Parenting with Spinal Cord Injuries

Parenting is difficult at every stage of the child’s life and with every kind of parental abilities and disabilities.  Even though it involves long hours and many challenges, most parents will tell you that parenting is worth it.  This is also true of parents with spinal cord injuries. 

Being a parent in a wheelchair involves an extra amount of perseverance and patience because, as a parent, they are also usually dependent on someone else to take care of them.  They often face the stares of others who don’t believe a person with a spinal injury could be sexual or that they could conceive their own child. 

Research has been done on the topic of parents and children when the parent has a disability.  Several studies have shown that children raised by disabled parents are just as happy, confident, and healthy as children who have able-bodied parents. These children are also more compassionate around others with disabilities, as would be expected considering their young exposure to those with disabilities.

Parents who are disabled often need to become advocates for better accessibility to schools and to places where their children participate in sports and other school activities.  Society is slowly changing to accept disabled people as good parents. 

Decades ago, research was somewhat negative around parents with SCI who chose to rear children, leading people to believe that women who were disabled needed to have an abortion if they got pregnant or should give the child up for adoption.  Newer research, however, shows that spinal cord injured people can and have raised children as well as able-bodied individuals. 

Some studies focused only on fathers with spinal cord injuries because most SCI patients are male.  It was believed that having a spinal cord-injured father led to insecure children, potentially causing damage to the child’s personality development and interpersonal relationships. 

Things finally changed with the passage of the 1990 Americas with Disabilities Act.  This opened many doors for people with disabilities and organizations were formed to educate the people about the lives and potential for Americans with disabilities including SCI.  Now, it is considered more acceptable for paralyzed men and women to become parents in the belief that they can do so successfully. 

One more recent study actually showed an increased competence in children who had paralyzed fathers and that the children are more mature than children of able-bodied parents.  Children of disabled parents denied being pitied or bullied by other students and had just as many friends as children who did not have disabled parents. 

Research has also shown that parents who have disabilities can discipline their children in exactly the same way as able-bodied parents.  Paralyzed parents have reported spanking their children on occasion.  Still, they face prejudice, even from close friends and family when they say they want to become parents. 

Paralyzed women who give birth have an increased risk of postpartum depression.  They can have problems watching others doing the caregiving to their child—all the things they aren’t physically capable of doing.  They can, however, direct the care of their child and be close by when the cares are being given by a personal care attendant or a family member.  The SCI parents simply need to prepare earlier and become more confident in their abilities before they actually bring their infant home. 

There are national and international organizations designed to help disabled parents handle the physical aspects of taking care of children.  One such organization is called “Through the Looking Glass”.  The organization was started in 1982 and has grown tremendously as an advocate for parents with disabilities.  This organization provides disabled parents with information and empowerment so they can enjoy better the taking care of their children. 

Disabled parents must adapt their baby gear and furniture to better aid them in doing things like diaper changing and dressing their child.  Through the Looking Glass has been instrumental in designing wheelchair-friendly baby cribs and other pieces of baby equipment.  The equipment is practical and can help disabled caregivers avoid musculoskeletal injuries from caring for their infant.  The organization has developed a Parent-to-Parent Network that helps new parents learn innovative ways of handling and taking care of their children. 

Toddlers of SCI parents are much more resourceful than their peers.  They develop a sense of pride in helping their disabled parents with their own cares.  These children are intuitively more patient and tolerant than other children. As they grow and develop, they often choose careers in the helping professions, partly because of their experience being around disabled people. 

Parents with disabilities must rely more on their words in order to discipline their children as physical measures aren’t always available to them.  As their child ages, there are more psychological challenges than physical ones.  As the child becomes a teenager, they know that they have an advantage over their disabled parent and must be taught respect for their parent, despite their disabilities. 

When a parent becomes disabled with children of all ages, it is helpful to keep as much of the same routine as possible, such as going on outings or vacations if at all possible.  Teens gradually and naturally want more independence and are less likely to want to care for their disabled parents.  This must be dealt with by using open communication between parents and teens.  The teen years can be just as difficult for disabled parents as they are for able-bodied parents.  Eventually, however, these years pass and the parent is once again appreciated, whether or not they are in a wheelchair.

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