I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Tim Rushby-Smith’s ‘Life as a Disabled Dad’ column in The Times Online over the past few weeks. Accounts of parenthood from both the perspective of disabled people and fathers continue to be a rarity in the mainstream media, making this column particularly unique. Tim writes about the day-to-day experiences of looking after his three year old daughter Rosalie, and some of the specific challenges arising from being a parent in a wheelchair. The column raises questions about how children come to understand concepts of normality and difference when living with a disabled parent, and how parents in turn frame and manage their child’s experiences. Whilst Tim is happy to see his daughter accept his wheelchair as part and parcel of ‘normal’ family life, it saddens him that this version of ‘normal’ also involves seeing Dad in frequent pain.
The responses from readers have been intriguing. Many comments imply that Tim’s daughter will inevitably grow up to be a stronger, more compassionate, caring and tolerant individual as a result of living with a disabled parent. What lies behind this assumption? Why might we presume that personal or familial experience of one form of ‘difference’ necessarily equips us to accept and celebrate others? When the government announced that it was creating an overarching Equality and Human Rights Commission, some members of the existing organisations aired concerns that specific marginalised groups might benefit at the expense of others under the new body. The early debates demonstrated fears that the public’s tolerance of diversity might only be stretched so far; acceptance of one type of difference did not necessarily mean tolerance for all.
Tim’s column is helping to get the subject of parental disability out in the open and certainly presents a more positive account to that located in research and policy documents on the experiences of children with disabled parents, much of which suggests that they are more likely to face social exclusion than their peers. However, I can’t help but wonder whether readers’ responses would have been quite so generous and optimistic had Tim’s circumstances been different. If Tim had a learning disability, or accompanying mental health problems, if his family life was less stable, and he had no means to earn an income, what kind of comments might we have seen then?