By Louise Kinross
A fascinating piece came out in New York Magazine earlier this week called How Smart Do You Have To Be To Raise A Child?
It raises excellent questions about the rights of disabled parents, including those with intellectual disabilities, to care for their kids—noting that 37 American states make a disability reason enough to terminate those rights.
However, one statement in the piece never should have made its way past a fact-checker.
In talking about whether intellectually disabled women can raise their children, the author writes: “one of the signs of intellectual disability is a limited capacity for empathy.”
Where on earth did that come from?
As someone who has a child with an intellectual disability, works at a hospital for children with disabilities and has been writing (and reading) in the field of parenting and disability for years, this struck me as false. Outrageously simplistic. And dangerous.
Lack of empathy is not a marker for intellectual disability.
But just to be sure I wasn’t confused myself, I reached out to a number of experts.
First I e-mailed Dick J. Sobsey, associate director of the JP Das Centre on Developmental and Learning Disabilities at the University of Alberta.
“A lack of empathy is NOT a general characteristic of intellectual disability and certainly not for someone with a mild intellectual disability,” Dick wrote. “Mothers’ ability to attach to their child and respond to their needs is affected by their own experience as children.
“Sadly, children with intellectual disabilities are much more likely to have grown up in institutional care or to have been abused and neglected. Institutional care, abuse and neglect are risk factors for difficulties with empathy—in women with and without intellectual disabilities.
“There is no reason to believe that an individual cannot be a satisfactory parent simply because of an intellectual disability.”
I then e-mailed Dr. Brian Skotko, co-director of the Down syndrome program at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children in Boston. “People with intellectual disabilities do have the capacity, to varying degrees, to be empathetic,” he wrote. “To assume otherwise would be presumptive. If someone has a lack of empathy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have an intellectual disability. And if someone has an intellectual disability, it does not necessarily mean that they have a lack of empathy!” (that’s his exclamation point)
Finally, I messaged Dan Habib, filmmaker in residence at the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability. Dan is a member of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.
“I agree with your critique,” he responded. “This is one of the more widely accepted definitions of intellectual disability. Nothing here implies lack of empathy.”
Dan is currently producing a documentary, out in 2017, called Intelligent Lives, about how the segregation of people with intellectual disabilities became the norm, and why it’s slowly being dismantled.
So please, New York Magazine, when writing about one of the most marginalized populations on the planet—please get your facts straight.