The elusive right to be good parents

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Mon Feb 08 2010.   Carol Goar

People with disabilities call it “the look.”

They get it from strangers on sidewalks, clerks in stores, colleagues at work, acquaintances, public officials, even medical professionals.

Roughly translated, it means: “How could you even think of doing this?”

It happens when they try to play games like other children, respond to their hormones like other teenagers, apply for university like other adolescents, show up for job interviews like other graduates and get married like other people.

But it hurts most when they become a parent. Ing Wong-Ward, an award-winning producer at the CBC, grew up with the stares of disbelief. She thought she’d learned to live with them, until she felt her first twinge of morning sickness.

She went to the drugstore to pick up a pregnancy test. But when she put it on the checkout counter, she knew she was in new territory. The cashier stood frozen, looking down at Wong-Ward in her wheelchair in obvious shock. Fortunately, the other customers in the lineup started getting agitated and she rang it through.

Next, Wong-Ward encountered a succession of doctors, nurses and counsellors who took it upon themselves to question her, warn her and take over her pregnancy. A medical specialist asked how she would feel if she gave birth to a child with a disability. A high-risk obstetrics team hovered around her. Post-natal arrangements were made for a mother who could not take care of her baby.

To stop all these caregivers from managing her life, Wong-Ward had to write a detailed letter, outlining the supports she’d already put in place.

“There’s a belief that those of us who look different aren’t as competent as the general population,” she told a roomful of lawyers, aspiring lawyers, disability advocates and government officials at a symposium at the Law Society of Upper Canada last week.

Wong-Ward, now the mother of a healthy, very active, 2-year-old daughter – who provided her own sideshow – described her journey to give the audience a glimpse of how it feels for a parent with a disability to be judged by his or her limitations and society’s stereotypes.

Rabia Khedr, moderator of the forum, has never experienced “the look.” She’s blind.

But the mother of four has little trouble imagining it. She faced a double stigma – she has a disability and is a hijab-wearing Muslim woman – when she became pregnant 15 years ago.

She started collecting stories of other non-white parents with disabilities. “Everybody thought I was nuts,” she recalled. “It didn’t make sense to the dominant culture and it didn’t make sense to the brown culture.”

Khedr’s research led to a groundbreaking 1996 report, We are Visible, that opened the eyes of health-care professionals, educators, human rights activists, community workers and provincial policy-makers.

James Holzbauer, who assesses women with mental disabilities for the City of Toronto’s Adult Protective Services Program, outlined the challenges they face.

He handles approximately 150 admissions a year. One-third are mothers. “Being a parent with an intellectual disability means you are assumed to be incompetent to raise your own children,” he said.

He has seen many women, whose parenting skills are quite adequate, lose their children because of society’s perceptions. “They’re infantilized. Their sexuality is denied. Their decision to become parents is viewed with suspicion and alarm.”

Story after story spilled out. Few of the speakers cited specific legal problems. They had never tested their rights. They didn’t want to go to court to fight society’s prejudices.

“We need people to shift their attitudes, open their minds,” said Khedr. “It’s okay to be a parent with a disability. It’s normal.”

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