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Becoming a father

Ian Popperwell, UK, writes about the attitudes and discrimination faced by disabled parents, and how he has tackled being a visually impaired father.

I have two children – a boy and girl – who are 10 and 8 years old. I split up with their mother four years ago and we have since had a co-parenting arrangement, each looking after them half the time. This piece is my account of my becoming a parent (a father) – a disabled parent – something of my journey on the way and some “politics” thrown in to give my story some context outside myself. Any discussion of my situation has to taken into account issues of gender as well as disability, and additionally my role as a co-parent which still has no recognition in the law or within the benefit system.

Becoming a parent really happened concurrently with me gaining a physical impairment and also beginning to recognise myself as disabled rather than somebody who had, for 24 years been taught to pretend to be sighted. I guess I started to become aware of some of the negative attitudes that I would face towards the end of my (then) partner’s first pregnancy in terms of stares of disbelief and scowls in shops and at bus stops. Most of the practical difficulties that I encountered as a new parent floated unconsciously past me, as I had very little sense of what my own needs might be and still less of a sense of my right to get them met. My son was born at a time when I had little strength in my arms and hands, I consequently could hold him on my lap but not carry him round or do much that required any dexterity. This situation changed with a long-overdue operation, but if it happened now, I would have placed demands upon services, worked out some kind of sling arrangement to carry him and possibly bought in personal assistance. At the time though, the physical effects of my impairment were becoming more severe weekly and I was offered nothing in the way of support or advice about my new needs for accessibility.

I guess that the attitudes toward disabled people as parents or potential parents reflects the dominant attitude to disabled people and towards impairment generally within our society – “it wouldn’t be allowed in an ideal world”. If, as disabled people, we are accepted as worthy parents, then we must also be considered to be worthy of making decisions, making choices, taking responsibility for ourselves and of course, being sexual (whatever our sexuality). These are not the things that are generally associated with disabled people.

I became starkly aware of these kinds of attitudes and the way that they have become institutionalised soon after I became a father. I had just started working in a Social Services Department, and noticed that within the Child Protection Procedures for the county – copies of which were held by every social worker, doctor’s surgery, hospital, school etc – there was a section at the back giving advice to professionals on possible indicators of child abuse, it offered handy hints on “what to look out for”. Along with parents who had a history of misusing alcohol and drugs, was a paragraph covering parents with “physical, sensory and mental handicaps” (sic). As part of a disabled employees group within the council, we successfully campaigned to have the section removed, although I am still feeling uncomfortable about the number of people who would have read it uncritically and taken it as 'the truth' and possibly acted upon it. When something, however crass or discriminatory, is written down in an official document it tends to take on a power of its own and serves to feed and perpetuate the discrimination. Many disabled people have their children taken into care or at the very least face the intrusive involvement of a range of professionals – I have been fortunate in my avoidance of such a situation.

So, we aren’t supposed to reproduce, especially not disabled children: if we do though, although it’s considered to be somewhat tasteless, we can easily find ourselves in the role of the “super parent” – this equates to all the popular imagery of braveness and courage. I remember being read a headline in a local newspaper a couple of years ago – “Super-Mum Gives Birth” – the story turned out to be that a disabled woman had a baby. This is not entirely clear-cut in my situation: as a disabled person who has children and looks after them on my own half of the time. I sometimes get thought of as “marvellous”, probably more so because I am a man, I’m not really expected to take an active responsibility for my children anyway.

I do often encounter the reaction of disbelief that I do look after my children – this might be partly about our perceived unsuitability to be parents and also something to do with the supposedly different parent/child relationship when a parent is disabled.

You see them sometimes at weekends then do you?” “Oh well, I expect that they look after you though…” or “I bet that they do a lot for you though…” are responses that I’ve encountered. It is as if any shared responsibility that children take for being members of a household, any encouragement that they receive towards independence, even the making of a cup of tea can be misconstrued into a potential 'young-carer' scenario. My children could quite easily do a bit of washing up now and then, make a few more cups of tea and even clean the kitchen floor from time to time and there would be no danger of the dynamic of our relationship changing noticeably, least of all a concern about them doing too much! Some of this kind of response too, will originate in a negative view of fathers’ parenting ability (which is not completely unfounded).

I am very conscious that I 'do my parenting' in a way that meets my own needs relating to my impairments: importantly though, my children respond to this and it is not the big deal for them that it is frequently judged to be. We have our own ways of being together that encompass their needs for security, safety, love and so on. They will naturally make verbal rather than eye contact with me, they don’t assume that I know where they are when we’re out and they’re generally pretty aware of what I can see. My children have learned over the years that I need to know where things are and that rooms that we all use need to be relatively tidy and free from obstacles, the fact that this isn’t necessarily a requirement in other people’s houses is of course irrelevant.

When they were younger, I told them stories rather than read to them: they had plenty of people to read books and I would make up stories every night instead. Now they both read avidly and on reflection, I cannot think of any way that my blindness has hindered the development of their reading skills: instead, my encouragement of them has not been hampered by the potential to take control and do it for them.

My children have had the experience of knowing and spending time with disabled friends and comrades in a non-voyeuristic way, they have been on demonstrations and whilst I haven’t indoctrinated them about issues of disability equality, they have taken it all in, and have a very intuitive understanding of discrimination which seems far more grounded than my own belief in my rights was for many years.

To conclude then, over the last ten years, my life has substantially changed, being a father has been one of the most joyful and emotionally challenging experiences of my life: it has pushed me to become more aware of and congruent with my feelings. Over this period too, I have gone through a process of understanding of the discrimination faced by disabled people and have been active within the disabled people’s movement. I have been forced to look at myself, to acknowledge my own impairments and the way that they affect and can enhance my parenting and understanding of myself. Being a parent carries with it a massive responsibility and is often an enormous struggle: being a disabled parent compounds the struggle. It has for me though also been a process of enormous learning.

First published in Disability, Pregnancy & Parenthood international, Issue 19, July 1997.

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