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Sometimes Joy Carries the Day

An accident left the author disabled but not defeated. Nowadays, having a disability doesn’t have to prevent you from adopting.  By Avra Wing



Eleven years ago, a driver lost control of her car, jumped the sidewalk, and, as my older boy and husband watched, plowed into me and my three-year-old son. My child was unharmed, but the casualties included an iron fence, a stone staircase, and my right leg. Plus any illusion of life as predictable.




With a lot of help from family, friends, neighbors, and medical professionals, I was able to rehabilitate my body and psyche. I learned to walk on a prosthesis; the nightmares faded. I quit kvetching about what I could do or have and started valuing what was left.




My husband and I had discussed having a third child. The idea now seemed absurd as I struggled to return  to Square 1. But one day, feeling I was getting back in the game, it occurred to me that without further stress on my middle-age body, I could have my baby. So began the great adventure of adopting our daughter. After such loss, it was thrilling to plan for adding to my life, to do this big, wonderful, scary thing.




Our daughter, Hannah, is now five years old. Since she never knew me before my accident, she accepts my disability unconditionally. And though I can’t run after her as quickly as I could her older brothers, I find myself flourishing as a mother. Nor am I alone among disabled people who have chosen this route to parenting.




More than 10 million adults in the U.S. have some kind of physical disability or emotional challenge. Yet few of them may realize that adoption is a viable option. We found a real willingness on the part of our social worker and our agency, Alliance for Children, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to help us. Neither did my disability present a problem for Chinese authorities, whose official policy is to determine placement based on the ability of the disabled person to educate and care for the child.




Though our adoption went smoothly, there are challenges facing an adoptive parent with disabilities. You’ll need a physician’s endorsement stating that your condition will not shorten your normal life. More daunting is the prejudice many people with disabilities still have to contend with. “Let’s face it, it can be hard to adopt,” says Margaret Cahalan, an adoptive mother and a counselor with Through the Looking Glass, a Berkeley, California-based organization that provides services to families with disabled members. “A disabled person is not a front runner.”




While the Americans with Disabilities Act makes it illegal for agencies to turn away prospective adoptive parents based solely on a disability, a person may be rejected if there is an “objective” reason for concern about the child’s safety. It is particularly important for someone with a disability to find an empathetic social worker who will not reject the candidate outright because of a physical limitation or a history of mental illness. 




Melanie Tem, a social worker with Adoption Alliance, a placement agency in Denver, Colorado, finds the county departments of social services offices “generally very flexible” in their dealings with prospective parents with disabilities. The Alliance has been successful in placing children with parents with illnesses in their past, such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and manic depression. “The important thing is to get confirmation, as much as possible, that the illness is under control,” says Tem. “If someone is blind or uses a wheelchair, it’s relatively easy to ask how they would cope with care of a young child. With a mental illness, those issues may be harder to put to rest.”




When it comes to international adoption, the willingness to place a child with a disabled parent varies by country, but many have favorable policies similar to China’s, according to Jill Cole, director of International Adoption at Spence-Chapin in New York City. The bottom line for international authorities is that they “want to know that a condition isn’t life-threatening and that the parent will be around to be a parent as the child grows up.” At this point, Cole says, China, Russia, Bulgaria, and Viet Nam are all open to placing children with disabled parents. 




During our adoption process, my father, an uncle, and a dear cousin became ill, suffered, and died. A madman in Scotland gunned down 16 schoolchildren. Flight 800 crashed, and we may never know why. Horrible, random things happen, and sorrow triumphs. Yet sometimes joy sneaks in and carries the day.




I go around now with a kindergartner in tow and a renewed sense of excitement about life, knowing it will surprise me one way or the other. Let it throw at me whatever it will—thrilling or painful, peaceful or exhausting. I can do it all while standing on one leg. 




Disabled? Here are eight tips for a successful adoption 




1. Talk with disabled adoptive parents in your area. Also Contact Through the Looking Glass, www.lookingglass.org, 800-644-2666; and Tree of Life Adoption Center,www.toladopt.org, 503-244-7374.




2. Honestly assess the age of the child you could best care for. If you want to adopt a special-needs child, decide what type of disability you could reasonably handle and how much help you might need.




3. Explore all options to determine which would most likely lead to a successful referral. Contact public, private, domestic, and foreign agencies as well as those for private placement.




4. Interview social workers to determine their views on disability as it relates to child rearing. For your home- study, choose someone who can see past your physical impairment and accurately evaluate you as a potential parent.




5. When preparing for your home-study, make sure your house is childproof and as safe as possible. Contact Parents with Disabilities online at www.disabledparents.net for tips on child rearing and adaptive equipment. The better prepared you are, the easier it will be to get a positive evaluation.




6. Be prepared to discuss strategies you would employ in an emergency and to describe your support system. Emphasize your independence, perhaps even making a video that demonstrates it. Explain how you would handle various tasks, such as carrying, feeding, and changing a baby.




7. Before traveling to meet your child, prepare yourself. Look into accessibility obstacles you might encounter in another city or country.




8. Become as informed as possible by reading You May Be Able to Adopt: A Guide to the Adoption Process for Prospective Mothers with Disabilities and Their Partners, by Linda Toms Barker and Megan Kirshbaum, $10 from Through the Looking Glass, 2198 6th Street, Suite 100, Berkeley, CA 94710. 




Avra and Mike Wing and their three children live in Brooklyn, New York. 


©2002 Adoptive Families magazine.  Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited. 

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