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'When you see me out and about with my kids, please don’t assume that I need your help.'

Motherhood brings with it so much anxiety and fear, I worry constantly that I’m not doing enough with or for my kids, and that I allow them too much screen time or too much sugar. But these things don’t bother me nearly as much as knowing that one day, they are likely to experience pain because of me.

The pain I’m talking about is the one that aches more than physically being hurt, it’s the emotional pain that I’m referring to.

You see, I look different – I’m not like other mums.

And let’s be honest, kids can say things that hurt. And it’s these hurtful words that I fear the most as a mother.

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I was born missing my left arm. I’m now 33 years old so I’ve had many years experience with strangers passing negative comments. Or worse, when I’m the subject of their points and stares. I’m now immune to the verbal and non-verbal attacks based on my differences. I know all too well just how much it can hurt to have unwanted attention about something I have no control over.

But my children are yet to understand how utterly hurtful a person’s tongue can be.

A lack of education and awareness about disabilities often leads adults to perpetuate stereotypes unknowingly.

I’ve written many articles and blogs suggesting respectful ways in which parents can try to educate their children about the vast differences we all have, but the reality is one day, someone will say something that cuts deep, and I know there is nothing I can do to stop it.

I fear that my children will be teased or bullied because of my perceived limitations. I fear that other parents might hesitate to allow their children to spend time with mine. I fear that someone will say something so cruel or nasty that it deeply pains my children.

I’ve always said that our kids learn by what they see and hear. And therefore I believe the responsibility to educate our children about disabilities and differences, rests with us: the parents. We need to be their role models, and show them through our own actions and behaviours that people with a disability are not to be feared, we are not less than, but in fact capable and contributing human beings.

So I respectfully ask that parents consider not only their words but also their behaviour when educating their children of the many differences that exist in our world.

If you see me out and about with my kids, please don’t assume that I need your help. I can assure you that this only makes me feel inferior and teaches my children, and yours, that I need to rely on someone else because of my disability. Please ask if I need your help. I’ll let you know if I do. All mums need help at some stage, but asking me allows me to retain my voice.

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As capable as I am, there are of course some things that my disability prevents me from doing as a parent, like braiding or plaiting my daughter’s hair. For me, this is heartbreaking. I feel completely inadequate. So when you see my daughter’s hair and wonder why it’s not perfectly styled, please don’t make a big deal about it. What you can’t see is how hard I tried, and how frustrated I became while trying to simply put her hair in a ponytail.

The emphasis you put on something I can’t do will be seen and heard by our children. And this is exactly what I don’t want. Instead what I want, and what I hope other parents want, is for our children to learn that we are all capable of finding our own way of doing things. So I may not be able to braid hair, but however I do style my daughter’s hair will always be OK as long as we are accepting of different ways.

Watch your words, although you think you might be paying me a compliment by saying things like ‘you’re doing a great job, considering your disability’, comments like these aren’t helpful. Instead of boosting my self-confidence, they generate self-doubt and make me question my abilities. Does ‘… considering your disability’ mean you think I could do a better job if I was able-bodied? I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have a disability. It’s part of who I am. But it doesn’t define me.

Listen: Jessica Smith on parenting with one arm. Post continues…

As a new sleep-deprived and anxious mum I’m all for receiving compliments. So if you think I’m doing a good job, by all means let me know. But don’t mention my physical abilities. Let your children see and hear that genuine compliments are made when we want to positively acknowledge something about another person.

At the end of the day I know that no one else is responsible for how my own children think or feel, but if I can help educate other parents about ways to embrace disability and difference, then hopefully we can collectively inspire the next generation to be more accepting. And in doing so, prevent nasty and cruel comments from being spoken.

Jessica Smith is a former Paralympian, speaker, advocate and author. You can follow Jessica on Instagram here and visit her website here

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