For Kaney O’Neill, a veteran and quadriplegic mother, the birth of her son was one of the most fulfilling moments in her life. Shortly after his birth, O’Neill’s former boyfriend filed for custody, alleging that she was “not a fit and proper person” to care for their infant. He cited her disability as an issue in providing their infant with proper care.

An unhealthy pattern

The public is unaware of how unfairly parents with disabilities are treated. Frequently, the 4.1 million parents with disabilities in the United States face the threat of losing their children just like Kaney O’Neill.

In every state, a parent’s disability can be included in determining the child’s best interest. In fact, 10 states allow physical disability as a sole reason for terminating parental rights, without evidence of abuse or neglect. It is imperative that parents with disabilities acquire the knowledge to protect themselves in these situations.

"Frequently, the 4.1 million parents with disabilities in the United States face the threat of losing their children..."

Know your rights

Since its enactment in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has protected the civil rights of people with disabilities. Per the ADA, child welfare agencies must provide “individualized treatment” to parents with disabilities and review each case individually based on the facts—not stereotypes or misconceptions. The ADA mandates that parents with disabilities have access to full and equal opportunities to participate in and benefit from child welfare programs, services and activities, including individualized supports and services.

In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) as a result of the frequent removal of Native American children from their homes. The ICWA specifies ways in which children in a Native American tribe are protected and provides an extra level of protection for Native Americans with disabilities.

How you can help

Parents with a disability should fully know and understand how they’re protected. A comprehensive resource for learning one’s rights is the Parents with Disabilities Toolkit. They can also contact their local disability rights agency if they feel their rights have been violated.

Everyone can help parents with a disability learn their rights. Directing them to the toolkit is a first step. If people are interested in advocating, they are encouraged to contact their local state legislators to inform them about local discrimination issues.