We’ve circled the car park three times and still can’t find a space. Occasionally we are fooled into believing we’ve found a space only to then realise a Smart car has been furtively hiding behind a larger car. Eventually two spaces open up at once. One is a disabled space. The other is a parent and child space. Staring at both spaces I can see an analogy for my life. Always having to choose whether I am to consider myself a disabled person, or a parent. Society never allows that the two will intersect.
I am a woman. I am a disabled person. I am a parent. I am not one sometimes and another at other times. I am always all three. At all points in my life these factors intersect. This is why I worry when disability is erased from feminism, parenting is erased from disability rights activism, disability is erased from parenting narratives and the intersection of being a disabled parent and a woman is erased from all of the above. I can only imagine the picture gets bleaker the more axes of oppression you add on.
The situation with the recent case about a court judgement in favour of First Bus after they were taken to court for discrimination against a wheelchair user is a case in point. The charge was levied by Doug Paulley, who had tried to board a First Bus only to be prevented by a, presumably, non-disabled parent who refused to move her buggy because she did not wish to wake her sleeping child. As a parent I find her attitude abhorrent, as disabled person I find her behaviour abhorrent, but as a disabled parent I am glad First Bus won the case. The problem is that not all disabled people are wheelchair users, and not all parents are non-disabled. What if, for instance the mother had a disability, but did not require a wheelchair? We might not be able to look at her and immediately know she had a disability, but she might have trouble holding a baby whilst folding a pushchair. She might have trouble lifting the pushchair onto the parcel shelf. She might have difficulty bracing herself whilst holding her baby. I know several women to whom all of these apply.
Similarly, the mother may be mentally ill. She might have post-natal depression. She might have spent nights awake with this baby who has only just fallen asleep and given her peace and quiet for the first time in weeks. I can empathise with any woman in that situation. What if she had stitches following birth?* Or had recently had a caesarean? The world of parenting and disability is so full of what ifs it’s hard to judge.
Then there are the myriad of baby magazines, with endless articles about keeping fit during pregnancy and exercising yourself back into your pre-baby body (yawn). I have a problem with the way these articles place pressure upon new parents, who the hell needs to worry about looking good when they are getting 3 hours sleep per night? But I think the impact can be greater upon parents who can’t exercise back into their pre-baby bodies because of disability. It becomes even more of an impossible ideal. Especially when you consider that many people with disabilities experience a level of body consciousness that many people with disabilities do not have to face.
Every television ad tells the same story. Parents are smiley. Parents are fresh. Parents are able bodied. I could sit there and watch 500 straight hours of television and not see a single reflection of myself. All of those hours could even be spent watching parenting television programmes and the situation would be unlikely to change.
When I was pregnant with my eldest I searched high and low for resources for parents with disabilities and more specifically parents with my disabilities. This was back in 2002, so maybe things have improved by then. Maybe there is a Gingerbread for disabled parents. But my searches at the time proved fruitless. I did not know how to be a disabled parent. I did not know what support I was entitled to, and failed to properly defend myself when my social worker suggested I solve my care needs by paying for an au pair. I was by that point a single parent, a whole extra layer of oppression, with no money, no peer group and no understanding of the Disability Discrimination Act. Social groups are so important for new parents, probably more important for disabled parents, but for the latter they are much harder to reach.
I’m not a maverick. I’m not the Neil Armstrong of disabled parenting. I am not the first disabled person to wheel to the school gates. So why should it be that disabled parents are so erased from a myriad of narratives?
“Since 2004, the Labour force survey has used the definition of disabled person contained in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995: that is, anyone with a long-term health problem or disability which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-today activities. Using this definition, about 12 per cent (1.7 million) of Britain’s 14.1 million parents are disabled12 and 1.1 million households with dependent children have at least one disabled parent.” (SCIE )
I would argue that 12 per cent of parents having disabilities warrants a little more attention from the media, and explicit focus from social justice circles. If 12 per cent of parents have disabilities then I’d hazard a guess that there is a similar percentage of children who are young carers. Furthermore, young carers are more likely, relative to the general population, to have disabilities themselves.
The SCIE state that disabled parents are vulnerable to “experiences such as unemployment, poor housing, domestic violence and family conflict” and that this “can have as significant an impact as impairment, illness or substance abuse.” The social model is of import here. These factors are not the natural conclusion of disability, they are the result of systemic bias against disabled parents. Furthermore these factors are more likely to affect women; 90% of lone parents are women, many of whom have disabilities. Arguably this is a feminist, parenting and disability rights issue.
Then there is the issue that families often have more than one disabled person. My family of 5 has 3, plus another child with additional needs. We’re like the crippled Brady Bunch- which I think is a brilliant idea for a television show. When it first became apparent that my second son had additional needs I didn’t know where to turn. He wouldn’t sleep so I couldn’t sleep. He required numerous assessments and I couldn’t drive or use public transport. Furthermore what help we did receive was at times just bizarre and involved non-disabled parents judging me for not being able to do as they did.
The thing is non-disabled parents can sweat the small stuff. If they run out of bread they can pop to the shop. They don’t have to timetable when they’re going to put the dishes in the dishwasher because of the impact it might have on their energy levels. We’re not so fortunate. From my conversations with other disabled parents I’ve found that my experiences are in no way unique. We are routinely undermined, patronised and judged for not fitting an abled view of parenting. They hold us up to the standard of a non-disabled parent and it’s cruel because we could put in far more effort than them, love our children with just as much force, but because of our bodies or minds, never fit that mould.
Disabled parenting is hard, disabled parenting a disabled child can be a whole new world. Yes, we’re the same as other parents. Yes, we experience a lot of the same oppressions as non-parent disabled people, and non-disabled feminists. But we have a lot of experiences that don’t fit neatly into one social justice area. It’s an intersection that brings wildly different experiences with it, and I for one would like that to become a greater part of the social justice narrative.
*I refer to she in the above post only because the case involved a woman. Please note I do not intend to erase fathers. In the same vein I refer to “her” stitches and c-section- again this is due to the case concerning a cis woman and is not intended to erase trans fathers who may also have the misfortune of experiencing c-sections/stitches.