The contemporary role of media and technology in the lives of children with communication disabilities and their families must be understood within the context of particular US policies as well as historical conditions surrounding disability and parenting. Prior to the 1970s, US law actively suppressed disability in public spaces through the enforcement of “ugly laws” that barred “unsightly beggars” from city streets, eugenics laws that led to the institutionalization and forced sterilization of disabled adults and children, and laws prohibiting children with disabilities (not gifts) from entering public schools.Psychologists thought parents caused their child’s disability, and promoted the removal of children from their families as cures. 96 By 2010, though, only 4 percent of those living in residential settings were age twenty-one and younger, compared with 36 percent in 1977—a shift accelerated by the passage of the Olmstead Act of 1999, which stated that the unjustified segregation of people with disabilities violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Discussions about parenting a child with a disability are also inexorably gendered. Over the past decade, feminist disability studies scholarship has invited reexamination of the meaning of motherhood over history, and the ways in which media narratives reflect and shape the lives of families of children with disabilities. One infamous example is the “refrigerator mother theory,” the largely discredited yet persistent Freudian-inspired concept developed by child psychiatrist Leo Kanner and popularized by psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim. The theory alleges that “cold” mothering and women’s career aspirations outside the home lead to childhood autism, and posits a causal link between the influx of domestic technologies (such as refrigerators) in the postwar US home and a perceived societal devaluing of mother–child relationships.
While Kanner and Bettelheim’s claims are widely considered suspect, mothers in the twenty-first century are still blamed in other ways for their child’s disability. 102 For instance, mothers of autistic children are admon- ished for having vaccinated their child, not being vigilant enough in notic- ing early signs of their child’s autism, and insufficiently seeking out and administering the latest therapies and treatments. The United States is in the midst of a cultural shift away from the refrigerator mother archetype toward an “intensive mothering” paradigm. Amy Sousa writes that “war- rior-hero mothers are now responsible for curing the disability, or at least accessing the intervention that will mitigate the disability’s impact on their children.”
Both the refrigerator mother and warrior-hero mother scenarios, how- ever, define disability as something to be eradicated, and view children with disabilities as burdens to their parents. One alternative to the language of tragedy can be seen through resiliency theory in the field of social work. Resiliency theory puts forward the idea that families of children with dis- abilities generally develop accommodations, or “proactive efforts of a fam- ily to adapt, exploit, counterbalance, and react to the many competing and sometimes contradictory forces in their lives.” This might include prepar- ing separate meals for the child with a disability, or making sure the doors of the home are always locked if the child has a tendency to wander.
Another type of accommodation that families of children with disabili- ties make is altering their media and technology use. Some accommodate for behavioral difficulties on car rides by providing backseat DVD players. Others make changes in their home television viewing habits, including having separate screens for different family members, watching child-ori- ented programming together, or not watching television at all. Due to sensory, hormonal, and neurological issues, some children have difficulty sleeping; children who cannot fall back to sleep may turn to media for com- fort. For many of these families, and those with disabilities themselves, dis- ability can be a source of pride as well as a positive aspect of individual and collective identity.