September starts with a celebration of fathers; we hero our dads, their dads and our children’s dads, spoiling them with breakfast in bed and a kindy appropriated colourful painting. But where are the dads with disabilities? Where are they being heroed? They obviously exist. Afterall, who hasn’t cheered on Kurt Fearnley as he hurls towards the finish line to win yet another gold medal in wheelchair racing? And who hasn’t applauded Michael J. Fox as he receives endless accolades for his work on both the big and small screens. The fact that they are dads flies largely under the radar; indeed, they are reduced to being ‘just’ sportsmen and actors.
Anyone who journeys down the social media rabbit hole in its many forms may have noticed an increased presence of mothers with disabilities celebrating their worth. These beautifully different and capable women are sharing their joy, happiness, challenges, tips and tricks as they navigate their parenting lives, despite, and in spite of, their various disabilities.
Their abundant honesty and profound vulnerability provide endless inspiration, and girls and women can draw a sense of promise and hope from the many mums with disabilities who share their ‘lived-experience’ anecdotes. Whether it is a cool dance with their chocolate covered kids, a new recipe or an exciting adventure, their posts are uplifting, funny, entertaining and educational. In what is inarguably an abliest world, their passion, persistence and sense of fun is contagious.
Whilst it is wonderful to count Fearnley and Fox’s excellent achievements as a win for the disability community – this wonderfully diverse community deserves more. How can our young people grow to have positive attitudes if they aren’t exposed to positive representation of dads with disabilities in every context, including social media and real-life? It is time for these dads to celebrate their differences in a framework that enables more members of the disability community to relate to.
Do dads with disabilities believe their stories don’t matter? Do they feel like they are playing second fiddle to the main characters in their lives? Is there a stigma hangover from times gone by when people with disabilities were desexualised and frowned upon should they dare to entertain the idea of becoming a dad? Or, perhaps it is the financialisation of the ‘biggest, strongest, fastest’ where men find their meaning and value, rather than being the ‘normal’ dad shovelling vegemite sandwiches into his toddler’s mouth at the local park.
In the chaos of COVID-19 and its sequelae, strong, confident and authentic role models are more important than ever. Men, young and not so young, are exposed to influences (and indeed, influencers) 24/7, and it is time to curate the content they consume to include the many accomplishments and strengths of dads with disabilities. Boys with disabilities may well be wondering if their parenting dreams might be a possibility in the future. And, it’s hard to be what you can’t see.
Whilst there is no doubt that living with a disability adds particular complexities to fatherhood, dads with disabilities bring their own unique flare to the role. So, how can the wider community appreciate and champion these dads for all they do and how they have the potential to impact positively on the lives of not only their own children, but all children.
In 2018, 17.6% of men in Australia were living with a disability (ABS 2018), however statistics are not available to indicate how many of these men were dads. Hence, I invite all dads with disabilities to build your visible presence in the world; to speak up, to turn up, to play up. Jump on social media, get involved in your local parent’s groups, share your experiences with other dads at your workplace and be the cool dad at the park who is covered in the remnants of a vegemite sandwich.
disAbility Maternity Care is turning up the volume and addressing the disability gender gap. Their inaugural podcast disAbility Maternity Matters celebrates Toby Dawson, a dad with a disability who is not defined, but indeed fortified, by his difference. It is hoped that in giving dads, like Toby, a voice and informing the disability discourse, generations of boys may realise that it is in their differences where they can find their strengths.