Hesperian Health Guides

Understanding Children with Special Problems

Encourage a class or group of children to talk about children who have some special problem or ‘handicap’. Ask questions like:

a child with crutches
  • Do you know any child who cannot walk or run or talk or play like other children?
  • Why can’t this child do everything the same as you can?
  • Is the child to blame?
  • How do other children treat this child? Are they kind to him? Are they mean? Do they make fun of him? Do they include him in their games?
  • How would you feel if you had a similar problem? How would you want other children to treat you? Would you like them to laugh at you? To pay no attention to you? To feel sorry for you? To do things with you and become your friend?

Children will better understand the child with a special problem if they can ‘put themselves in his shoes’. They can play a game in which one child pretends to have a handicap. The other children act out different ways of behaving toward the child. Some are friendly. Some ignore him. Some make fun of him. Some help him. Some include him in their games. Let the children think up their own ideas and act them out.
children playing handicap
For example, tie a stick to a child’s leg. Then have him run in a game or play tag.
child with handicap walking toward his friends

After several minutes, another child can pretend to have a handicap. Let several children have a turn with a handicap. Try to make the pretend handicap seem real.

Also ask the children what they might be able to do to make things better or fairer for the disabled child. Try or ‘act out’ their different suggestions. For example:

Children playing with marbles sitting down
We could ask him to play games where his handicap doesn't matter.
boy with handicap tryign to catch friends with feet tied together
We could give each of us a "handicap," or give him some advantage, so we could all be equal...like we could all tie our feet together!
We shouldn't laugh at him if he does things in a funny way, but encourage him to do his best, whatever way he can.
Caught you!
girl sitting down with leg crossed which are tied together

For a more severe physical disability, the group of children can invent ways to ‘find out what it is like’. For example, to learn about a child with almost no use of her legs, the children might tie the legs of one of their group together, like this.

girl crawling with crossed legs
You mean I'm supposed to go to school like this?

Then the children can ask the child to do some of their day-to-day activities—like moving around the house, going to the latrine, and going to school.

children pushing the girl with handicap in a wagon
Maybe we could take her to school every day in a wheelbarrow or a cart.
All of us can take turns! It would be fun.

After talking with the child about her difficulties, the children can try to think of ways to make it easier for her to move about.

Note: With the help of their teacher or parents, children can, in fact, make simple wheelchairs and other aids for disabled children. For simple designs, see PART 3 of this book.

children talking about girl in wheelchair
All of us children could take up a collection to buy her a wheelchair. Then she could go places without so much help.
Or, we could make
her a wheelchair out of an old chair and a couple of bike tires. My father's a carpenter and could
help us.

REMEMBER: Children are usually kind to a child with a very severe disability. They are often more cruel to a child with a less severe problem, such as a limp.

Girl with legs joined at the knee, speaks.
This is hard! I'm afraid I'll fall!

Help the children gain an understanding of the particular difficulties of any disabled child in their village.

For example, if there is a child with spastic legs who has trouble walking because his knees press together, have a child try to walk with her knees tied together with a band of car tire inner tube.

child walking on a hanging board
To appreciate the problems of a child who has trouble with balance (cerebral palsy), have one of the children try to walk on a hanging board (or other moving surface).
Shoe with pebbles in it, pebbles tied to bottom of foot, child with pebbles tied to bottom of feet speaks.
No! I don't want to play. It hurts me to walk!

If there is a child with arthritis in the village, some of the children can put small stones in their shoes or tie small stones to the bottoms of their feet. Then the other children can invite them to run and play games. Ask the children why a child with arthritis might not want to play games.

Ask the children, “Do you know any children who cannot use their hands like you can?” If they answer yes, help them experience the difficulties of such a child. Have the children work in pairs.

One child can wrap a strip of cloth around the other child’s hand and fingers so that he has trouble moving his fingers.
Cloth wrapped around hand multiple times.
Boy trying to use spoon with hand covered with cloth multiple times.
Now have the child try to do things like:
  • write
  • turn pages of a book
  • fill a cup with water
  • eat
  • get something from a pocket
  • button a shirt

Have the children try to figure out ways to make it easier. For example, wrap cloth or a piece of inner tube around a pencil or spoon, to make it easier to hold.

Note: For more ideas and tools for persons with disabled hands, see "Prevention of Injury for Persons with Loss of Feeling and Strength" and "Homemade Equipment to Help Eating".

Pencil with cloth wrapped around it, spoons with cloth wrapped around them.
Triangular shaped wire attached to both sides of tube.
buttoning tool (See "Suggestions for Dressing").

Things that a disabled child can do well

Girl extending object to other girl in wheelchair who speaks.
Marcela, I can't open this. You have strong hands. Can you open it, please?
Let me try.

A disabled child cannot do everything as well as other children. But often there are some things she can do as well, or even better. Try to have the children think of examples.

A child with weak legs, who has to walk with crutches, often develops very strong arms and hands.

Or a blind child may learn to hear things extra well.

Rather than feel sorry for the disabled child and look only at her weaknesses, it is better to recognize and encourage her strengths.


Child swimming.

Many children with weak or paralyzed legs can learn to swim well. Their arms become unusually strong from using crutches, and in the water they easily keep up with other children. But sometimes they have trouble getting to the water, or the other children forget to invite them...

Boy with crutch stands alone while other kids run.

<table-style: width=100%> <tr> <td style="padding-left:50px;">A friendly word of welcome to include the child with a special problem, or a little extra time or attention given to him, can make a big difference—and can make everyone feel good.</td>

Boy who uses crutches walks in the arms of friends, other boys carries crutches.


Role playing and children’s theater

To help see how much it matters to include a disabled child in their fun, a group of children can act out different possibilities. For example, they might act out (or do a ‘role play’ of) the pictures at the bottom of the page before this one. After the role play the group can discuss which of the two alternatives made the disabled child, and the other children, feel better, and why.

DVC Ch47 Page 433-1.jpg
DVC Ch47 Page 433-2.jpg
Photos from Ajoya, Mexico

Or they can act out a situation in which they try to solve a particular difficulty, obstacle, or challenge.

In these ways the children will begin to use their imaginations to help solve problems.

If some of the children’s role plays turn out especially well, or do an extra good job at demonstrating important points, perhaps they can be developed further. Then the children can present them, in the form of skits or children’s theater, to other classes, parent groups, in the health center, or perhaps to the whole village.

(See examples of two skits which schoolchildren, together with health workers and disabled rehabilitation workers, put on in the village of Ajoya, Mexico.)

This page was updated:27 May 2020