What It’s Like Speaking to Kindergartners About Disability

I am the youngest of seven, and a lot of my nieces and nephews were toddlers when I lost my sight. It wasn’t until they were five years old that they started to understand I had “special needs” that were different from their other aunts. My favorite example? One sunny afternoon when my sisters were sitting outside passing photos around, my five-year-old nephew Robbie was so pleased at the attention being given to a photo of him that he brought it to me. After placing it proudly on the tabletop in front of me, he grabbed my hand and ran my finger across the photo. “That’s me, Aunt Betha! See me? That’s me!”

A five-year-old I visited on a recent trip to New Orleans had a similar “aha” moment, and although I’ve been unable to find any written studies on when children start to recognize disability in others, personal experience shows me again and again that it happens at age five. Here’s what happened in New Orleans.

Photo of Beth seated next to a white board next to Tallie.

That’s my helper Tallie.

We have friends who live in New Orleans, and their oldest daughter was only a year old the last time we visited. Tallie is five years old now, and her kindergarten teachers agreed to have my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and me come visit her classroom while we were in town.

All the kids were seated criss-cross applesauce on the floor when we arrived, except for one: five-year-old Tallie, my special helper, was seated in one of the two chairs in front. We knew she wouldn’t remember me, and we weren’t sure if she’d be too shy to help, but I found the seat next to her, and once Whitney was arranged on the floor beside us, I reached over ever-so-carefully to pat Tallie’s leg and thank her for agreeing to help me. “You’re welcome,” she said, and the fun began.

Tallie and her parents had read my children’s book Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound at home, and she brought her copy to show to her classmates. “Can you find a page with a picture of the dog and me together?” Tallie flipped through the pages, found the perfect illustration, and when she lifted the book to show her classmates, I asked them all if the picture looked like me. The answer came in a chorus of exuberant yesses. “It’s you! And that’s your dog! It looks just like you!”

When I’d been emailing back and forth with Tallie’s teachers ahead of time to plan this visit, one of them had alerted me that Monday would be their first day back after the holiday break. “The kids will be wiggly,” she warned.”You promise?” I wrote back. I love wiggly kids. Tallie’s classmates did not disappoint.

I reached over then to see if Tallie was back sitting on her chair beside me. My palm landed softly on her arm, confirming she was there, and as the teachers continued settling the other kids down, I whispered to Tallie: “Your shirt feels so soft, what color is it?” Quietly and carefully, Tallie described grey and pink designs. When I asked her what color her pants were, she became quite serious. Was that a moment when she understood I really couldn’t see her? I think so. “It’s all one piece!” she whispered. “They’re connected.”

By then the class had settled down enough for Tallie to be able to call on her friends who had questions. Or, in many cases, statements.

    • I have a cat who’s four.
    • How does that dog know when to cross the street?
    • When you’re blind, you look up, and all you see is the sky, so that’s why you need that dog, right? To tell you which way you’re going?
    • Your dog is cute.
    • I know it snows where you live, so does that dog wear a snowsuit?
    • I’m sitting on an umbrella.

One of their teachers, Miss Dominica, must have noticed the dumbfounded look on my face after that bit about the umbrella. “Each carpet tile is a different letter of the alphabet,” she explained. “Each child sits on the first letter of their name.” As I write this, I can’t remember who it was sitting on the umbrella. Ursula, maybe? Anyway, the kids took it from there, each child letting me in on which letter they were sitting on. “I’m on I, for igloo!” “I’m on G, for goat.”

What happens if two kids have names that start with the same letter, I wondered out loud. Off they went, all of them calling out letters at the same time “We have two T’s!” “There’s four E’s!” My husband Mike says I am the worst person to have come and speak to kindergartners. “You’re one of them!” he says. “You stir them all up!”

Guilty as charged. Nothing better than getting questions from kids, hearing them laugh and have fun. Their curiosity — and their exuberance — bring me joy. So when the teachers had to settle the kids again, Tallie and I huddled. “How about you ask if anyone has a question?” Tallie is a good listener. When she asked loud and clear, in her Mardi Gras voice, “Do any of you have any questions?” One hand shot right up.

“I do! I do!” the little boy said. “I know you can’t draw pictures with a pen, but can you write words with a pen?” I reminded him that I was able to see when I was growing up. I’d learned penmanship then, too, and I still remember the shape of letters. “It’s hard for me to write in a straight line, though,” I admitted. I was about to tell them how using a straightedge helps, but when I realized they might not know what a straightedge is, I told them that if you put a ruler on the line where you’re supposed to write, it helps you keep straight. “Do you have a ruler?” the boy asked.

Of course I didn’t. Miss Dominica did, though. “I have a whiteboard and a marker, too!” she exclaimed. “I’ll bring them over.”

I’ve never written on a whiteboard. They weren’t around when I could see. Can I? Aha! An educational moment, Beth. Tell them it’s good to try new things. It’s okay if you fail. You can learn from mistakes. And so, while Miss Dominica held the ruler in place, the kids watched me write on a whiteboard.

The class had just been working on the word “I” before Christmas break, and by chance the first word in my sentence was “I.” They all knew that word, and one of the older five-year-olds could sound the entire sentence out. It was legible. Success!

While the class cheered, I asked Tallie one last quick question: Who’s the other t? “Teddy,” she said with a shrug.

“We share our square.”


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