Blogging Against Disablism Day is May 1, 2012.
Blogging against disablism, ableism and disability discrimination.
I want to provide some feedback on an article/video on CNN.com called "Kids care for mom without arms, legs" about Lisa Strong. I am very disappointed about the way that CNN has covered this story. The set of circumstances surrounding this woman's situation are certainly unique and from the video, Ms. Strong appears to be just one of the millions of us in the United States with disabilities that lead full lives. But it's just that - while Ms. Strong has clearly achieved a great deal since her amputations: walking while utilizing prosthetics, parenting two children, adjusting to her changed body while still attending her children's dance recitals and soccer games - the focus of the CNN piece is all about what she can't do, and portrays her children as having to parent her because they assist her with certain tasks of daily living.
In the video, Ms. Strong and her children are doing most tasks, such as cooking, together. Despite claims in the article, I don't see in the video that the children are acting in a parental role (teaching, providing for, and nurturing offspring physically, financially, and emotionally). I was left wondering if some of the chores that the children described doing (helping to cook and clean, taking out the dog, etc.) would have seemed out of the ordinary if their mother didn't have a disability.
The reason this negative and unfortunate focus is especially problematic is that it is a common stereotype (and misconception) that people with disabilities (especially women) use their children as caretakers, and that these children are "robbed of their childhoods" as a result. This prejudice is evident in court cases where able-bodied parents receive custodial preference due to the assumption that a parent with a disability is a lesser caretaker or that the children will be burdened (Breeden, Olkin, & Taube, 2008), and in adoption cases where potential parents with disabilities are passed over due to often erroneous conclusions that they will not be fit parents. People with disabilities have a history in this country of involuntary sterilization partly due to this prejudice. The overly dramatic and stereotypical CNN piece infuriated me both as a woman with a disability and as a psychologist who is aware of the psychological and social impact of media portrayal of diverse and oppressed groups. When an article or video like this is distributed by a network like CNN, it only serves to confirm negative and harmful beliefs about a group of people. Current scientific evidence indicates that parents with and without disabilities and their families are more alike than different (Olkin et al., 2006). Unquestionably, there is more research to be done.
I applaud CNN for its efforts to provide coverage about diversity in our country, for example through the Black and Latino in America series. I would encourage CNN to do their homework and afford fair, unbiased and real coverage of the lives of people with disabilities in this country. The major obstacle in living with a disability is not disability. Rather, it is the stereotypical and inaccurate portrayals of disability in the media - showing us as either helpless and pitiful, or superhuman and inspirational. Neither of these extremes shows the real face of life with a disability, and both dehumanize and oppress people with disabilities. I look forward to the day when people with disabilities can expect from reputable media a balanced and accurate look at people like themselves, and I believe it will go a long way toward equality in the United States.
Breeden, C., Olkin, R., & Taube, D.J. (2008). Child custody evaluations when one divorcing parent has a physical disability. Rehabilitation Psychology, 54(3). 445-455.
Olkin, R., Abrams, K., Preston, P., & Kirshbaum, M. (2006). Comparison of parents with and without disabilities raising teens: Information from the NHIS and two national surveys. Rehabilitation Psychology, 51(1). 43-49.
That was in 2009, when I was not a parent; when I had no idea my beautiful son Gavin would be born just over 2 years later. As a side note, I never received a response from CNN. Becoming a mother has only strengthened my beliefs about parenting rights and social justice for disabled people, but it has also deepened into a dark fear. In my nightmares, I think about what would happen if someone tried to take my son away from me. Would I stand a chance in a custody battle? What if a court decided an able-bodied person could raise him better? No amount of intellectualizing can erase this primal fear. I'm a white, professional, socioeconomically advantaged woman with a doctoral degree. I'm highly independent and have been very privileged. And I am vulnerable, because just looking at me, others aren't sure how I can take care of a child by myself. I know disabled parents who have lost custody to the other parent due to their disability.
The reality is, parents with disabilities experience discrimination every day, from the subtle microaggressions which accumulate over time to the overt exclusions and oppression which marginalizes us. Even before we become parents we are discriminated against - people with disabilities are viewed as less attractive reproductive partners, and are specifically avoided as romantic and sexual participants due to our disabilities. Genetic testing is heralded as the best way to avoid... more people like us. Our people are sterilized, encouraged to get abortions, and told to give up children for adoption. When we raise our children, others assume the parent with the disability assumes a lesser role; people figure the kids have to fend for themselves, or parent the parent, like in the article above. Or, we are classified as a "super-parent" and everything we do with our children is amazing because we're disabled. Polarized attitudes - equally harmful.
This area needs more attention, on a professional and personal level. I'm organizing a telephone workshop for psychologists this summer about sexual and reproductive rights for women with disabilities. Accessibility is important, but attitudinal change is essential. Here are a couple resources for parenting rights for disabled people already in existence:
Center for Rights of Parents with Disabilities
Through the Looking Glass
We need to come together - although our disabilities may be different, our human rights are the same. Parenting solutions will vary; the amount and type of assistance required are different for each of us. But as disabled people, we all have something to offer our kids - our children need us, and their lives are richer because of us. No one should ever be denied his or her role as a parent based on disability discrimination.