The U.S. Is Going to Have More Parents with Disabilities

So what?

Posted Sep 09, 2018

We have another puncture in the myth that parents with disabilities are not and cannot be competent parents.  In a study just published by Michele Messmer Uccelli and Michela Ponzio this August in the academic journal Rehabilitation Psychology, there were no differences between parents (mostly mothers) with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and those without illness on their sense of parenting competence, defined as parenting satisfaction and perceived competence, which refers to their belief in their effectiveness as a parent. And for both groups, the higher their score on the Parenting Sense of Competence (PSOC) measure, the higher they rated their quality of life.  

Liam Quinn/Flickr
A Parents' Bond
Source: Liam Quinn/Flickr

Over a decade ago, I found that those two components of the  PSOC, parenting satisfaction and parenting efficacy, are not related to measures of severity of disability or to number of physical limitations that the parents reported.  The majority of participants in my 2007 study also were diagnosed with MS.   Parents’ experiences are more similar to than different from families with parents who lack disabilities.  For example, the most common and the most frequent positive experiences reported by parents as occurring in the previous month are talking or spending time with a friend and talking with their child about topics unrelated to physical disability.   

Parents with disabilities often express concerns about the impact of their disability on their children.  I also have heard clinicians do the same.  But contrary to common beliefs that disability equals tragedy (Olkin, 1999; Prilleltensky, 2004), all participants in my study reported multiple positive daily experiences as well as negative ones, similar to parents without disabilities.  The parents in both my study and that of Ucceli and Ponzio (2018) illustrate what psychologists call the “social model of disability”; this model considers disability not as a medical problem that resides within the individual but one whose daily stressors come from the daily events and environmental interactions that comprise a person’s disability experiences.  These events and interactions include experiencing prejudiced attitudes toward disability, inaccessible buildings, outside interferences with parenting, and challenges of transportation. 

For parents whose disabilities are not evident but are invisible, such as those with ADHD, their disability experiences will differ in many ways from those with physical or mobility limitations.  Importantly, the number of parents with ADHD is going to grow because, according to a report released August 31  in JAMA Network Open,  the number of children with ADHD has been increasing in the US.  What are the best ways we can support parents with disabilities?  Let’s consider that Uccelli and Ponzio found that parenting sense of competence is positively influenced by quality of life.  So, with the two exceptions of educating ourselves about disability and disability rights, and speaking out against prejudice and discrimination, the rest of  the answer to “What can we do?” appears pretty similar to those in response to, “What are the best ways we can support all parents?”


Mazur, E. (2008).  Negative and positive disability-related events and adjustment of parents with acquired physical disabilities and of their adolescent children.  Journal of Child and Family Studies, 17, 517-537.

Olkin, R. (1999).  What psychotherapists should know about disability.  New York:  Guilford.

Prilleltensky, O. (2004).  Motherhood and disability:  Children and choices.  London: Palgrave Macmilan.

Uccelli, M. M., & Ponzio, M. (2018).  A case-control study assessing parenting sense of competence in people with multiple sclerosis.  Rehabilitation Psychology, 63, 431-437.

Xu, G., Strathearn, L., Liu, B., Yang, B., & Bao, W. (2018).  Twenty-year trends in diagnosed Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder among US children and adolescents, 1997-2016.  JAMA Network Open, 1 (4).