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What My Fellow Teacher Didn't Know About Parents With Disabilities

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We just ended another round of parent conferences in my school district. It’s just another day in the life of a teacher, right? After 16 years of them, I have gotten into the habit of reflecting back on some of the more memorable ones. The ones that have been difficult where the parent and I fail to see eye to eye, I try to learn from. The ones I am most proud of — most proud of the way the parents responded, I try to share and show my pride in the parents. Early in my career though, a conference that was a point of pride for me turned into a disappointment for the reaction I got when I shared the experience with a colleague.

The parents I had just had a meeting with were easy to talk to and open. Having had some interactions with the mom before, I expected this from her. I enjoyed her also because she allowed me to dream for my students. She had an intellectual disability. She was raising two young daughters and was involved in their schooling. She never missed meetings, and whenever I suggested something to help her daughter, I soon saw evidence that she was trying. I knew she had help at home. She had managed to connect with an agency that provided her with a “coach” of sorts. This person frequently came with her to meetings. She never took over the meetings, but listened carefully to our conversation and later helped the mother follow through with what we had decided. I saw evidence that it worked — her daughter was one of the highest-achieving students in my class.

I met the husband and admired their palpable mutual respect for each other. She led the meeting and even translated for him at times, as his English was limited. They spoke in respectful tones to me and each other, asking thoughtful questions and making valid contributions. It was obvious they loved each other and loved their children.

The next day in the teacher’s lounge, as we were sharing stories of our students and families, I started in on how proud I was of this particular couple. I started to explain why, but I didn’t get any farther than mentioning that the mom had an (unspecified) disability when one of my colleagues burst out saying “Why did no one have her tubes tied?” I was stunned. I felt a lump in my throat and left the conversation, quietly saying I did not agree with her.

After I got over the shock of hearing those words and forgave myself for not addressing the issue, I grew to understand that she just didn’t know.

She didn’t know that the basic human right to have (or not have) children was often denied people with disabilities in the early 1900’s through forced sterilizations.

She didn’t realize people with disabilities can learn to take care of a child no matter what their achievement in school, mobility or physical conditions — just like able-bodied people can learn.

She didn’t know the proper training or support for people with disabilities is available, if needed, so they can give their children the love and support to thrive.

She didn’t acknowledge that while people with disabilities may need help to be successful parents — so do able-bodied parents.

She didn’t know I had a disability and wanted more than anything to have a family. I was mortified to think that strangers wanted and potentially could make that decision for me based on my disability rather than my ability.

Lastly, she didn’t know my husband and I were trying to adopt. Not because I couldn’t conceive because of my disability, or because we were afraid of having a child with my disability. We simply wanted a family, and felt we had a lot to offer in terms of love and experiences — including my experience with disability — and felt adoption was the best way to become a family.

I missed the opportunity to say these things to that colleague. My hope now is that we all realize and respect that we can have the same desires, whether we have a disability or not. We all deserve the right to live the life that fulfills us. It is part of what makes us all human.

If you want to follow my family’s journey to adopt, you can visit our Web page.

Originally published: March 14, 2017
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