PERSPECTIVES | Parenting with a disability

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Discrimination against parents with disabilities has been all too common throughout history, and it remains an obstacle to full equality for people with disabilities in the present,” writes attorney Robyn Powell for the American Bar Association. “As a person with a disability and as a woman, I always felt the world didn’t see me as a caretaker,” says Nikki Villavicencio, who is a mother with a disability and a wheelchair user, “but rather, someone who needs to be taken care of.”

This perception starts early as young people with disabilities often don’t “get basic [sexual education] in school.” It even expands to medical care. While “there is no reason to believe that pregnancy would be dangerous to my or a future baby’s well being,” writes Powell who has a physical disability and hopes to become a mother one day, many doctors have advised her to have a hysterectomy.

Once becoming parents, the challenges continue for people with disabilities. “Even today, 22 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, parents with disabilities are the only distinct community of Americans who must struggle to retain custody of their children,” states a 2012 report, Rocking the Cradle, issued by the National Council on Disability to Congress. As many as 80% of parents with mental health or intellectual disabilities have their children removed by child welfare agencies.

Those parents who successfully retain custody of their children report being under increased scrutiny. Liza Larregui, a parent with bipolar disorder blogs about the difficult choices parents with disabilities make every day. “During mania, I have trouble standing still, talking at a natural rate of speed, and just acting ‘normal.’ I was terrified [on a recent visit that my son’s] doctor would think I was high on drugs and take my son away.”

Well-meaning people can perpetuate the stigma that individuals with disabilities are not fully capable as parents. Michelle Keller, a mother with cerebral palsy, regularly encounters those whom assume she needs assistance “considering [her] disability,” or calling her an inspiration. “I didn’t beat some incredible odds, find the cure for cancer or ignore my own safety to save hundreds of people from certain demise,” Keller writes. “I’m simply living my life with the cards I was dealt. Just like every other person on the face of this planet.”