In thirty-five states (and the District of Columbia), children can’t trust that their healthy, happy family will be able to stay together if one or both of their parents is disabled. That means that in almost three quarters of the U.S. the law allows for children to be removed from their parents based on parental disability alone, no evidence of abuse or neglect necessary.
How is this fair to children, let alone their parents?
There are at least 4.1 million disabled parents in the United States. Most sources for this statistic are clear that it’s likely an underestimation; there are probably many more disabled parents who just aren’t being counted.
But, they do count – and many of their voices spoke at the White House Forum on the Civil Rights of Parents With Disabilities earlier this month.
I wasn’t at this event, but the White House’s live streaming technology is fantastic so I got to follow along. Here’s some of what I learned:
- Most people are not aware that disabled parents’ civil rights are violated frequently.
- A parent with a disability is simply that – a parent. every person enters parenthood equally unsure of what the future will bring or how to fully care for their children.
- Disabled people are used to figuring out how they can make something happen – while the rest of the world is telling us we can’t do that thing. (Moral of the story? Disabled people are going to keep creating families.)
- The ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) does a lot to protect parents with disabilities, since it requires systems like social services and family court to provide accomodations for equl access. It’s these systems, governed by individual states, that are violating the civil rights of parents with disabilities by not upholding the federal laws.
- People with disabilities sometimes stay in bad or dangerous relationships because they know they could lose custody of their children if they leave or divorce their partner. Disability can be used as a weapon in a custody hearing; in states where a parent’s disability can be used as the only reason for removing their children, a nondisabled parent can simply point out the disability of the other parent and win custody of the children. Ignorance about disability means that child welfare workers and family court personnel don’t make a routine out of investigating whether the disabled parent is abusing or neglecting the children in any way before deciding they shouldn’t get custody.
- Disabled parents often learn the most from each other. Frequently disabled people will turn to professionals – therapists, doctors, social workers – when looking for information on starting a family; these professionals usually don’t have the knowledge to help or advise them.
- Disabled parents and caregivers need: More education for healthcare, social service, and legal professionals to prevent cases like this one, and more respect and acceptance from the general public to get people to think twice about staring at a blind mother walking her child to school and taking pictures of mother and child without permission.
For more comments about the forum, see the #PWDParents hashtag on Twitter.
There’s only been one panel archived so far. I’m really, really hoping the other panels were recorded and that they’ll be posted some time soon. There was a lot of important material that people need access to, a lot of voices getting a public platform for the first time.
Many people shared stories about ignorance and discrimination towards disabled parents. The fact that disabled parents were at the White House talking about their livs, and insisting on better treatment is exciting and amazing. It’s inspiring – as in inspiring to watch change being created, to hear voices of disabled people being given authority.
But, (and there’s usually a but, isn’t there?) I kept wondering about the voices we weren’t hearing.
Where were the voices of teen parents with disabilities, who will usually face double discrimination, assumed to be incompetent as parents based on their disability and their age?
Where were the voices of disabled parents living in poverty, who couldn’t have afforded to get to the forum, even if they’d wanted to? The unemployment rate for disabled people in the United States is twice that for nondisabled folks.
Where were the voices of disabled parents of colour, including First Nations folks?
According to Rocking the Cradle: “13.9 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native parents and 8.8 percent of African American parents have a disability.” Six percent of white parents are disabled.
The disabled parenting awareness and advocacy movement doesn’t reflect these statistics at all. The movement, as a whole, is very, very white.
As a white woman, and as a non-parent (that’s a word, yes?), I don’t have the authority to say if, or how, the needs and experiences of disabled parents of colour differ from those of disabled white parents. I know, from a personal conversation, that at least one black disabled mom thinks that important issues and stories from people of colour are being left out of these conversations. I also know that parenting and family, in general, can be complicated for many First Nations folks, because of the all-too-recent history of residential schooling. I know that “racism in the form of slavery and Jim Crow forms fully 83 percent” United States history and that this racism has huge and harsh effects on black children an their families. I know that being a member of more than one minority often makes people more vulnerable, which is why we need to actively make sure that people are given the opportunities to represent themselves, and why we need to remember that the stories we hear aren’t usually the only stories that need to be told.
What do we need to do to bring more voices, more perspectives, more experiences to the disability and parenting table? What do we need to do to give those folks’ experiences and voices equal weight once at that table?
The other missing voices at the White House forum were those of disabled parents’ children.
After all, this conversation is as much about children’s rights as it is about the right of disabled people to start and keep their families. As one panelist (and I wish I knew who it was, because she deserves to be publicly credited) said:
Children deserve to know that their families aren’t going to be ripped apart.