Father's Day 2000
By Dick Sobsey
Almost 50 years ago, I used to watch Roy Rogers and Dale Evans on TV.
When I was six, Roy and Dale were the kind of heroes that I needed. I
was still learning about the world, and their show made it easy to tell
the good guys from the bad ones.
What I didn't know back then was that
Roy and Dale were also parents of a severely handicapped child.
daughter Robin had Down syndrome with lots of complications. She only
lived a couple of years, but Roy and Dale loved her and did everything
they could to keep her alive as long as they could. Dale was one of the
first parents to speak out about being the mother of a child with a
severe developmental disability, in a time when most parents hid such
children. Roy joined her in telling people that Robin had been a
wonderful blessing for their family. They were heroes in more ways than
one back then, and just like on their show, it was easy to tell who the
good guys were.
Now, Father's Day in the year 2000 is here. I'm looking at an old photo
of Roy Rogers holding his precious daughter, Robin Elizabeth. It makes
me think about what it means to be a father. As a father who lost a
severely handicapped daughter many years ago and who does the best he
can to preserve and protect the life of another one today, I think I
recognize the love in his eyes. In my mind, I can still hear Roy and
Dale singing "Happy Trails to You" at the end of each show. It was
sweet and a little sad when I heard it back then, and now I recognize
its deeper meaning for them.
Today, life is a lot more complicated. We have new heroes. In a few
days, Robert Latimer's murder conviction comes before the Supreme Court
of Canada. Repeatedly we are told that he was a hero for killing his
own child, for sparing her from a life of misery. People tell me that
he must have been compassionate, rational, and brave. Media experts
tell me that he must have loved his daughter a lot to do what he did. I
guess it's a new millennium and we have different kinds of heroes now.
There is certainly no shortage of them. Michael Gentry will be
sentenced for involuntary manslaughter of his 15-year-old severely
handicapped daughter in Los Angeles on July 6th. Perhaps this too was
an act of love. Oto Orlik stabbed his 14-year-old severely handicapped
daughter more than 30 times before she died in Wisconsin in 1998. How
many fathers could be that rational or compassionate? Eight-year-old
Justin Blair, who was blind and had cerebral palsy was beaten to death
with a hammer by his father in New Hampshire. I can not imagine the
kind of courage that would require.
There are 110 fathers,
step-fathers, foster fathers, and adoptive fathers who are implicated
in the homicides of their developmentally disabled children in our
current homicide database at the University of Alberta. These heroes
shot, scalded, stabbed, poisoned, electrocuted, starved, beat, drowned,
hanged, smothered, beat and gassed their disabled children to death.
One father who was enraged because the hospital would not give his
child the care that he felt was required, threw the child out of a
Only a few cases get much attention from the media. Often the sentences
are light. In 1984, Louise Brown's father killed her and then claimed
that his car had been stolen with her in it. The judge sentenced him to
only five years for killing his daughter who had Down syndrome because
he thought that her father might have been traumatized by having a
disabled child. After all, he was no threat to society and a model
citizen, just another heroic father overcome with grief, who spared his
disabled daughter and his beloved family a life of unimaginable
suffering. The English courts were less forgiving when he came back
before them in 1997. They sentenced him to life for killing his brother
by stabbing him 63 times.
Now I confess that I am not the best father in the world. There are
times when I could be a better father to my son who has a severe
disability and times when I could be a better father to my daughter who
doesn't. I will never be the hero who takes decisive and drastic
action. I know dozens of other fathers of kids with disabilities who
are also less than perfect. They will never be heroes of the new
millennium. They will just face life one day at a time, usually a
little sleep-deprived, feeling their way in unexplored territory. Many of
them have much tougher challenges than I do. Lots of them handle things
with more grace. Some of them are better natured.
Some of them are great writers or artists or musicians. Most are just
ordinary people, but in the middle of the night, trying to soothe a
sleepless child, they are all pretty much the same. Some complain that
life demands a little too much from them, and others don't, but deep
inside, they love their children and they love being fathers to them.
Most of them consider themselves lucky. They have grown as human beings
and learned new things about themselves because of their special
relationship with a child who needs a lot from them.
Some of them are
single fathers. Most have wives that give as much or more to their
families and who share the triumphs and setbacks. Some have other
children who feel deprived because their parents give so much to the
child with a disability, but most of these brothers and sisters are
comforted to know that their parents would do just as much for them if
they needed it.
These men are not the heroes of the new millennium, far from it. They
are only fathers. Their names will not become household words. They
will not receive thousands of letters of support for their courage.
They will not be discussed by lawyers and bioethicists. They will never
become poster boys of for the right-to-die movement. They will just
keep doing the best that they can for as long as they can do it.
Neil Young is the father of a son with severe cerebral palsy. He's
written songs about his son. He bought a controlling share in Lionel
Trains in order to get them to make adaptive controls for their trains.
He and his wife Peggy actively worked to develop services for
children with disabilities. Kenzaburo Oe is the father of a son born
with a severe disability more than 30 years ago. He has written
extensively about his relationship with his son and won the Nobel Prize
for literature for his efforts. Others, who are not so famous, work
long days and come home to take care of a severely handicapped child.
These actions are not the kind of fatherly heroism that gets national
attention. They are not heroes. They are simply fathers.
Roy Rogers died a few years ago. To me, he is still a hero in the old-fashioned sense, but "hero" means something very different now. For
Father's Day for the year 2000, I want to salute all the fathers of kids
with special needs and to all fathers everywhere who find a way to give
their kids a little more of themselves when it's needed. Here's to all
those dads who will always be less than perfect and never be heroes
but keep on doing the best they can.
Dick Sobsey is a Professor of Educational Psychology and Director of
the JP Das Developmental Disabilities Centre at the University of
Alberta. He is the father of a nine-year-old son who has a severe
global developmental disability.