The “bad” mothers of children with disabilities

—Ruth Colker

Blaming the mother is a long-standing cultural tradition in the United States. In the best-selling book, The Generation of Vipers, Philip Wylie invented the name “momism” in 1942 to describe the “women of America [who] raped the men, not sexually, unfortunately, but morally, since neuters come hard by morals.”

From the moment of pregnancy, mothers are disproportionately blamed for any difficulties faced by their child. During pregnancy, poor mothers are cast as uncaring crack addicts. During childbirth, the state distrusts mothers to make appropriate decisions to protect the well being of the fetus. And, if the child is born with a disability, the mother is blamed for causing whatever difficulties may occur. She is either negligent for failing to do enough to assist her child, or she is overly aggressive for advocating on behalf of her child.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act promises each child a free, appropriate, public education. The words “free” and “appropriate” are intended to signify that the school district, not the parent, should take primary responsibility for educating a child.  The “blame the mother” metaphor that permeates many special education cases, however, undercuts the promise of “free” and “appropriate” by placing educational responsibility on the parent, usually the mother, rather than the school district.

“I cannot turn a blind eye to Mother’s role in causing the original staffing crisis. Again, it was Mother’s complaints regarding [Teacher] and her disagreements with Dr. DePolo (that went so far as filing a professional complaint against her) that caused [Teacher] to discontinue involvement of its staff with Student and left the School District in a position to scramble to replace staff mid-school year.”

In the first case, quoted above, the school district blamed the mother for its staffing crisis after she filed a professional complaint against a teacher who was subjecting her son to seclusion and restraint. The school district insisted that the mother home-school her son for many months while it made little attempt to find a new teacher. Ultimately, the hearing officer accepted the school district’s “blame the mother” version of the story and denied her attorney fees, even though he found the school district had violated the IDEA.

“The student admittedly stays out of the classroom setting for reasons other than time-outs or to relieve anxiety … Allowing the student to do so, to such an extreme as has been tolerated by the school, and demanded by the [Mother], may be doing a dis-service to this student.”

In the second case, quoted above, the school district was allowed to get away with an appalling failure to identify a child with serious behavioral issues as disabled by blaming the mother for his supposed “intentional” bad behavior. The hearing officer said he was in no way “punishing” the mother for filing repeated administrative complaints against the school district, but he did, in fact, rely on those previous findings for the purpose of “detrimental reliance/collateral estoppel.” In other words, the mother was punished for supposedly supporting her son’s inappropriate behavior while also seeking to get him assistance so that he could make adequate educational progress.

Hostility against mothers is only one of many hurdles that parents face as they seek to attain appropriate educational services for their children with disabilities. It is one that deserves more attention now, during the 10-year anniversary of National Work and Family Month, as we seek to understand the challenges many women face.

Ruth Colker is a Distinguished University Professor and the Heck-Faust Memorial Chair in Constitutional Law at the Michael E. Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University. She is the author of Disabled Education: A Critical Analysis of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (New York University Press, 2013).


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