The belief that women with disabilities are inherently unfit to become mothers has changed over time been changing but not fully with some community members under minding women with disabilities as mothers.
“Today, women with disabilities contend with coercive tactics designed to encourage sterilization or abortions because they are deemed not fit for motherhood.” As an advocate for disabled women, I have seen doctors get shocked When WGDs tell doctors that they are planning to become mother someday. Although no doctor has outright told them not to have children, most doctors think they shouldn’t.
Women with disabilities are also presumed sexually unwilling or unable and often do not receive quality reproductive health care information or services. People with disabilities, especially people with intellectual disabilities, are often not provided meaningful sex education. These disparities have notable consequences: Rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases are high among adults with disabilities.
This discrimination does not stop if a woman with a disability chooses to have children. In fact, in many ways, it actually increases.
Parents with disabilities experience significant discrimination, particularly within the child welfare, family setting and community socialization. Based on prejudiced and antiquated policies that presume unfitness, parents with disabilities are much more likely to be referred to the child welfare system and to have their children removed from their homes. Likewise, parents with disabilities often are denied custody or visitation of their children more so those with mental disabilities.
Parents with disabilities experience significant discrimination within the child welfare and family law systems.
Take the example of Sara Gordon, a mother who had her child taken by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families two days after giving birth. The reason? She missed a feeding. Oh, and she has an intellectual disability. Rather than giving this family a chance, the state just assumed she was incapable. Sara’s fight to regain custody endured for over two years and ended with the federal government intervening on her behalf.
Unfortunately, Sara’s experience is neither unique or uncommon. Indeed, many parents with disabilities will tell you that they live each day in fear that they will have their child taken by the state.
The discrimination parents with disabilities face is frightening to our communities. If both my partners have disabilities, they fear the likely bias they will experience as they navigate parenthood in the future. We know that as an attorney with resources and a strong understanding of PWD rights, we have immense privilege. What happens to the many disabled parents who are less fortunate?
Despite the many advances in disability rights, society still refuses to see PWDs and other vulnerable people as capable parents. Rather than seeing people with them as able to provide care, PWDs and other vulnerable groups are too often assumed to simply be the recipients of care. They are viewed as dependents, in need of protection, and incompetent, rather than capable, strong, and nurturing.
These negative perceptions are wrapped up in damaging expectations of mothers in general. Mothers are expected to know from day one everything their child needs and how to provide it, and they are often expected to take on the majority of parenting responsibilities and to be happy about it. At the same time, they are asked to be selfless at all times. In sum, mothers are expected to be perfect.
But the truth is, disability or not, no mother is perfect — and that’s perfectly okay.
As we celebrate Mother’s Day, we must remember that motherhood transcends race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, and ability. Not all women with disabilities want to be mothers, of course; the problem is denying them this incredibly personal choice.
At IDIWA, we are fortunate to know so many mothers with disabilities who are absolute role models in communities. Each day, they live in a world that presumes they are unfit and less than.
We know, someday you will be a mother or a father — and while we may not be able to throw a ball or lift your child over our heads, we know you can absolutely love and nourish them. We will always need to rely on others for help with personal care, but that in no way diminishes your capacity to provide a safe and happy home.
No matter what society says, we know you will be a great mother. Not perfect, because no mother is, But great.
Happy mothers’ day to you all