The first in BBC3’s Defying the Label series, the BBC website describes Don’t Take My Baby as a “factual drama which tells the story of a disabled couple’s agonising struggle to keep their new-born baby. Based on real-life testimony, this emotional tale will call viewers’ prejudices and beliefs about the disabled community and society as a whole into question, as we learn about a situation many disabled couples find themselves in as new parents.” Wheelchair bound Anna and partially-sighted Tom undergo months of constant scrutiny and suspicion from Social Services while they’re assessed on their capability to care for their daughter Danielle, all the time knowing that one slip could mean their baby girl being sent into foster care if the couple fail to prove themselves as fit parents. Defying the Label is a series showing a range of real life stories in a disabling world.
Personally, Don’t Take My Baby made for pretty difficult viewing. I loved the brutal honesty of the programme, something which I think was largely achieved thanks to the shared authorship with which it was written. I could identify with Anna’s determination to exceed everyone’s low expectations as well as Tom’s reluctance to concede help. Things like the 2010 Equality Act and development in technology are undeniably making it easier for people like Anna, Tom and myself to live in 21st century society, but unfortunately, a lot of the time attitudes towards disability are sadly lagging behind the times. Obviously this attitude is going to have an impact on society’s perception of disabled parents. Most people don’t even believe it possible for disabled people to have sexual relationships, let alone have children. So I hope Don’t Take My Baby broke down some of those misconceptions.
“Sometimes you’re told that something’s impossible and that’s when you need to fight”
Anna’s condition meant that her life expectancy has always been uncertain, and the dangers of giving birth posed great risk for both mother and child. At various points throughout the programme reference was made to the risk that baby Danielle might inherit one or both of her parents conditions. All of these possibilities are such that obviously require great care and consideration, but should they diminish the couple’s right to make that decision? Instead of treating them as irresponsible and selfish, shouldn’t they be helped and supported in every way possible to ensure a happy ending for the family?
“No one’s perfect are they? As long as you do your best, that’s all you can do.”
The immediate assumption was that this couple would fail to care for their own baby, despite the fact that they manage to care for themselves and each other every day. They were scrutinised for months, their parenting skills being constantly marked and tested against somebody’s criteria of what a good parent should be. Why disabled parents, and disabled people shouldn’t, be allowed to make mistakes like everyone else? Because if we make mistakes, it’s seen as weakness.
“Do you mind if I call you social worker number 454?”
Anna and Tom were constantly watched, being made to feel like everybody were just waiting to catch them out. When Anna and Tom made mistakes, it seemed that they were just proving that everyone else were right in thinking that their disabilities make them weak, faulty and incapable. When Social Services didn’t think that Anna and Tom were capable of taking care of Danielle, they had to go above and beyond to do everything perfectly. They had to be perfect in order to prove that they were just as capable as anyone else. But the truth is that they’re just as human as anyone else too; they made mistakes, they got tired, they got emotional and frustrated and lashed out at those they cared about sometimes. The point is that they should’ve been allowed to make mistakes so that they could learn from them. They should’ve been allowed to ask for help without feeling like failures for not being able to do it on their own. They should’ve been allowed to be human.
“You make a choice whether you’re going to be defined by your condition.”
Social services defined Anna and Tom by their conditions, as society defines thousands of disabled people by their conditions every day. The truth is that our impairments aren’t what disable us; society is what disables us by being exclusive, discriminating and intolerant of us a lot of the time. We all have a choice whether to be defined by our conditions or not. We can sit back and concede the lowered expectations, pity and misunderstanding that we might be faced with on a regular basis, or we can decide to fight those stereotypes. Most schools and workplaces aren’t set up all readily accessible for any disability that someone might have, but that shouldn’t stop you trying to get an education or a job. It’s your choice We can choose to be defined by our actions, not our impairments. We can choose to be defined by what we do instead of what we are.
“It’s your life, live by your own rules. If you want to fly, go fly…you know?”
Anna and Tom chose not to be defined by their conditions; they chose not to be confined to the expectations that the Social Services, their families and the rest of society had of them, they chose to live their lives as they wanted. They chose to have a baby. As a result they were mistrusted, underestimated and treated with suspicion because of this choice. They were immediately labelled as unfit parents and were forced to prove themselves otherwise before being allowed to take their own baby home. Thankfully they were able to demonstrate themselves more than capable of caring for their daughter and were allowed to take their baby home. But for thousands others, this isn’t the case.
“I don’t trust it. For Dani’s sake, I don’t trust it.”
An estimated 3000 babies are removed from their disabled parents every year. Is that really because their parents aren’t fit to care for them, or because those with the power to make that decision don’t trust the parents enough to give them a chance?
“It’s difficult to judge what being a good parent actually means, don’t you think?”
It would’ve been an entirely different programme if Social Services had the approach of assessing what help they could offer Anna and Tom with childcare, rather than taking the approach of testing the couples parenting skills with the possibility of Danielle being taken away constantly looming over their heads. We’d live in an entirely different society if we were more open to assessing how we can adjust to help people, rather than expecting everyone to adjust to doing things the ‘normal’ way. If our collective perception of disability could be more positive, more open-minded, more accepting, then maybe Children’s Services wouldn’t have to make 11,000 decisions involving disabled parents every year.
You can watch Don’t Take My Baby on the BBC iPlayer and the rest of the programmes in the Defying the Label series every night this week at 9pm on BBC3.