For Disabled Dads, There's Just More to Parenthood

man in a wheel chair with his daughter opening the refrigerator

Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Disabled fathers share advice on parenthood and its effects on their mental health.
  • Studies show that disabled parents are not alone in their fears around being new parents.
  • Disability adds additional complexity to fatherhood.

“I was terrified of just a lot of basic stuff about having kids, but then also, I was scared shitless that one day I was going to trip and drop my child, and something terrible would happen.”

Those are the words of Sean Kelly, a dad of two. For him, and many disabled fathers, there is an inherent fear that they will prove incapable of caring for their children. Of course, initial fear at the possibility of parenthood isn’t a uniquely disabled experience.

According to a 2021 literature review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, many fathers expressed fear of a wide range of possible situations, including concern for their partner and their ability to care for the child.

However, for disabled parents there is an added layer. The National Council on Disability released a 2012 report outlining the right of parents with disabilities, finding that they "are the only distinct community of Americans who must struggle to retain custody of their children."  

Christine Freethy, MSW, says that in both her public and private practice as a mental health professional she sees these fears appear regularly.

"I think that's part of a process that every parent, every father goes through, but disabled fathers carry with them a more intense question because this is all about not only their capacity to care for the child, but I think it's of a greater kind of self-esteem question related to themselves as competent adults."

So, to put it mildly, Kelly wasn’t and isn’t alone in his fatherhood fears, but he and his peers want to talk about mental health and disabled fatherhood.

Kids Are A Part of the Process

For Kelly, his disability came long before his children; but for other disabled fathers, like Tiran Jackson, becoming disabled meant processing fatherhood a little differently. Jackson survived an explosion that killed his wife and led to an amputated leg. He says part of understanding himself as a disabled parent meant also working with his then twelve-year-old son to process trauma together. 

“Your children, they're used to seeing you one way. And then when they see you differently, it becomes harder for them to grasp and understand. And then to do certain things, such as even just going to the mall and walking around, knowing that now you're going to be a spectacle, people are going to look at you. And even though I grasped that pretty early, it was difficult for him to do that. So, we had to talk about it.”

Sean Kelly

If I tell her, ‘Oh, Daddy can't do that.’ She doesn't question it, she doesn't ask why, she doesn't really get upset. She just kind of accepts it.

— Sean Kelly

Jackson said that those conversations included individual and group sessions with mental health providers as well as tough discussions about what dad could or couldn’t do as the elder Jackson began to recover physically. 

“He was becoming more and more accepting of it. However, there was this air of embarrassment. And I could see it in him, going through his mind, ‘Okay, my dad is coming to watch me play football, and he's in a wheelchair, or he's on crutches. And now everybody's going to look at him. And then my friends are going to come to me and asking me questions,'" says Kelly.

Kelly says that his two young children—because they’ve never known anything different—aren’t resistant to the tasks he can’t tackle. He puts that down to ableist society not clouding how they view their dad.

“If I tell her [his daughter] ‘Oh, Daddy can't do that.’ She doesn't question it, she doesn't ask why, she doesn't really get upset. She just kind of accepts it.”

Freethy puts that difference in experience down to how society tends to view those with disabilities.

"I feel like the public has a very negative perception of people who are disabled and who take the risk of becoming parents... I really feel that as a society, as more and more people experience some type of disability or another, that we're going to have to find a way to support these families better because there isn't enough support out there now."

Disabled Joy Is a Piece of the Puzzle

When we’re talking about disability, it can be very easy to stay focused on trauma. For those who spoke their experiences, however, disabled joy is part of the picture. 

Ryan Kules became disabled as a veteran in Iraq. He says that his transition to parenthood included making being a dad part of his plan. 

“I had a lengthy recovery, learning how to do a lot of things that we take for granted over again. And as I transitioned out of the military, my wife and I decided that once I stopped pushing a wheelchair,  I would then start working on pushing a stroller.”

He now works at the Wounded Warrior Project and says that one of the unexpected benefits is how his experiences support his kids as they grow to learn things they might otherwise not. 

Tiran Jackson

Your children, they're used to seeing you one way. And then when they see you differently, it becomes harder for them to grasp and understand.

— Tiran Jackson

“I think from the physical aspects of my disability, we'll certainly use those with the kids as a teaching tool for them within their schools to teach other kids about military service, about what it means to be a part of your community, and to teach their peers what it is to see someone that may look a little bit different than them.”

For Jackson, disabled joy—and its corresponding impact on his mental health—comes from sharing experiences that previously felt unobtainable, like swimming and running.

“It was about nine months after the accident. I ran my first 5k with a prosthetic and even though it was definitely harder than it would have been when I had two good legs there was a sense of accomplishment that came with that. And to be able to do that, and for him to see me be able to do it, brought joy and happiness to myself, to us and to others who were supporting.”

Advice From Disabled Dads, for Disabled Dads

It wouldn’t be a story about dads if they didn’t give any advice. Kelly says that wasn’t until he made it through one of those negative experiences, falling with his daughter and them both coming out the other side okay, that he felt confident in his parenting.

“And it happened. And for a couple days I just beat myself up, and just was in a really bad place. And then at some point, I just processed it. And I felt almost better.”

He says now he doesn’t have the same fear with his younger son. 

“I don't have that fear anymore. Because it happened already.”

Freethy says these kinds of reaction are typical for disabled dads.

"Every parent experiences a tremendous amount of guilt. 'Am I doing things right? Am I messing up my kid,' all that kind of stuff. But disabled parents are hyper, hyper self-critical and hyper-analytical of [themselves]. 'I wasn't feeling [well] you know, my spoons were low that day, and we couldn't go bowling.' They will, like, beat themselves up all week about that even though lots of parents can't go bowling because something happens."

Kules says that each parent needs to know that, disabled or not, you’re going to bring “personal flavor” to the journey.

“I think that there's no playbook as far as how to be a good parent. And I think as long as you have clear goals for what you're looking to instill in the children as they transition into adults, there's no right one way to make that happen.”

Jackson’s advice is to focus on knowing yourself first. 

“Learn who you really are and how you're really going to address this change in your life, because I found that I had to understand who I was to best be there to communicate with my son in that way.”

What This Means for You

Being a disabled father does not make you less than. Being a disabled father, and sitting with associated fear, appears to be a natural experience.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Moran E, Bradshaw C, Tuohy T, Noonan M. The paternal experience of fear of childbirth: An integrative reviewIJERPH. 2021;18(3):1231. doi:10.3390/ijerph18031231

  2. National Council on Disability. Rocking the cradle: Ensuring the rights of parents with disabilities and their children.

By John Loeppky
John Loeppky is a freelance journalist based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, who has written about disability and health for outlets of all kinds.