Sunday Edition Article 

Fathers and Children with Disabilities

This is a guest “Under The Bar” post by The Special Education Meathead. This person chooses to remain anonymous due to special education policies, parents, administrators and other teachers. This person intends to tell things they way they are so parents are better informed of what their real choices are. The purpose of this article is to shed some light onto the important role fathers of children with disabilities play and how schools need to better understand and support their involvement in school. This article is not intended to be a sweeping generalization or assumptions of one sex over the other. It is not intended to ignite any type of gender bashing or stereotypes. This article is simply a brief compilation of the research available related to fathers of children with disabilities and how schools can translate that information into daily practice. Nothing more, nothing less.


Another school year has begun and by now the chaos of the first few weeks of school has passed. A new school year likely means a new teacher, expectations and classroom routines. All students struggle settling in and long for the comfort of a routine.  Students with disabilities struggle to find that normal routine even more than a typical child. Parents are struggling too. I have already had my first interaction with an angry parent. It’s all part of the learning curve and understanding how to communicate and integrate new expectations for individual children.


Once the school year is off and the routine is in place, certain norms come into play. Let’s face it, whether right or wrong fathers are typically left out of the new school year expectations. Sometimes it is by individual choice, family structure or division of familial responsibilities. Sometimes, it is not.


Often the mother of a child with a disability assumes the role of nurturer and protector. Mothers tend to handle the child’s disability in a more emotional manner, is mother hen and protector of her young. During the younger years the mother is the one who oversees most aspects of her child’s life, including school. Mothers are more focused on day to day activities and requirements. Sadly, dads are often put on the back burner and are often turned to as “the heavy”.  Rather than just being the guy called in to school when mom is angry, dads have a valuable roles and responsibilities. Involving and encouraging fathers to be directly involved is critical.


Fathers of children with disabilities have unique perspective and experience. Like most fathers, these fathers must present as being in control and in charge. Their role is to reassure their child and family that everything will be ok. Fathers tend to provide a calming and logical presence and help provide clarity and reassurance to the child with a disability.  The reality is, often times the father is also struggling which is compounded by the typical male expectations in society.


Some interesting facts concerning fathers of children with disabilities:


-Fathers’ reaction to the birth of a child with a disability is very intense and they experience a diagnosis as a greater crisis than the mother.


-Fathers are forced to evaluate the typical male expectation within society as it relates to the birth of a son. When the birth of a son with a disability is involved, it is not uncommon for the father to initially experience disappointment and grieve a loss of what could have been.


-Fathers’ acceptance of their child is strongly influenced by his own parents’ acceptance of the child with the disability.


-Fathers are more concerned with the long-term implications of their child’s disability than the mother.


-Fathers main source of support are their partners. Fathers are vulnerable to depression and stress as a result of expectations demanded of them.



Over the years, experience has taught me that I prefer to deal with fathers as a primary point of contact. Generally speaking the fathers tend to be more direct and open without judgment or emotions directing the conversation. Fathers have different views, expectations and suggestions than a mother might have. However, it is critical that the child have both parents active and involved. When there are two active and knowledgeable parents involved in a child’s long term development and education, more ground can be covered by working collaboratively.


Professionals have an obligation to invite parents to an IEP meeting. It is often assumed to be the mother simply based on ease of contact, staying at home and being a mom. Fathers should be encouraged to be involved, input provided and to experience a mutual and open relationship for the child’s long term interest. Yet, not all fathers like being contacted. Determining every preference for every family I service is unrealistic during the initial phases of placement. It’s a balancing act for us professionals while trying to respect and understand your individual family needs.


Let me reassure you, there is not an evil conspiracy amongst schools to contact the mother first when needed and leave the father out of the equation. Schools call the primary contact listed in the system and then we work backwards from there.  When your child was registered for school, you filled out contact information. On the contact form, the parent listed first is entered into the computer system first (unless you have provided legal orders and judgments). When I write an IEP and enter data, I am referring to the enrollment information and parent contact listed in our system. If dad is listed first, he is the primary contact listed on the IEP. You can change contact information at any time, simply call the office and have your requests for contact noted. It is also possible that the parent who registers the child or attends the IEP meeting becomes the primary contact simply as a matter of attendance.



Fathers, you matter and you are critical to your child’s success in school. Now that the new school year is upon us, this is your opportunity to set some new standards as we all settle into the routine. Send your child’s teacher and special education providers a short email introducing yourself, letting them know what your comfort level and expectation for involvement and communication is. Teachers want your involvement and your child needs your involvement. Please, reach out to us and let us know your unique needs for communication and involvement.


Teachers out there, take some time and reach out to the fathers. They can be your biggest supporter and ally or they can end up coming in at some point down the road as “The Heavy”. Let’s all work together, bridge these gaps and support all aspects of who a child is beyond IEP goals, homework and grades. Fathers of children with disabilities want to be included and involved. Their children benefit from them being involved. It can be as simple as acknowledging their value and reaching out.


Past Editions