Disability and Family Law

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My life as a single parent began shortly after a motor vehicle accident that left me a quadriplegic. My husband was not able or willing to make the commitment to having a wife with a disability. While I was in a rehabilitation hospital, he told me that I was not going to be coming home to him and our two young sons. He did not bring our sons to visit me. When I saw them, it was because my parents brought them to me.

At that time, I was fully absorbed with accepting what had happened to me and beginning to adapt to my life as it had become. I did not realize that my biggest battle would be to maintain my relationship with my sons.

Very early, my father mentioned that I should talk to a lawyer, but I did not think I needed one. I did not want anything but to be a mother to my sons again. It did not occur to me that I would need a lawyer to get this. After all, I had been their mother up until now. As the months and then years passed, I realized just how much the family law, in the hands of an abusive man, can stand in the way of mothers with disabilities.

When I was first discharged from the rehab centre, I lived with my parents, which was some distance from where my sons were living with their father. There, I met with a lawyer who has represented me ever since. She told me I could apply for joint custody of my children, which differed sharply from my husband’s assertions that the children would have to be in his custody because of my disability. He had told me that the best I could hope for would be to have the children with me half the time I was not working.

Although the two months I spent with my parents was very difficult because I was away from my boys, it was also the first time I shared what my husband was telling me with anyone. While my husband had convinced me that my sons could not be with me because of my physical limitations, my sister reminded me what mothering was really about. One day as my niece helped transfer me from my chair to my bed, my sister pointed out that there was no reason my sons could not do this. After all, my body had been broken but there was nothing wrong with my mind, my love for my boys or their love for me.

When my parents found me a place to live back in the city where I had lived before my accident and where my sons still lived, I returned with the strength and determination to resume my mothering role.

Today, after six years of dealing with the family law system, I am still married and have only an interim joint custody order.

My family law case has been through many stages. First, my husband wanted sole custody. After one family assessment began, he agreed to joint custody. More than a year later, during a trial to deal with property issues, it became evident that my husband was once again seeking sole custody, with only limited access for me to my sons. Another family assessment was ordered, and my parenting was once again questioned.

Throughout this process, everything about me has been questioned: my body functions, attendant care; even things that would not be questioned for able-bodied women like who the children and I spent time with. My family, friends and church were criticized. The boys were told by their father what they could and could not do at my home. Restrictions were placed on them vacationing with me. Two complaints were filed with the child protection service against me. In both cases, the complaints were found to have no merit.

My husband found ways to interfere with my time with my sons that directly took advantage of my lack of mobility. Before I got a court order requiring him to transport the children, he refused to bring them to me or to allow my attendant to pick them up for me, which meant I had to wheel to his house (even in bad weather) to pick them up. He refused to assist in transporting them to school when they were with me, even though he had to drive through the area I lived every morning.

My husband has done everything he can to minimize his financial responsibility to both the boys and me. I had to get a court order to be maintained on his workplace insurance plan. In the year it took to do this, my parents paid for my supplies and nursing care. I still have received no spousal support.

I have an excellent lawyer who understands and represents my needs. Without the financial support of my parents, this would not be the case. In this respect, I am much more fortunate than many other women with disabilities who do not have the support of their families. Every woman should have access to good legal representation through a properly funded legal aid system.

The family court process should move more quickly. This is true for all families, but especially for women with disabilities, who have many other issues to deal with. I have had to delay important surgery because my doctor did not want me to undergo a procedure while I was stressed by court appearances.

Where one parent is controlling or abusive, shared parenting and decision making are not appropriate, as the family will be in court to deal with even the smallest of issues.

I was a good mother before my accident and I am one now. Quadriplegia does not affect my ability to parent; it just means I do things differently. Family law needs to understand this so it can support women with disabilities and limit the actions of controlling and abusive men who want to turn women’s disability to their advantage.

Jean Pauls is a single mother and disability rights activist.