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Blaming Mothers

A disability perspective
Blaming Mothers

Susan Simensky Bietila

In too many school districts, if a child has a disability, the mother is blamed for whatever difficulties occur. Most often, she is considered overly aggressive in advocating for her child or negligent for failing to do enough.

There is a lot of history behind this approach—blaming the mother is a long-standing cultural tradition in the United States. Leo Kanner, the researcher credited with identifying autism as a specific neurological disorder in 1943, blamed it on "refrigerator mothers," a term popularized by University of Chicago researcher Bruno Bettelheim, who drew parallels between these mothers and guards in Germany’s concentration camps. Dorothy Roberts has documented the stereotyping of the mothers of so-called "crack babies," even though medical research has failed to substantiate any such condition, syndrome, or disorder. Susan Okie calls it "the epidemic that wasn’t," because cocaine’s effects on a fetus "are less severe than those of alcohol and are comparable to those of tobacco."

There are racial and class implications, too. Poor women are blamed when they deliver low-birth-weight babies (without considering the deficiencies in the healthcare system) although affluent women face little social ostracism when they risk the birth of low-birth-weight babies by becoming pregnant through medical implantation of fertilized eggs.

This intersection of sexism, racism, and classism plays out when children have learning challenges. In theory, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act promises each child with a disability a free, appropriate, public education through an Individualized Educational Program (IEP). If a parent believes a school district is not offering an appropriate public education, the parent can file a complaint with an "impartial" state-level hearing officer to challenge the school district’s conduct. Unfortunately, these hearing officer decisions often replicate the "blame the mother" metaphor that permeates the treatment of many mothers and their children by their school districts. This adverse treatment places educational responsibility on the mother rather than the school district.

Based on my review of hearing officer decisions around the country (Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, Washington, D.C., and Maryland), as well as my personal experience representing mothers in special education matters, I have seen four kinds of "blame the mother" strategies used by school districts: 1. blame mother for incompetence; 2. blame mother’s assertive behavior for educational problems; 3. blame mother’s passive behavior for educational problems at school; and 4. blame mother for working outside the home. The stories below trace those themes.

Blame Mother for Incompetence

JG was diagnosed as profoundly deaf when he was approximately 18 months old. He received hearing aids at the age of 2 and auditory intervention services for about two years. When he was almost 4, the Baldwin Park Unified School District in California determined that he was eligible for special education as hearing impaired with a language/speech disorder. He received a cochlear implant at 10, but he was not able to use the device effectively. At 11, he had the communication skills of a child under 2. His primary mode of communication was American Sign Language (ASL).

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