Confronting my own ableism as the parent of a child with complex medical needs (by Tasha Nelson)
The realization hit hard, like a punch to the gut. Almost as hard as the day I learned my son has Cystic Fibrosis, an incurable fatal illness. I’m nearly 39 years old, have always considered myself an ally to marginalized communities, and have loved all people of all varieties all my life. I’m aware of racism, sexism, and ableism - discrimination against people with disabilities. But what I wasn’t aware of, until today, is that I myself have been an ableist.
Why am I calling myself an ableist? After all, I’m part of Little Lobbyists, a group of caregivers who advocate for kids with complex medical needs and disabilities, to ensure lawmakers understand our needs. Yes, I just said “our needs” and you’re probably wondering how I could be ableist? Good catch.
Recently, Little Lobbyists leadership were discussing how we define who Little Lobbyists advocates for. Within this definition, there was one sentence I was completely offended by. It read: “Kids with complex medical needs have disabilities.”
The degree of offense I felt was one of the greatest I’ve experienced. This one sentence and my reaction to it rocked my world. (I want to acknowledge here that I have benefitted from a very middle-class, white-privileged life. I realize, those reading this who have endured far more discrimination than I ever have, might be spitting out their coffee and laughing at my ignorance as they read this, and rightly so. I fully understand my experience is not remotely close to what so many others face every single day. For my part I continue to strive to do better.)
During the conversation that followed about this sentence I indicated that, though my son is medically complex, I in no way identified him as disabled. I could tell the other moms, who do identify their children as having disabilities, were surprised by this. We’re all Facebook friends, so they have a view into my son’s medical needs. I suspect much of what they see is similar to their own experience, and so they assumed we also identified as part of the disability community. We had a positive and open exchange about why I didn’t think my son was disabled, they listened to my opinion and didn’t push me to identify differently.
But since that day, I have found myself frequently revisiting that conversation and asking myself why don’t I identify my son as disabled? Is it because he has no cognitive disability? No visible physical disability? Because he doesn’t qualify for disability services under SSI? Could it be related to the first, and often repeated, thing the CF care team said to me when he was diagnosed – “your baby is a normal baby, who happens to have Cystic Fibrosis?” Is it because of the heavy stigma society puts on the word “disability?” Honestly, I think all of these things have played a role.
The ADA defines disability in this way: “ a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.”
My son Jack takes over 50 pills and 14 different medications per day. His respiratory therapy takes 2 or more hours every day. He spends a large portion of his life in the hospital. He’s not in school this week because he is not absorbing food, isn’t breathing as well as usual, and we have to implement new therapy techniques and train his school nurse to perform them.
Cystic Fibrosis (CF) is invisible, progressive, and deadly. Until his lung function drops below 80%, I consider him healthy in comparison to other people with CF. However I know full well that every single day, every organ in his body sustains more damage. His medications help slow the disease but cannot stop it. A simple cold could end his life.
Clearly Jack has a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. My son is disabled. It is the first time in his nearly 8 years of life that I have said those words, accepted them, and fully understood what they mean. My son is disabled. Tears are dropping on my keyboard as I type this, tears from shame – not for my son, but for myself. For the first time I realize that I am an advocate for the medically complex and disabled community who could not see her own ableism.
Fortunately, Jack did not inherit my ableism. I suspect he self-identifies as a disabled person without realizing it. He is drawn to other children with disabilities and befriends them immediately. He says “mamma that kid is like me, we are gonna be best friends!”
My job now is to be like Jack and embrace this part of him. I need to acknowledge my shame, and work to change the stigma against disability that was so deeply ingrained in me that I could identify my son as medically complex but feel offended by the word “disabled.” It is up to me to shed the ableism society has instilled in me from youth. Doing so will make me a better person, parent, and advocate.
Being a member of Little Lobbyists has opened me to a world beyond Cystic Fibrosis. It has helped me focus on all forms of medical complexity and disability. Our advocacy isn’t about a specific disease, syndrome, or disability, because we really are stronger together. It’s about raising ALL of us up to create a voice loud enough to get Congress to pay attention to our children with complex medical needs and disabilities and consider them every single time they write a new policy or review a proposed law that impacts them.
Thank God for my friends in Little Lobbyists who did not judge me as I walked this path of discovery, but gently educated me while embracing me and encouraging my advocacy. I have a feeling I’m not alone, and am writing this in part as an invitation to other parents who may, like me, be in denial about their child’s disability. It’s time to take a good look at why we fear this word. Ending society’s stigma against our children with disabilities must start in our own hearts.