree your children will understand certain topics or if something is going to be way too personal for them at that time in their life or age level. Use your parental instincts and these topics will become great social advantages for your children, whether it's school today or a workplace tomorrow. I have learned, especially through adversity, how resilient, honest and accepting our children really are. They could teach us adults a thing or two!

Remember, nothing is too personal in my book, so send your questions to “Hey Jen!” at: mobileHeyJen@gmail.com! Learn more about me and my story at my website: www.InspirationSpeaks.Me.


  1. The little boy on the back of the wheelchair sure loves his auntie Jemny!!!!


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