Families and Disability

By David Morstad

Family life is subject to strain. That conclusion is hardly a dazzling new discovery. Families are a series of relationships, and relationships, by their nature, are complex. Toss in a few contemporary issues like unemployment or other financial stress and day-to-day family life becomes even more complicated.

And then, there are the children. Specifically, children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

What is the truth about the rate of divorce among families of children with disabilities?

For reasons not clearly identified, the numbers have been wildly exaggerated for years, sometimes by otherwise credible organizations, especially faith-based ones. Not surprisingly, these claims tend to be made in the absence of cited sources. We’ve all heard the numbers.

“It is little wonder that the divorce rate in families affected by disability is nearly 80 percent,” claims one national organization.

“80% divorce rate for parents of a child with a disability…90% divorce rate for families who have a child with autism,” claims another group.

In May of 2010, researchers from the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore took on the notion of the 80% autism divorce rate in scientific study. Their evidence suggested that a child’s autism has little to no effect on the family structure. Studies like that tend to be less well known, of course, and so the ‘Legend-Of-The-80-Percent’ continues. Let’s face it, the exaggerated numbers are more interesting. They generate a sense of urgency by grabbing both our attention and our heart. So what’s the harm?

The Blame

There is, of course, the matter of committing ourselves to the truth. Beyond that, though, lies an even more compelling issue. Blaming victims is a phenomenon well known to us in this field.

It’s a pattern of thinking that goes like this:

Raising a child with a disability is demanding for parents; that demand causes stress; stress leads to marital strife; ergo, the child with a disability causes higher rates of divorce.

We have seen the same pattern of thinking when it comes to the abuse of people with disabilities by those who support them: Providing direct support is stressful; stress causes people to act irrationally; abuse is an irrational act; ergo, people with disabilities are the root cause of their own abuse.

I encourage you to see the extensive work of Dick Sobsey for a much more complete and scholarly picture on all this, but I think you get the idea. This pattern of logic isn’t just wrong, it’s wrong-headed. In fact, in the case of divorce rates, it seeks to explain a problem that doesn’t even appear to exist.

Joining the ranks of those taking a more serious look at marital quality in the light of disabilities are Sigan L. Hartley, Emily M. Schaidle, of the Waisman Center. I invite you to see a brief summary of their findings and a list of related research.

As always, we’re anxious to hear from others who have thoughts on the issue.

One Response

  1. I have worked with children with disabilities long enough to see how this situation “changes” a family. And why not? They have special needs, but so do many other people. I think that a child born with disabilities helps to shed light on a marital relationship. I think that an already strong relationship continues to get strong, just at a faster rate. And the relationships that do not have a strong bond and would probably end up with divorce, again, just moves faster to that end. So I view a child with a disability not the ’cause’ of the relationship ending, I think of the child with a disability as a ‘catalyst’ in a marital relationship with problems that haven’t surfaced yet.

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