Disability Does Not An Unfit Parent Make

Attempts to minimise discussions about ableism often place it in a historic context—this is something that used to happen, this is the way things used to be—the idea is that things aren’t that way anymore, so the claim that disability-based discrimination and hatred continue to be issues is invalid. In fact, many of these ‘historic’ attitudes continue to be alive and well, and often on an institutional level as well, not just a social one. It’s not just that people believe these things, but that these things are built into the legal framework of the systems used to make critical decisions about people’s lives.

Take, for example, the belief that disability makes someone an unfit parent. Not just that people with disabilities shouldn’t have children because they might also be disabled[1. Many people also seem to have a poor grasping of genetics and don’t seem to understand the difference between genetic, congenital, and acquired disabilities.], but that disability itself excludes people from the ability to be able to parent safely and responsibly. That disabled people with children should have those children taken away and placed in a ‘more appropriate’ home where they can receive ‘appropriate care,’ because obviously their parents can’t care for them.

This is not an attitude of the past. This is not an attitude that reigned in the early 20th century and was beaten back by campaigners arguing for full social inclusion. It’s something that continues to be an issue, and enough of one that some disabled people have very legitimate reason to fear that their children may be taken away from them by authorities who deem them unfit to parent. These fears may be pooh-poohed, especially in discussions about reproductive rights, where the idea that some people need to fight to keep their children is viewed as somewhat whimsical or unlikely and the focus is on unplanned and unwanted pregnancy.

Children are taken from mentally ill parents because their parents are considered ‘dangerous.’ They are taken from blind or deaf parents because their parents are deemed somehow lacking in the ability to interact with their children. They are taken from parents with physical disabilities because their parents, outsiders think, might not be able to ‘care for’ them. These cases come up regularly, although they very rarely make the news, and they usually involve parents fighting ferociously for their children, and sadly, usually also involve losing those fights because it is very difficult to resist the ableist attitudes underpinning the decision to take children away.

Sometimes it starts with a ‘concerned member of the public.’ The person who calls the police because a woman is using a wheelchair and wearing a baby in a sling, say, or the person who is ‘just worried’ about a child and disabled parent seen in the grocery store, so decides to call child services. It triggers an investigation, puts the parent on the radar, raises the spectre that perhaps the child doesn’t belong in that household, even if the parent ‘seems to be doing okay.’ Who knows, after all, when that might change. Even if the first complaint doesn’t result in seizing the child, the next might. Or the next.

Or it’s a physician. Doctors occupy positions of authority and are regarded as trustworthy and reliable when it comes to making assessments about the abilities of their patients. All it takes is one doctor suggesting that a patient might not be able to care for a child, or expressing worries that a patient’s parent might not be safe, to trigger another investigation. Complaints from doctors are weighted heavily and it means that they are taken very seriously. A routine visit to a doctor’s office, an offhand comment to a physician, might result in ripping your family apart.

Partners, too, play a role here. In a mixed relationship where one person is disabled and the other person is not, the nondisabled partner may argue that the child is safe because of the presence of a nondisabled person to take over if necessary. When people separate, though, the same mixed relationship can become a liability, rather than an asset. Because in the custody dispute, the nondisabled partner just has to say that there are ‘concerns’ about adequate child care to plant the idea in the heads of the people making decisions. So what if it means raking a former partner over the coals in an attempt to prove inadequacy? At the end, you ‘win’ and get custody.

These are very real risks for disabled people with children. Yet, they’re rarely a topic of discussion. There’s not a lot of acknowledgement of the risks of parenting while disabled, let alone how to fight these attitudes to make disabled parents safer. Parents with mental illness, for example, should be able to seek treatment if they need it without judgment and without the risk of losing their children because they did the right thing and got help for ongoing issues. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to take their kids to the pediatrician, or to go out in their communities with their children, but these fears are there, and they are not acknowledged.

Disability does not an unfit parent make, but you wouldn’t know that from social attitudes about disability and parenting. You certainly wouldn’t know it from the way that agencies tasked with safeguarding children behave, because they continually promote the idea that disability, on its own, is hazardous. Endangers children. Threatens their welfare. Makes it impossible to provide care. And those attitudes filter out to the general population, which regards reporting disabled parents as an act of public service.