Staring Down Ableism: Navigating Life As A Disabled Parent
About a week ago my kids and I were out for a walk in our neighborhood. Our walk took us through a field where I often take the kids to run out their energy before bed. Today, there were several teenage boys playing ball in the field. As we walked through, my son said, “Mom, those people are all staring at you.”
My kids are becoming familiar with things like this. They noticed it for the first time last summer when we took a trip to the grocery store together and people gawked at us the whole time. I’d love to say that people are staring at me because I’m just that stunningly gorgeous, or maybe because I wear wild, bold, colorful clothes just for the hell of it. No luck, though. I am neither gorgeous nor bold most of the time, especially when I’m at the grocery store getting a gallon of milk. People stare at me because I’m blind and that apparently makes them uncomfortable.
Since I am blind, I cannot see the stares, but I know they happen, and they feel all the more offensive because I can’t pick up on them and stare back. Most of my friends and family don’t tell me when I get stared at, but my kids do, and I am immensely grateful to them for it. It hurts to hear about it; it feels awful, quite frankly. But staring at me because I’m out in the world existing as a disabled woman feels like a blatant form of disrespect, and I feel like I deserve to know when I’m being disrespected. It doesn’t mean I would do anything about it necessarily. The badass and courageous version of myself might have found a way to respond to those staring teens in the field. Instead, I took my kids around the other way on the way home because I didn’t feel like dealing with it. I wish I had shown my children my strong side that day, but I didn’t.
Stares have been a reality for me since I was a kid. They are just one small manifestation of the ableism I’ve encountered over the years. Since I’ve become a parent, the ableism has intensified, or at least it feels worse.
I always wanted to be a mother. I never doubted my ability to be a good parent, but plenty of other people did. When I was pregnant with my first child, a family member encouraged me to reconsider having children because she believed I wouldn’t be able to keep them safe when they learned to crawl and walk. When my kids were toddlers, family members consistently shamed me for not taking my children enough places by myself and for not matching their clothing appropriately.
I’ve gotten to a much better place in my life where I simply don’t engage in toxically ableist close relationships anymore. There is ableism in plenty of other places, though. I find it in the medical field when I take my kids to appointments and the providers don’t believe I am the children’s mother. I find it on Uber trips, when drivers ask me whether I do genetic testing to make sure I don’t pass on my “blind genes” to the next generation. I encounter it when all sorts of people—from clients at work to contractors in my home—are shocked and appalled to hear that I am a divorced mother and then ask me probing questions about who cares for my children because they can’t fathom that I am the only adult in my home. People wouldn’t dare to ask questions like this of non-disabled people, but my blindness seems to project some kind of green light for asking me things that are not only intensely personal but also deeply offensive.
Ableism comes in less blatant forms, as well. There are the endless inaccessible documents that come home from my children’s school, from homework packets to notices about food drives or camp signups. There are the endless parenting memes, photos and blogs that circle through social media, most of which are totally inaccessible and none of which address or acknowledge disabled parenting. The other day I spent an hour and a half trying to sign my kid up for t-ball online only to find that there simply was no way to complete the form using the screen reading software I need. There are reminders every day that there is no room for disabled parents in this society that commodifies perfect parenthood.
Amidst all of this, perhaps the worst ableism of all is my own. The part I hate the most is that I’ve internalized these ideas. I’ve been taught my whole life that disabled people need to either be inspirational or invisible. Disabled people are taught that the world is not made for us and we need to either accept that or to gracefully and quietly navigate every barrier society puts in our path in order to appear as non-disabled as possible. I’ve internalized all of this.
I’ve tried to earn my worth through amiability and perfectionism. In the face of ableist remarks like the ones described above, I’ve mostly kept quiet. I told myself that if I’m likeable, people would surely respect me and others with disabilities. So I’ve smiled and tried to educate and acted like things were okay. I’ve acted as though suggestions that I shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce, or that I couldn’t possibly raise children as a single mother, didn’t bother me, because surely everyone must have the best of intentions? Then I’ve walked away feeling small, as if the wind has been knocked from my chest by a gut punch.
I’ve spent most of the past 8 years since I’ve become a mother determined to prove people’s expectations wrong by not letting my disability get in the way of my parenting, determined to show people that a blind person can be a perfect parent. Some readers might think that this approach is a good one, but I assure you that attempting to navigate every barrier perfectly in order to be as “normal” as possible is its own dangerous form of ableism. It leaves me terrified of failure, terrified of letting my disability show because it might prove people’s expectations right. It leads to dread about taking my kids to birthday parties where I have to engage with other parents who might not be interested in perceiving anything besides my disability. It leads me to fret constantly about how much to monitor my children when they play outside because I don’t want to be a helicopter parent but also don’t want to be perceived as a blind mom who can’t watch her kids. When I pick my kids up at school and am so caught up with trying to gather all their bags that I walk right into a signpost, I accost myself for hours afterward for looking foolish, incapable, or unfit in front of other teachers and parents.
I am well aware that these things shouldn’t matter to me, but they do, and that is my internalized ableism. I have been taught that my value as a disabled woman is based on other people’s expectations of me. I know now that is not true and that it is not how I want to live my life. Still, ableism takes a long time to undo. It is ingrained in us, all of us. It is pervasive and systemic. I am working now on actively dismantling my own ableism, in parenting and in other aspects of my life; I am sure this will be a lifelong process. Sometimes I can take on ableism head-on; other times I walk the other way in shame when people stare.
I’ve begun talking to my kids about ableism. My children and I talked about those staring teens and about how they made us feel. We talk about the woman in the CVS parking lot who tried to pray for me to be cured, and about the man who grabbed my arm at an intersection because he didn’t think I could cross the street myself. We talk about respect and about the beauty of all bodies. I hope that my children will grow up to be anti-ableist justice seekers, not just because they have a disabled mom, but because they talked with their disabled mom about the inherent worth of all humans.
About the Author
Courtney Tabor is a social worker living and working on the southern coast of Maine. She is a blind mother of two who is passionate about disability justice. Her writing has also appeared in Bearings Magazine, Lunch Lady Magazine, and Perkins Paths to Transition. Courtney is a voracious reader, a novice but enthusiastic baker, and a lover of whimsical storytelling with her children over family dinners.