The big news this week is that Sarah Palin is the latest contributor to Fox News. Christina Chew at Care2 asks what this means for people with disabilities — Palin promised in her campaign to be an advocate for special-needs children, but so far her “advocacy” hasn’t gone far beyond insisting that abortion is bad and special-needs children are blessings. While I’m always happy to see parents of children with disabilities speaking out about the fact that having a special-needs child is parenting all the same and that no child is perfect or easy, there is a major disconnect when “advocates” like Palin totally ignore the societal and structural impediments that make parenting more difficult when your child has disabilities, and that make life more difficult for individuals with disabilities. Chew writes:
Will Palin, who has spoken regularly about her “right to life” stance, make abortion and prenatal genetic testing of her Fox News commentary? (Currently some 90% of parents who find out that their fetus has Down Syndrome decide not to have the child.) Will Palin move beyond such politically charged and very hot topics to look at the real, day-to-day issues facing disabled individuals and their families and those who support them over their lifetimes? Issues like the need for appropriate schools and therapies that can range from speech therapy to medical concerns; like the urgent need for housing for adults with disabilities, not to mention jobs and job training, and—for those unable to work—ways to ensure that they live meaningful lives within the community?
As the mother of an adolescent son who is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum, I am hopeful that Palin will use her new role on Fox News to bring national attention to these pressing issues. My son is growing up all too fast. While once people smiled and told me “he’s so cute” and that we were “blessed to have such a special child,” the world is not so kindly towards an older child who is so tall that he is regularly mistaken for an adult, who is minimally verbal, and who—due to his neurology—struggles with severe behavior problems. Group homes, job coaches, and disparities in access to health care for adults with disabilities are just some of the issues that other parents, my son’s teachers and therapists, and my husband and I think about all the time, however much others try to change the topic of conversation when we bring them up.
Improving on those issues would also make it easier for women to choose to continue pregnancies if their fetus is diagnosed with Down syndrome or other condition. As Dana Goldstein explores in the Daily Beast this week, new genetic testing could make it possible to more exactly identify fetuses with Down syndrome; since the vast majority of women terminate their pregnancies when they learn that the fetus has Down syndrome, the new tests could mean that even fewer babies with Down syndrome are ever born, unless women and families feel that having a special needs child is actually do-able.
I’m obviously very pro-choice, and support the right of any individual woman to terminate a pregnancy for whatever reason. I understand the feeling — or the knowledge — that you are not equipped to handle a child with special needs, or the fear that when you die you will be leaving behind a child with a disability in a society that offers little support. So I want to make it clear that I’m not casting judgment on any individual woman, or any family, who makes the best choices for themselves and terminates a pregnancy because the fetus has Down syndrome or other pre-natal diagnosis.
But. I do find it troubling, in the aggregate, that so many people believe that having a child with Down syndrome is so impossible, or so undesireable, that 90% of those pregnancies are terminated. Again, to clarify, it’s not the belief itself that troubles me — it’s the social reality underlying that belief. It’s the fact that “advocates” like Palin do little to actually advocate for what people with disabilities and their families actually need — holding up a cute baby and talking about how he’s a blessing is nice, but it doesn’t do much to help the parents who are worried about finding adequate schooling for their children, or the adults who need basic access to work or housing or medical care. It doesn’t do much for the women who receive a pre-natal diagnosis from a doctor who assumes that termination is the next step, in a society that seems to only offer two options for women who have to make this choice: Martyrdom or shame. It doesn’t do much for that cute baby when he or she grows up in a society that ostracizes and fears him, and offers no tangible support or assistance.
I hope Palin uses her position at Fox to give a platform to disability-rights advocates. I hope she does it in a meaningful way, that goes beyond, “Look, cute baby!” and actually addresses the structural impediments that oppress people with disabilities. But I’m not holding my breath.
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