When my husband, Jamie, and I decided to begin the adoption process over a year ago, we knew people would have a lot of questions.
For starters, we knew people would wonder why we would choose to adopt before having biological children. In a society where passing on one’s genes through pregnancy is not only “normal” but almost worshipped, we figured they’d assume we were struggling with infertility or that I was too scared to birth a baby.
But we also knew people might think our adoption was a “safe” alternative to pregnancy because of Jamie’s disability. Jamie was diagnosed at the age of 3 with a congenital eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa. His vision degenerated over time—starting from the periphery and moving in—until he had lost most of his vision by high school. He now has a small amount of tunnel vision in one eye, but sees only light/dark contrasts with the other eye.
I tried to anticipate these questions whenever I told someone for the first time that we had decided to adopt. I figured it would help me avoid being hurt by an offensive question later. I had a little speech that went like this:
“Did you hear Jamie and I decided to adopt? Yes, we are very excited. It is something we have both always wanted to do. We haven’t even tried to get pregnant because we just really want to adopt. I have a cousin adopted from China who really touched my life. Jamie has always cared about justice for children. That’s what he’d ultimately like to be doing with his law degree. We do plan, God willing, to have a biological child or two in the future, but, for now, we have chosen to adopt.”
Apparently, however, the speech didn’t convince everyone as I found one day when I was discussing our adoption with a neighbor.
“So, I heard you are adopting because of Jamie’s disability,” he said.
I politely cleared up the misinformation, and he seemed genuinely sorry he’d even brought it up. But I was still jolted. I didn’t feel like anyone actually believed that we decided to adopt simply because we wanted to rather than being forced into it by some external factor. But even more concerning to me, it seemed nobody had considered what the logical implications would be if our adoption was solely predicated on Jamie’s disability.
We live in a society that often bases the significance of people on their ability to see, walk, hear and think. We forget that people are complex beings with many dimensions. While Jamie is a blind person, he is also a husband, lawyer, son, rower, brother, guitarist and uncle. He is intelligent, funny, passionate and tenacious. His blindness is only one aspect of his entire identity; it does not define him completely. Yet, society does not see him this way. Because he can’t see, he is perceived as imperfect, abnormal and inferior.
When someone assumes we are only adopting to avoid having a child with RP, it implies that it would be understandable (perhaps even beneficial) if people like Jamie—people who can’t see—didn’t produce anymore people who can’t see. The greater assumption is that our society would be better without people with disabilities. This line of thinking has, of course, inspired many evils in our world:
- the abortion of children found to have genetic disabilities while they are still in utero
- the abandonment of children who are born with a disability or develop one later in life (this is rampant China where the one-child-only policy encourages parents to aspire toward the “perfect” child)
- and, on a larger scale, genocide where those considered “different” are killed because they don’t fit society’s brand of “normal”
This rationale has also contributed to widespread discrimination against people with disabilities, giving rise to high poverty levels and high unemployment levels among the disabled population. It is no wonder most people in our society think being a person with a disability is hard, and thus a “plight” one wouldn’t want to pass on to someone else. Our society—not the actual disability—has made it hard to be a person with a disability because of its disabling attitudes and prejudices. As I read recently, a person in a wheelchair can get around just fine until they encounter a building without a wheelchair ramp. Only then do they become truly “disabled.”
Similarly, the assumption that we are adopting because of Jamie’s disability also negatively affects our future children. It implies our children are a second choice or last resort—an option we had to choose because we were too scared to risk having a biological child who is blind.
Recent statistics estimate there are around 150 million orphans in the world. Five to 6 million of those children live in Ethiopia—where our children will be from. One million of those children are currently in the United States foster care system. When people assume we are adopting because of Jamie’s disability, they are denying the basic truth that all of these children—and specifically our two children—are inherently deserving of a family. I never want my children to believe their existence in our family is predicated on anything but the simple collision of our desire to be parents and their right to have parents.
I realize many people ask questions out of genuine curiosity, and few of them mean to hurt or offend us with what they say. I need to have grace when my natural inclination is to defend my family. But I hope as people hear our story, they will see that people don’t need an ulterior motive to adopt. I also hope they will see that Jamie will make an excellent father—and that his worth as a father, husband and human being isn’t defined by his disability.
But most of all, I want people to see that the issues I have raised here go outside of our little family. There is a world of people out there who need us to stop making assumptions about them and start seeking the truth.