Today, a little girl asked me that question. She wanted to know what special need Benjamin had. We get questions all of the time from kids, but what I think is most important to realize is that they aren't being malicious, they truly are curious about what they see.
I explained to the little girl that Benjamin has something called Cerebral Palsy. It means that he doesn't move as easily as she does, talks a little slower, and sometimes has a difficult time making friends. I told her that he loves to play with other kids, but sometimes doesn't know how and that it really helps him when other children show him. She's very sweet and caring and immediately said, "I'll be his friend!" (she had already played with him on a playground for a half an hour and had been holding his hand as they walk, so I had a feeling that would be her response). I then told her about all of the things that Ben likes to do. I told her that he loves to read, play on a playground, be silly, and that he plays baseball. I have found that is important for other kids to realize that even though they may act a little different, my boys are a lot more like them than they aren't.
Kids commonly ask questions about Andrew's wheelchair. I have found that teaching Andrew to answer these questions has been very effective. I have actually heard Andrew say, "It's how I get around. You walk and I need a wheelchair." In fact, very recently I heard him having a discussion with another 7-year old who said that he wanted to ask Santa for a wheelchair for Christmas. Andrew looks at him matter of factly and says, "Why do you want a wheelchair? You can walk already!" There was another time at the park that Andrew was talking with a little boy who then offered to switch him.... Andrew's wheelchair for his scooter. Andrew said yes....I had to intervene...
I have found that if Andrew opens the conversation with other kids, then they are more likely to accept him. We have actually had more issues with parents than we have with kids. Parents don't really know how to respond to the kid in the wheelchair. They don't want their kids to say anything that could be offensive and often tell their kids, "Don't look at him," or "Don't talk to him."I get not wanting your kid to be offensive, but it is more offensive when Andrew hears the adult telling the kid to ignore him. So, when Andrew was old enough to understand (around age 4), I began to teach him to say hi to kids that we pass, especially kids who were looking at him. This opened the lines of communication and usually, the parents would see that it was ok for their kid to talk to Andrew and that Andrew wasn't offended by the normal, "Why do you have a wheelchair?" Also, the wheelchair has light up wheels on the front. I have found that this alone is a great conversation starter for kids. They see them and then say, "WOW! His wheels light up! That's so cool!"
This is all working for now. We luckily live in a community that is very accepting of my boys and their disabilities. The teachers and parents at our school have as a whole been awesome with talking to the kids about differences in people and including the boys in anything that they can. We haven't had to deal much with bullying or negativity (a couple of isolated incidents). I know as they get older, the boys will probably have to learn new strategies to cope. For now, we are all fine answering the questions as they come.