Fit for Parenthood? The Struggle for Equality Among Disabled Parents

By Gemma Fletcher 


Christina Ormerod did what most other parents in the world do - she took her daughter to school every morning, nothing remarkable there. It was part of the every day trappings of being a parent, that is until a marriage break up and custody battle led child services to question whether she was fit enough to be a mother to her daughter.  Why? Christina Ormerod is a wheelchair using mother because she was born with spina bifida.
She made the half mile journey to school every day using her motorized wheelchair and let her little girl sit on her knee. Child services asserted that letting the child ride on the chair was unsafe and supported the contention that the girl's 'abled' father should take full custody of her. When Christina suggested that the girl could walk alongside her instead, something many of the other children did with their parents, they insisted that this too was 'unsafe'. Unfortunately it is common for agencies who are entrusted to help families with disabilities to instead set the standard of parenting higher than what they would require for non-disabled families. They then place huge pressure on them to 'prove' they are fit for parenthood.

The treatment from social workers also largely depends upon their own personal viewpoint of disability and in many cases, low expectations about parental capability and even 'pity' can color a case - putting parents with disabilities at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to retaining the right to live with and raise their own children. A person who uses a wheelchair could be quite happily raising their family without assistance for years and then suddenly find that questions are posed as to how they 'manage'.


15% of Physically Disabled Parents in Custody Fight

If the parent also has depression - understandable after a divorce or family trauma - or they have any kind of learning disability, they will almost certainly face a loss of custody if they come to the attention of the family courts. It is not automatic that judiciary receive any disability equality training prior to sitting a case involving a disabled parent. Just as with social workers, nearly all have no disability themselves and most have no experience of differently abled people and in particular, disabled parents. This is reflected in the fact that 15% of parents with physical conditions face attempts by authorities to remove their children from their care. 13% say they encounter discrimination in custody and divorce proceedings and the number of parents having their children adopted out by force reaches a staggering - and very disturbing - 80% if they have any degree of intellectual impairment, even if mild.

Forced Removal of Disabled Parent's Children

There are no disabled parenting rights in the Americans with Disabilities Act, not even one and this is universal. 'Welfare of the child' considerations include disability as a factor in 37 states of America. In all those states, disability is listed as a reason for complete termination of parental rights. Another 14 states do not mention disability specifically but have statutes that state a child may be removed if the parent cannot take responsibility for the child - a statement open to bias and a wide degree of interpretation. Eight of the 37 states also include physical health and physical disorder as a reason to remove parental rights.
Only two states - Rhode Island and Idaho - have eliminated any references to disability from their TPR statutes. In those states, disability cannot be used in child custody proceedings without the parent first being given the opportunity to demonstrate how they can parent and show any mobility aids or other devices that they may use to help them in their role. It is definitely a move in the right direction but still requires disabled parents to prove they can parent when this is not asked for others unless they are affected by drugs, alcohol or have a troubling family situation, such as violence in the home.

Change Needed

Christina Ormerod is now trying to raise money to buy a wheelchair accessible van that would satisfy the authorities and allow her to continue raising her child. If specific rights were contained within the ADA to outlaw disabled parent discrimination and modifications and equipment to enable easier parenting were provided under 'reasonable adjustment' laws, then parents who use wheelchairs could be assured of a higher level of tolerance than they currently receive.

About the Author:
"I've been working as a writer now for the last year or so, after giving up a career in the city - working in the finance sector. I found it really stressful and once I became a mom, more difficult to juggle alongside my desire to see my two children brought up properly - and how I wanted them to be. In my spare time, I worked as a volunteer for a mental health charity, I'm someone who has always suffered from high anxiety and depression - working with people who had the same problems as me also made me reassess and step back. I'm now a bit happier than I was, and working towards a career that still has challenges, but allows me more freedom"  ` Gemma Fletcher


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