Punteha van Terheyden and her daughter

Moving toward the school gates, I leant on my new rainbow coloured cane for comfort and support.

‘I’m embarrassed,’ my six-year-old daughter Millie suddenly shared.

When I asked what was causing it, she replied with brutal honesty, as children that age do.

‘Your walking stick. It makes you look old.’

At the time, I was just 36.

It was Millie’s first day back at school after Christmas, and the first time I’d used a new mobility aid to help my chronic hip pain.

I hid the gut punch sensation that her innocent comment caused and gently explained that there was nothing ‘old’ or embarrassing about walking sticks.

‘They allow people to walk. Anything that helps Mummy is wonderful and nothing to feel embarrassed about,’ I told her.

Millie seemed quite convinced by my explanation and told her teacher proudly about my new bit of kit and how it ‘helps Mummy walk.’

I waved Millie off and hobbled back to my car. A few of the other parents patted my arm as I made my way past them and asked if I was OK.

Their pity, despite being rooted somewhere in kindness made my skin crawl, so I said I was fine despite the pain I was in.

However, as I drove away, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Millie had said. Where had her ableist thought that mobility aids are for the elderly or an embarrassment come from?

It certainly hadn’t been learnt in our home. I’ve been chronically ill, disabled and increasingly immobile for the whole of Millie’s life and neither my husband nor our families had ever spoken in ableist terms about me or anyone else.

We’d always made the effort to explain things with honesty, science and using ideas and language she could understand. And most importantly, with kindness.

But her comment about my new walking stick on the school run goes to show that no matter how much you get it right at home, maladaptive societal ideas and attitudes can sneak in without permission, shaping our children’s malleable minds.

And what a shame that is.

My husband Andy and I have always done the work at home to make sure Millie is growing up with a growth mindset; that she understands and champions equality and opportunity for one and all, regardless of age, race, gender, religion or sexual orientation.

From us, she continually hears age-appropriate lessons and real-life stories of the world’s history – and current problems – concerning sexism, misogyny, racism and ableism and why it’s all so wrong and what we can do to make things better.

We’re so proud that she’s growing up to be kind, open-minded, inclusive and knowledgeable but clearly, from her comment about my stick, society has far to go to wipe these attitudes away, consigning them to the past where they belong.

I racked my brains to understand where the idea that Millie’s thinking might have come from.

Millie doesn’t have an internet browser on her tablet and the programmes she watches are closely monitored.

Could it have been one of the short videos she watched on the YouTube for kids app? Maybe she’d seen a prank of a young person pretending to be old with a walking stick?

Was it some negative stereotype subliminally gleaned from Disney films, where only the baddies or evil, malignant characters – Maleficent, Jafar, Dr Facilier, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother to name a few – have canes and walking sticks?

I’ll never know exactly what created the negative connection in her young brain that disability or that the advanced years of life are something to be ashamed of.

But it shows how deeply ableism is ingrained in our society – despite the proactive and protective moves we’ve made as parents to protect Millie from harmful ideologies, it still seeps in through the cracks.

However, in stark comparison, just 24 hours after her walking stick comment, Millie was thrilled to find a pair of green Disney glasses in a shop, a replica of the specs worn by Mirabel, the main character in the hit children’s film Encanto.

Out of all the bright and sparkly things in the kids’ section, that pair of glasses was what Millie was chuffed to spend her pocket money on – and it’s exactly why regular positive societal representation matters.

When I was her age 30 years ago, I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a pair of glasses, such was the negative message drummed into me by society back then.

That ableism followed me into adulthood when I needed my first pair of specs and spent time unlearning the unfair ugliness and embarrassment I felt wearing them.

I struggled to shake off those childhood notions that wearing glasses made you ‘ugly’ or a ‘geek.’

Whatever my internal feelings about the appearance of my glasses, Millie has only heard my happiness that they enable me to read bedtime stories to her, enjoy a film at the cinema together, or drive.

I’ve laboured the point about how fantastic mine are. She’s obsessed with the bespectacled young protagonist of Encanto and unlike my walking stick, sees those thick rimmed colourful glasses as something totally cool.

That’s why representation in society and the media we consume matters. It is shaping this next generation into the most understanding, accepting, authentic and brilliant generation yet.

People who band around the term snowflake when referring to the newer generations have got it all wrong.

The Millennials, Gen Z and now my daughter’s Alpha generation are doing the work to go through life with acceptance and kindness, breaking barriers as they go and changing the landscapes of film, music, culture, modelling, advertising, books and newspaper articles.

It’s our job now to break generational cycles and trauma, and teach our kids disabled people don’t need pity or cruelty and that they’re not a form of entertainment or the butt of jokes – that their mobility aids are not embarrassing or shameful, but joyful things helping make our days easier.

I hold hope for the future of the world and if my kid is anything to go by, it’s going to end up in safer hands than ever before.

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