Parents With Disabilities: Competent Until Proven Otherwise

Parents with disabilities are not always in need of help, or judgment. Instead, all they require is equal treatment in the parenting community.

by Anneliese Knop | You can follow her on Twitter @AnnelieseM_DK and visit her blog Look On The Dark Side.

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Squeak! Squeak squeak squeak!

Tension sparked up the handle of my guide dog’s harness as the familiar sound caught both of us off-guard. Familiar but definitely out of context. Why was there a squeaky toy in a clothing store, and who was using it?

An instant later, I recognized the familiar pattern of small running feet simultaneous with the squeaking noise and I remembered the existence of squeaky tennis shoes for small children. A mother gently scolding her runaway toddler in the next aisle confirmed my conclusion. Not a toy, but a child.

My dog relaxed as I signaled her to turn down a separate aisle. We continued our futile quest for women’s dress pants with practical pockets.  My hopes dimmed, and my mind flitted back to the startling discovery of toddlers that came with audible motion detectors. How convenient that would be for me, if I ever had children! A gimmick turned into an adaptive childcare device!

Parents with disabilities face a lot of discrimination and stigma. They often receive this kind of treatment from healthcare staff, legal institutions, welfare advocates, and their own families and communities. But these paragons of creativity have a lot to offer their children, and the parenting community at large. I scrolled through dozens of articles written by parents with disabilities and boiled it all down to 3 key tips every parent could use.

1.         Exercising Ergonomic creativity

When you only have one arm, can’t see, or lack elements of fine motor control, finding adaptive methods and means to life, is a lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle that might serve able-bodied parents well, too. How many herniated disks, torn rotator cuffs, and RSIs might be avoided if every parent put half as much thought into the kinesiology of parenting that a parent with a disability does?

If you ask your chiropractor whether or not you should bend at the waist and lift a burden straight up, he’d probably shout “No!”.

Now remember what it feels like to pick your child up out of the crib. Cribs with gates that slide down have become popular for just this reason, but what about play-pens? What about parents who can’t afford newer cribs and get older models from thrift stores or garage sales? Are they doomed to low-back problems? Not if a baby’s mattress just sits on the floor.

a man lifting his baby out of the crib

To give you a better idea as to what I am describing, here’s a transcript from a Mother’s Day Twitter chat hosted by the Disabled Parenting Project describing how mothers with disabilities adapted their child’s sleeping conditions for their disabilities. Or you can check out this video describing how a wheelchair user adapted the night-time routine for maximum comfort and conservation of energy, too.

That same website has tips and tricks for adapting other aspects of parenting. It describe tips on adapting breast-feeding, lifting, carrying, changing, and other early parenting tasks, all focused on working naturally with the body’s range of motion, conserving energy, and preventing injury. There are also links to forums where parents with disabilities share tools and tricks they’ve learned to protect their bodies from the rigors of parenthood.

Parenting is hard work with no shortage of peculiar movements. There is heavy lifting, twisting, carrying, turning, bending, and many other motions that could go wrong. These motions can also become comfortable exercises. Able-bodied parents, are often too tired to engineer their parenting routines for optimized ergonomics, so why not ask the experts?

2.         Supportive Superheroes

We’ve all heard the cliche phrase “it takes a village to raise a child,” but there’s still a lot of social pressure on parents to not need outside help. Moms in particular, often judge themselves, and feel judged by others, for needing assistance with their parental and familial duties.

Sadly, many loving parents reach unhealthy levels of burn-out before breaking free from the shame and fear of asking for help. In an individualistic culture, we place a great deal of emphasis on independence. But independence does not mean isolation, a lesson parents with disabilities are often forced to learn.

Each person with a disability views needing and accepting help differently, but in general, adults with disabilities have learned the value of collaborative living. While this doesn’t mean they do not struggle with feeling like burdens on society, it does mean they regularly model how to ask for and receive help- lessons the theoretically independent able-bodied parent could certainly benefit from.

If it’s ok for me to ask for help, why not for you? Aren’t we both human, and don’t all humans need some form of help?

Learn to accept help with the physical tasks of parenting. When the baby chores become overwhelming, and you’ve not slept for days or even months, you must remember to reach out for help. Maybe this simple act will help you teach your child that needing help with daily life, doesn’t disqualify him/her from social acceptance. A child is more valuable than their ability to do work, just like you and I.

3.         The Potential of Limitations

You may recognize some of the advice above from my blog post on the advantages of hiring a blind babysitter. There is, naturally, an overlap between parenting and babysitting skills. What really sets the two occupations apart is the duration and stamina of parenting. It’s a long game, raising a child.

How do we even know what reasonable limitations are? The best answer is “they’re different for everyone.”.

Seek out the experts. Speak with people who are tangibly reminded of their limitations in incontrovertible ways every day. We’re never allowed to forget our limitations, not by our bodies, minds, or communities. Limits are part of the daily calculus, along with time, what’s in the refrigerator, and ratio of sleep to coffee.

Here is a helpful model that adults with disabilities and chronic illnesses often use to help pace themselves and communicate their limits to others. I think it works well for anyone who doesn’t have boundless time and energy.

The Takeaway   

Parenting communities involve a constant two-way stream of hard-won advice and ideas. But parents with disabilities often find themselves relegated to receptacles, treated as if they are qualified only to receive help, never to give it. That is, when they’re not being judged for procreating in the first place.

What other gems of counsel might your parenting community be missing out on?

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