Disabled Or Not, You Can be a Parent

Twenty years ago, a women named Rose Ann Ashby decided that she wanted to have a child. She and her husband, Robert Ashby, were older than most couples starting a family, so trying on their own was not an option anymore, and they decided to try for adoption. Knowing that most couples wait many years to finally receive a child, they decided to go for it anyway. Their first step was to find an agency. Sadly, that was most likely the hardest part of the entire process. Most adoption agencies do not want to work with older couples people with disabilities. Rose Ann was born legally blind, to the point that she can only see some color and large shapes. She uses a white cane and reads braille. Many adoption agencies would immediately see her disability as a red flag. Staff at these agencies would assume that her disability would inhibit her ability to properly care for a child. Rose Ann and Robert knew other blind and disabled friends who tried to adopt but were rejected by adoption agencies. In Rose Ann’s case, having a sighted husband helped her in the adoption process.

Watch this interview below with Rose Ann Ashby to learn more about her experiences during the adoption process.

Rose Ann and Robert tried three different adoption agencies. Two of the agencies did not want to help them, and clearly held negative preconceived beliefs about Rose Ann’s disability. The last agency, the New Family Foundation, which is now out of business,  was very open to helping them adopt a child.

After choosing an agency, they had to pick their type of adoption, domestic adoption or international adoption. Domestic adoptions can be extremely hard for a couple like them, because most agencies have policies about disabilities and the age of parents. If they decided to adopt domestically, they most likely would have been given a child with a disability, an older child (around teens), or complicated case. Although nothing is wrong with any of those options, Robert and Rose Ann wanted a health young baby, so they chose to try an international adoption, where the policies are not as strict. 

International adoptions can also present many challenges. Many countries around the world have strict standards and requirements regarding adoption. On the other hand, there are many countries that are more lenient when it comes to adoption, Russia being one of those countries. The difference in policies is due in part to the fact that some countries have an overwhelming number of children living in orphanages or foster care.

The New Family Foundation connected Rose Ann and Robert to an orphanage in Orel, Russia. They were sent many pictures of babies, img_3197and it was their job to pick which child they wanted. After seeing many photos, they picked a six month old baby girl named Oxana. After a few months of paperwork, it was time to fly to Russia adopt Oxana officially.

“The experience going to get you in Russia was wonderful. I have always loved the Russian culture—particularly their literature and music. The people were friendly there and very helpful.” -Rose Ann Ashby

When the paperwork was done, they flew to Moscow, and then took an overnight train to Orel. That same day, they met their future daughter. Rose Ann and Robert had to go back and forth in between Moscow and Orel because the court proceedings took place in Moscow, and Oxana was in Orel. The adoption agency hired a mother-daughter duo who allowed Rose Ann and Robert to stay in their home during this process. They stayed in the daughter’s apartment while the mother acted as their translator. When the adoption was finalized, Rose Ann and Robert headed back home with their new baby girl.

While in Russia, Rose Ann and Robert changed Oxana’s name to Liana, making her an official part of their family as Liana Rose Ashby. 

It was official, Rose Ann and Robert had adopted a baby girl. Although they were done dealing with the adoption agency and the courts, they still faced many changes raising a child. Rose Ann did not have much experience with babies. Not being able to see when feeding, dressing, and playing with her child made it hard, but she found ways of parenting that worked for her. When out of the house, she carried Liana in a snugli, a carrier that fit on the front of her body. As Liana grew, Rose Ann used a backpack to carry her. Rose Ann remembers how “we made quite a picture-a blind lady with a cane carrying a little baby on her back!”

Rose Ann had to learn to care for Liana in the same ways all new mothers learned-through trial and error. When Liana got older, she started to talk and began learning many words. Soon there after, Liana was ready to learn to read. This is where Rose Ann’s disability started to really affect her parenting, but she found a way to teach Liana how to read anyway. Rose Ann used children books that had print and braille on them; in that way she and Liana could read together.

As Liana grew, Rose Ann did everything she could to help Liana grow up as normally as possible. Rose Ann made things work due to her use of “alternative techniques.” The National Federation of the Blind describes these techniques as “variations of the methods they use to handle aspects of their everyday lives and are based on touch and hearing rather than sight.” Most importantly, there is no right or wrong way to parent. Rose Ann’s ability to adapt to her situations, makes her just as good a parent as those who do not have disabilities.

The adoption process is anything but easy; however, for people with disabilities it can be impossible. Rose Ann and Robert were lucky. They both had a steady, good paying job working for the U.S. government, and were adopting a child internationally in the late 1990’s. Rose Ann and Robert’s story has a happy ending because they adopted a child, they completed their family. Nevertheless, there are many families like Rose Ann and Robert, who won’t get a child, or a happy ending, all because someone believes that disabled people should not be allowed to become parents.

Right now, the U.S legal system is not protecting the rights of disabled parents, or the rights of disabled people trying to become parents. About 22% of adults in the U.S. have some form of disability. It is estimated that about 1.6 million U.S. children have disabled parents. According to a 2012 report from the National Council on Disability, “in families where the parental disability is physical, 13 percent have reported discriminatory treatment in custody cases.”Andrea Bartolo, who is a senior consultant at the Child Welfare League of America, says that there is definitely discrimination when it comes to parents with disabilities in the child welfare system, “sometimes inadvertently, sometimes very overtly.”


The fact of the matter is that disabilities are common. The CDC recently released a report that said 1 out of every 5 adults in the U.S. has a disability. More importantly, CDC researchers found that “we are all at risk of having a disability at some point in our life time,” which is extremely scary to consider. Having a disability doesn’t mean your life is over; it just means that you have to adapt to a different way of life than the one you were planning. People with disabilities don’t give up or let their disability stop them from doing what they want to do. More importantly, having a disability shouldn’t stop anyone from becoming a parent. That’s what life is all about: growing up, going to school, getting married, and expanding your family.

“The right to care for and raise one’s own children is among the most fundamental rights parents have.” –Amy Messer

Below is a video from the Forum on the Civil Rights of Parents with disabilities. Within the first three minutes, this video completely summarizes why the rights of disabled people are so important, and why the fight for those rights is ongoing.

For the last 30 years, the ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act, has made progress toward helping disabled people gain and protect their parental rights. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go to ensure that the rights of parents with disabilities are protected.

Check out these interesting facts from the U.S. Census Bureau about people living with disabilities in America:

  • About 8.1 million people had difficulty seeing, including 2.0 million who were blind or unable to see.
  • About 7.6 million people experienced difficulty hearing, including 1.1 million whose difficulty was severe. About 5.6 million used a hearing aid.
  • Roughly 30.6 million had difficulty walking or climbing stairs, or used a wheelchair, cane, crutches or walker.
  • 1 in 4 women have some kind of disability.

Parenting is hard, and having a disability while being a parent is even harder. Assuming that people with disabilities “can’t parent” or “shouldn’t parent” is wrong. Christine Waters, an attorney with Legal Services of Central New York, said it well:

“The assumption that people with disabilities can’t parent is bad for society and heartbreaking for families. The easy thing is to terminate the parental rights. We need to do the right thing, not the easy thing.”

The bottom line is that there are children who need forever homes, and there are disabled people who can provide those children with a wonderful, loving home. Society should give them a chance and support them in adopting a child, because chances are the child’s disabled parent will most likely become their hero.



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