Disabled folks often get conflicting messages about what people think we can do. ON one hand, we’re seen as superhuman – as supercrips of the highest order – or as childlike and incapable – or worse, less than human.
I recently wrote about the emerging voices of disabled parents (including the voices that aren’t being heard), and I remembered how this contradiction between capable and helpless played out in what I learned when I was growing up.
Growing up blind, going to a school for blind students, I always understood that blind people could be parents. Teachers and support staf said things like: “When you grow up and have kids…” Sometimes, a parenting class was offered for high school students – a lot of raw eggs (which are so very much like live babies, don’tcha know) rode home on the schoolbus with their “Mommies” and “Daddies” – though they’d stopped offering that class (maybe they ran out of eggs?) by the time I was old enough to take it.
But…when it actually came to talking about real live blind parents, what was said didn’t line up with the “blind people are capable” message. The subtext behind “she looked so tired” of the blind Mom shopping at the mall with her four children was that she and her blind husband shouldn’t have had so many. Behind the observation that another set of blind parents had a messy house was the implication that they couldn’t possibly take care of themselves, and their children, and their house – because of blindness. The mention of a single blind Mom’s baby not “smelling the freshest” was an indictment of her mothering, because clearly properly coupled (and married), able parents never walk around the grocery store with a baby who smells bad. I rarely heard these criticisms of visibly nondisabled parents; or, if I did, they weren’t so sweeping and self-righteous. It’s that old problem of something being blamed on a disability, when maybe a parent is just having a really awful day, or hadn’t had time for the weekly housework, or had a million other things going on that were way more stressful and hard to deal with than their disability.
I think I was in Grade 11 the year a “blind mother” was part of the annual Career Day line-up. I was sscornful, even a little angry; other schools didn’t have people come in on Career Day to talk about parenting – I was sure of that! (And I probably did have something there.)
But, okay, let’s be real; I turned my nose up at the very idea of a talk from a Mom being on par with a session given by a lawyer, or a massage therapist, or an artist. No, not one of my more enlightened moments!
Looking at it now, knowing that being a parent is bloody hard (sometimes literally bloody), and underappreciated work, and knowing what’s stackd against disabled parents (negative attitudes and legal barriers), I think we did need to be hearing from folks who were actually living this life that people told us we could live.
Actually, we needed to hear more from blind and visually impaired folks just living all parts of their lives – getting married, choosing to parent or being a caregiver to family members, choosing to pick up and move to Columbia for a year, or… As blind children we actually needed to hear a lot more from blind adults in general, – to learn from their experiences, from their processes, their successes and failures, the tricks that worked for them and the on-the-fly adaptations they made – not just to learn from the teachings of nondisabled people, who taught us how to get around by listening to traffic sounds and using our white canes properly, or how to cook safely (without ever, ever burning yourself), or how to read when most of the material out there (this was in the 1990s, before the explosion of the Internet) was beyond our ears or fingertips, or was too small (or the wrong colour) to read with impaired vision. We needed to learn what ableism and inaccessibility both looked like, how people responded to those experiences; we needed to learn that the tools and techniques were great, were useful, were indispensable really – they’re just not always enough.
Back to parenting…
None of what I learned or observed affected my decision not to be a parent – a parent to human beings anyway. That’s a different disability and reproductive rights story I may or may not tell some time. Having kids is a deeply personal choice, you know.
There’s nothing about having a disability that makes someone less capable of parenting.
That feels too obvious to even say, but it’s a truth, obvious or not, that needs to be repeated over and over until people get it, until disabled parents don’t have to fight tooth and nail to be able to care for their own children.
It’s a truth I’ll repeat: Disabled people can be parents. Disabled parents are just as capable of being strong, nurturing, loving parents as anyone else.
How well a person parents has way more to do with whether they wanted to be a parent in the first place, how much social support they get, and their own unique personality.
All parents are going to find, some time or other, that they respond to their child in a way that’s confusing or upsetting, and this is just as likely to happen in a context that isn’t disability-related at all.
According to Judith Rogers’ book The Disabled Woman’s Guide to Pregnancy and Birth, what babies most need from their primary caregiver – the person or people they form a bond to and know they can depend on – are food and comfort. Any other needs can be met by anyone the baby knows and is comfortable with, and whom the parent trusts.
Yes, that means it really can take a village to raise a child, and that a parent (whether by blood or adoption) can be an amazing parent even if they can’t carry their baby around the house, or dress it, or give it a bath, or if they do all those things with one hand, or rolling around the house in a wheelchair, or by touch and smell only, or only on days when their pain levels are low enough to let them get out of bed.
The interviews in this book highlight how adaptable children are. They don’t count their parents’ fingers and toes first thing! They don’t know that most people change diapers with two hands, or look at the number on the thermometer instead of listening to it read aloud, or run to pick them up every time they let out a squeak. They don’t know there’s a way their parents are “supposed” to do things; they just know “Is this person here for me?”
One woman Judith Rogers interviewed shared a story about how her toddler fell on the stairs, picked herself up, walked over to Mom’s wheelchair, climbed into Mom’s lap,and only then began to cry. Needing to go to Mom for comfort, instead of Mom coming to her, was just part of this little girl’s life. (And for people who wonder what the Mom would have done if her child was severely hurt and needed help? Well, she would have moved mountains is what she would have done. They just would have been different mountains from those in the way of someone not using a wheelchair.)
With so many disabled parents (at least 4.1 million in the U.S. alone) caring for children, you’d think there’d be more support for them, and recognition that disability is rarely at the top of the list of deciding factors for whether someone is fit to parent. That there isn’t this support, and that there is active resistance to the idea that children can grow and thrive in homes with disabled parents, speaks to, I think, the tendency to treat adults with disabilities as childlike, and to the idea that parenting tasks can only be done in one way.
Consider this advice from Disability, Pregnancy, an Parenthood:
“Do not try to show practical things (such as bathing/changing and breastfeeding) and talk at the same time. It is impossible to look at two different things at the same time. Explain, show, check understanding, let the deaf parent try it out and then correct any misunderstanding.
— Working With deaf parents: A Guide for Midwives and Other Health Professionals
It makes sense that you wouldn’t teach something to a blind person based on a diagram, or force a deaf person to choose between watching your hands or watching your face, or decide someone with one hand can’t possibly prepare a bottle even though they manage all their other life tasks successfully, if not easily. But when it comes to parenting tasks, we seem to have these conflicting ideas that parents will just “know” what to do, and that there’s one acceptable, safe way that everyone needs to lern. And, when disabled parents don’t know what to do (because who ever knows when they become responsible for a new life?) and they’re not capable of following the good-parenting checklist, they’re often seen as lacking.
What’s the solution?
Listen to people who are living it!