BY KRISTI FISH | MIRROR REPORTER — The staff at The Ability Center is raising awareness for Ohio Senate Bill 202, an anti-discrimination bill to protect parents with disabilities.
The bill, which is currently with the judiciary committee, would prevent disability from being used to deny or limit parental rights.
Brittanie Maddox, a disabilities rights advocate in health care and public access with The Ability Center, has been in contact with senators and other government leaders during the course of the bill.
“We’ve been really trying to push this bill forward, SB 202,” Maddox said. “A version has passed the Ohio House already. It’s a little bit different than what’s in the Senate, so the version that’s in the Senate is one that we are bigger proponents of because it encompasses a lot more than the House version of the bill.”
The House version of the bill, Maddox said, states requirements for a court to follow to determine if a “disability-connected behavior endangers the health, safety or welfare of a minor.”
“The way it was written, it equated disability and child endangerment,” Maddox said. “Parents with disabilities would have to go through another legal standard.”
This is why The Ability Center has been pushing for the Senate version of the bill.
“I just kept pushing to the members of Congress that it’s unequal. All parents should be evaluated on an equal basis,” Maddox said. “You should not continue to have people with disabilities be scrutinized further and labeled separately from their peers. You can’t have an anti-discriminatory bill with discriminatory language in it. It defeats the purpose of it.”
For Maddox, it is both a professional and personal mission to pass the bill. With her work on the advocacy team, she has been able to raise awareness and fight for better treatment for everyone with a disability. Personally, Maddox also had to face extra scrutiny during her own custody case for her son, and it fueled her to make sure others do not have to experience that.
“I have invisible disabilities. I have rheumatoid arthritis. It will change. It will be lifelong. I will live with it and die with it,” Maddox said. “It will progress as I get older, and I rely on medication to help control my symptoms. Some days, I’m great. You wouldn’t even know I was on medication. Some days, I have a hard time walking or grasping things.”
When her son was born, Maddox wasn’t always able to pick up her son the same way another mother would, but she could still care for him. It just required adjustments that served her and her son better.
“I want all parents to be on the same level without that being called into question,” Maddox said. “With that, it just means someone maybe needs some assistance in some fashion. They might need a service, they might have home modifications.”
For Maddox, when she was in court, someone questioned her need for public benefits, telling her she looked fine, like there was nothing wrong with her. The moment forced Maddox to weigh her options. If she told the court about her disability, it could lead someone to question her ability to care for her son, thereby adding another layer of scrutiny to an already difficult process for any parent.
In 2012, Maddox said, the National Council on Disability released a report that said parents with disabilities were far more at risk to lose custody than nondisabled parents. Further studies, she said, show that when children are removed from parents with disabilities, their rights are terminated at a higher rate than other parents.
The Ability Center’s executive director Stuart James said this is something the advocacy team is trying to raise awareness of and fight against. James also knows there is more work to be done after bills are passed.
“We’re really good about changing laws, but we’re not so good about changing the way people think about disability,” he said.
This is why Maddox is hoping for a bit of a trickle-down effect. Changing the methods in court might change the way other institutions think about disability. Maddox hopes hospitals will stop trying to separate mothers with disabilities and their children, and that members of society will stop questioning the ability of parents based merely on their disability – an egregious and common occurrence, Maddox said.
“I go to the store with my kids, and people don’t realize I’m the dad. It bothers me. At the moment, they don’t notice, but it will bother me when they do,” James said.
The work of Maddox and other staff members at The Ability Center is to remind people that this does happen and to change the law and the hearts and minds of society, so it doesn’t continue to happen.
To support the efforts of The Ability Center and encourage movement of SB 202 through the Senate, an action alert has been created at actionnetwork.org/letters/sb202. Upon signing the petition, a letter will then be sent to each of the members of the judiciary committee on behalf of the signer.
District 11 Sen. Teresa Fedor and District 2 Sen. Theresa Gavarone represent those in Lucas County and are both on the judiciary committee. Maddox suggested residents reach out to their representatives, too, to show support for the bill. However, there is only a short window before the Senate breaks for the summer, which means the staff at The Ability Center is pushing for the judiciary committee to vote on and pass the bill, sending it to the full Senate, soon.
“We all need to work together,” Maddox said.