Rationalizing the disparate treatment of children with disabilities

As a disability advocate, a quadriplegic and the aunt of a child with CP, I am outraged at how people openly rationalize the disparate treatment of children with disabilities from their able bodied peers.

Many of the arguments used make the basic assumption that a child with a disability is the “property” of his or her parents. This type of attitude in Victorian times led to many forms of child abuse, including child labor. Societies have spent decades passing laws to protect children and improve their status so that no child is treated like chattel.

It is certainly true that parents enjoy certain “rights” over their children. In order to raise them properly, they must discipline and educate their progeny. This is done by exercising decisions about their education, nutrition, clothing, and health care.

But even within these guidelines, our society provides for agencies that overlook the health and well being of children. When children are abused or neglected, we remove them from their parents’ care and place them with relatives or in foster care. Meanwhile, the State works with the parents to assist them in correcting the behavior or circumstances, if possible, which caused the removal. In these cases, the best interest of the child is the predominant standard.

At least, for able bodied children. But it appears the same is not true when we are dealing with a child with a disability. If parents had sought out the medical procedures and treatment given to Ashley X on an able bodied child, the child would have been removed from her parents. Society would have been outraged.

But when a disabled child like Ashley is involved, the public reaction is divided. Those who agree that it is a parent’s right to select this type of “treatment” for a child with a disability rationalize it by arguing that such a child has no autonomy or is not worthy of the same standard of dignity or humanity which would be applied to an able bodied child.

These arguments are dangerous. They apply a property standard to a human being . Every time we posit that a child with a disability can not understand the concept of dignity and therefore is not worthy of it, those words serve to try to turn that child into a piece of property belonging to his or her parent – or others. When we say such a child is less human or lacks autonomy, we strip away the child’s equal value and worth as a human being.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan

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