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Parental Rights Include Disability Equality: A Call to Action for Psychology

Dr. Coble-Temple holding her infant daughter

By Alette Coble-Temple, PsyD (Ms. Wheelchair California 2015 and Professor, John F. Kennedy University)

Becoming a parent is considered a basic human right in our country. However, people with disabilities are often denied this right. It’s 2015, yet people with disabilities continue to encounter legal, medical, and social resistance to becoming parents (Preston, 2012; Coleman, 2002). APA highlighted these gaps in important briefings on parents with disabilities and in adoption and brought in psychologists to testify on the report of the National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal agency, focused on ensuring the rights of parents with disabilities to receive the best services.

Over six million parents with disabilities continue to experience indirect and direct discrimination related to parenting. Although Article 5 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in parenthood, the United States Senate has not ratified this document and its important provisions remain unimplemented. This is why as a licensed psychologist and a mother with cerebral palsy, my platform for Ms. Wheelchair California 2015 is “Parental Rights Include Disability Equality” (PRIDE).

This is an urgent issue. Parents with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty, struggle with housing, and obtain lower levels of education. Further, a disproportionate number of parents with disabilities are involved in termination of parental rights cases (Preston, 2012). This may be due to stigma against disabled parents and the hardships they experience (Preston, 2012). Research shows that up to 80 percent of parents with disabilities will have at least one contact with child protective services before their child reaches the age of 16 (Marsh, 2009; Collentine, 2005). When parents with disabilities are referred to child welfare services, they are assessed by social workers, psychologists, and/or clinical case-workers (Kay, 2009). Their assessments provide the documentation the court uses to determine if the parent with the disability is deemed fit to care for his/her child.

It is essential that those mental health experts be competent to deliver those assessments. The American Psychological Association’s Ethical Standard 2.01(a) states that “Psychologists provide services, teach, and conduct research with populations and in areas only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, consultation, study, or professional experience” (APA, 2010).

While psychologists are supposed to only provide services within our scope of practice, many of us complete assessments on parents with disabilities despite having minimal to no training related to disability or parenting with a disability. When psychologists or healthcare service providers assess parenting skills without proper training and consideration of baby care/parenting adaptations, we are more likely to complete inaccurate assessments. This perpetuates systematic discrimination and oppression.

Through the Looking Glass (TLG), a nationally recognized organization is a leader in research, training, and services for parents, grandparents, and children with disabilities. TLG has been instrumental in establishing data driven assessment tools to effectively and ethically evaluate parents with physical disabilities. Through the development of baby care adaptive equipment, TLG (2013) research shows that these adaptations have a positive impact on parent-infant interaction, as well as reducing the physical demands of care-giving. When individuals with disabilities are properly assessed and given effective resources, they are able to successfully create and maintain strong families (Versand, et. al., 2000).

As a field, it is our duty to provide ethical and accurate assessments on our clients. The field of psychology has an opportunity to lead in creating positive change for parents with disabilities.

  1. Academic clinical training programs and licensing boards can increase awareness of disability in  education and training as steps to decrease discriminatory practices. It is imperative that academic programs integrate disability awareness and culture within their curriculum. Training sites need to include seminars and trainings on assessments and evidence-based treatments for clients with disabilities.

  2. Healthcare service providers need to understand how the role of adaptations and environmental factors can impede or support positive outcomes for people across all disabilities (NCD, 2012). Proper evaluation methods are found to be the key in creating and maintaining healthy families for parents and care-givers with disabilities (TLG, 2013).

  3. There is a paucity of data on parents with disabilities. This lack of data makes it difficult to effectively change policies and healthcare procedures. Research needs to make a commitment to understanding the disability experience and gather accurate data on the number of people with disabilities who are parents in our communities. These are just a few recommendations on how we as a field can make positive change for people with disabilities who are or want to be parents.  I invite us all to think about ways we can be allies for people with disabilities in their pursuit of parenthood.

Relevant articles:

For more on this topic, check out the following:

  1. “You can’t be what you can’t see” – the July/August 2015 Monitor on Psychology article on my platform advocating for the rights of parents with disabilities as Ms. Wheelchair California 2015.

  2. Five things Congress can do to protect the rights of parents with disabilities” – a blog post by Erin Andrews, PsyD, a fellow APA member and parent with a disability.


American Psychological Association. (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Including 2010 amendments. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from:

Callow, E. (2005). The child protective services/dependency court experience: A guide for parents with disabilities and their advocates. Through the Looking Glass: Berkeley, CA.

Coleman, C. H. (2002). Conceiving harm: Disability discrimination in assisted reproductive technologies. UCLA Law Review, 50, 24.

Collentine, A. C. (2005). Respecting intellectually disabled parents: A call for change in state termination of parental rights statutes. Hofstra Law Review, 34: 542-543.

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPRD), (2006). GA Res 61/106, UN Doc A/RES/61/106.

Kay, J. B. (2009). Representing parents with disabilities in child protection proceedings. Michigan Child Welfare Law Journal. 28, 274.

Marsh, D. T. (2009). Parental mental illness: Issues in custody determination. American Journal of Family Law. 23 (1), 29.

National Council on Disability (NCD), (2012). Rocking the cradle: Ensuring the rights of parents with disabilities and their children. Washington, DC: National Council on Disability. Retrieved from:

Preston, P. (2012). Parents with disabilities. International Encyclopedia of Rehabilitation. Retrieved from:

Through the Looking Glass (TLG), (2013). Techniques & adaptations for parents with significant physical disabilities. Berkeley, CA: Through the Looking Glass. Retrieved from:

Versand, K, Rogers, J, Tuleja, C, & DeMoss, A (2000). Adaptive baby care equipment: Guidelines, prototypes, & resources. Through the Looking Glass. Berkeley, CA.

Images provided courtesy of Dr. Alette Coble-Temple with thanks from the American Psychological Association

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