Last week, the plight of people with disabilities received some overdue limelight in Hollywood — a rarity for the people in our community. Beloved actress Meryl Streep received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes, and she used her acceptance speech as a platform to speak out against the President-elect’s unabashed bullying tactics. She told the spellbound audience that the performance that “most took [her] breath away” this year was Donald Trump’s impersonation of a disabled reporter during his electoral campaign. She was correct in her criticism, and many in the disability community were glad to see our existence and worth recognized so publicly.
But while it is righteous that Trump be “called on the carpet,” (as Streep urged) for his bullying, the true scope of what people with disabilities are fighting for is much wider than that. What we want is equality of opportunity. We want to raise our children and live our lives with dignity. The sad reality is that, instead, people with disabilities meet with profound barriers to creating and maintaining families at every turn. Raising a family, being one of the most fundamental rights that exists, should be universally accessible. And yet it remains closed to far too many people with disabilities.
In 2012, the National Council on Disability released a damning study called, “Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children,” which included 20 findings and 50 recommendations aimed at eliminating the barriers to access to parenting for people with disabilities. These findings have yet to be rectified.
For far too long, it has been acceptable to hold a perspective that disabled parents are “undesirable.” This kind of thinking has dire consequences. In the past, it has led to our bodies being forcibly sterilized against our will by a medical system that felt it knew what was “best.” Today, it leads to people with disabilities being denied the right to parent via everything from lack of access to affordable and appropriate reproductive health care, to the use of assisted reproductive technologies in order to start families, to encountering a biased adoption system that often disqualifies prospective parents based solely on disability status.
What’s more, despite these significant barriers to beginning families, those of us who succeed in birthing or adopting children face deep and systemic oppression once we become parents. Some of the services we use such as the Paratransit program, often discriminate against the families of disabled parents by refusing to transport nondisabled children, further complicating the picture.
Finally, as one of the study’s findings put it, “The child welfare system is ill-equipped to support parents with disabilities and their families, resulting in disproportionately high rates of involvement with child welfare services and devastatingly high rates of parents with disabilities losing their parental rights.”
It is no surprise that parents with disabilities in this country face termination of their parental rights at a rate of between 13 percent and 80 percent (depending upon disability type) when the family court professionals they encounter demonstrate, “a lack of expertise or even familiarity regarding parents with disabilities and their children.” It is time to move beyond the shameful history of eugenics-based attitudes toward people with disabilities and end the unfair practice of stereotyping us as unfit parents. We in the Independent Living Movement know that with the proper supports and adaptations, we can be — and currently are — raising happy, healthy children just like millions of able bodied Americans do every day. No longer will we allow the ableist bias that is deeply embedded in every aspect of our government to stop us from raising loving families.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We have a roadmap for change. And as our nation experiences a rising tide of authoritarianism, we must lean into this struggle now. We must do so precisely because it embodies the profound question of what it means to be human. We’ve seen in the past what fascism does with that question. Let us choose to answer it by opening, rather than limiting, the possibilities.
Jessie Lorenz is executive director of the Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco.