Kaney O'Neill of Des Plaines, Ill., a quadriplegic Navy veteran, endured an 18-month legal battle to keep custody of her young son. Her ex-boyfriend filed for custody in 2009, when the boy was 10 weeks old, alleging that O'Neill was "not a fit and proper person" to care for the child because of her disability.
Refuting the allegation, with legal help from Ella Callow, Kaney demonstrated how she had prepared for motherhood by working with an occupational therapy program, adapting her house, securing specialized baby-care equipment, and using personal assistants to help her as needed.
"I lived in fear every single day that my son would be taken away from me," said O'Neill, 36. "In a lot of ways it made me a better mother because I felt that I had a lot to prove."
She says her son, who taught himself to climb up his mother's wheel chair into her lap, is now going to preschool twice a week and is thriving.
"If you are a parent with a disability, you don't have a role model — you have to figure out how you're going to be a mother and overcome challenges," she said.
For disabled women who either cannot bear children or choose not to, the possible option of adoption often can be complicated. Some foreign countries, notably China, rule out disabled people as potential adoptive parents.
Elizabeth Pazdral of Davis, Calif., who wears a brace and uses crutches to walk because of cerebral palsy, said she encountered discrimination several years ago when she and her husband sought to adopt a child. She said one local adoption agency billed her an advance fee of $3,400, then advised that there were "serious reservations" about her ability to be a parent.
"I think it was dishonest to take my money and then tell me they were worried," said the 4-foot-tall Pazdral, 42, who is executive director of the California State Independent Living Council.
Initially distraught, Pazdral obtained legal help, paid for an occupational therapist to come to her house to assess her capabilities, and researched how other parents with disabilities had succeeded in raising children. The efforts paid off: The adoption agency dropped its objections, and in May 2008, Pazdral and her husband, a Stanford University physicist, adopted a baby girl named Madeleine.
"It was a huge life change — but that's true for any new parent," Pazdral said, recounting sleep-deprived nights, higher levels of chronic pain, and the challenge of maintaining one's energy level.
"But I start with the joy I get from being her mother — the rightness I feel," Pazdral said. "It's the best thing I have ever done with my life."
AP National Writer Martha Irvine in Chicago contributed to this report.
National Council on Disability report: http://www.ncd.gov/newsroom/09272012
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