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Divorce, disabled children and the ableism myth

Sarah Palin’s divorce filing by her husband after 31 years of marriage recently made national news. The former Alaska governor was famous for “going rogue” as the running mate of John McCain during the 2008 Presidential Election, which meant she went off her script of campaign talking points. She met her future husband Todd Palin when they were teenagers, and the two married several years later, having five kids together.

The scrutiny of the spotlight and her unconventional approach made the Palins targets. Like them or not, however, some attributed the divorce to stress from raising a child with a disability – their son Trig Paxson Van Palin (born in 2008) has Down syndrome. A psychologist and counselor to families with special needs children recently responded to these unsavory whispers. She labeled them as “ableism,” which is a theory that marriage often does not survive the stress of having developmentally disabled children.

Based on the news reports about the older children – oldest son Track broke into his parent’s home and attacked Todd, and a teenaged Bristol announced her pregnancy during the presidential campaign – Trig may not have been the child who caused the most stress. Moreover, having a child with a disability does not doom a marriage and may even strengthen the family bond.

Findings vary

There have been many studies regarding the impact that raising a disabled child has upon a marriage. As is often the case, these results differ from study to study, with one from 2007 finding that there was a lower than the average number of divorces in families with disabled children. Another in 2010 found that there was a slight uptick in families where a child was on the autism spectrum. Another study debunked the “ableism” myth of an 80% divorce rate back in 2010.

Finding solutions

The best solution for parents facing challenges of a demanding home life is getting the support they need, either through counseling or expert help with the child when possible. If divorce is the best option for the parents, an attorney with experience handling mediation can often provide constructive family planning solutions that minimize the impact on the family during and after the filing process.

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