Let’s Talk About Senator Duckworth and Motherhood

An official portrait of Senator Tammy DuckworthWith all the hubbub the past couple weeks about our Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth (pictured right) casting a vote on the Senate floor with her newborn baby in her arms, very little attention was given to the fact that Senator Duckworth is a mother who has a disability.

And I kind of like that.

Senator Duckworth’s disability is not invisible – she’s a double-amputee veteran who uses a wheelchair. My disability isn’t invisible, either. I am blind, and when I was pregnant with our son Gus in 1986 I received as many awkward comments from others as I did congratulatory wishes. My husband is sighted, but when I was out without him during my pregnancy, complete strangers would ask, “The father can see, right?” Other times we were asked questions like “Blind people are allowed to have babies?” “The baby will be blind, too?” “Are you going to keep it?” “The hospital will send someone home with you guys to help once it’s born, won’t they?”

We’ve come a long way in 31 years. I kept waiting for something to come out in the news about Senator Duckworth being a disabled mom, but never heard it mentioned. I heard plenty of ageism (Senator Duckworth is 50 years old) and plenty of sexism (she’s the first Senator to give birth to a baby while in office).

The only reference to ableism I found was in an Associated Press story reporting that some senators were privately reluctant to allow Senator Duckworth to have her infant daughter with her on the Senate floor: They suggested she vote from the cloakroom instead. From the story:

Senator Amy Klobuchar’s answer to that suggestion noted that Duckworth lost both legs and partial use of an arm in Iraq, and mostly gets around by wheelchair. “Yes, you can vote from the doorway of the cloakroom, but how is she going to get to the cloakroom when it’s not wheelchair accessible?” she asked.

Senators are not allowed to phone in their votes. New fathers in the Senate who have brought their children along to work have voted from the cloakroom doorway in the past, but they won’t have to do that anymore: The rule change Senator Duckworth proposed applied to fathers, too. Discussion on the rule change split her colleagues more along generational lines than partisan ones, and now fathers and mothers are allowed to bring their infants on to the Senate floor with them.

A lot has been said about how Senator Duckworth’s historic moment may change the way employers across the country look at accommodating new parents in the workplace. My hope is that it also marks a time when Americans are looking at people with disabilities as good employees, and good parents, too.

Thank you, Tammy Duckworth. Happy Mother’s Day!


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