My research companion is a man with visual impairment who has worked with disabled people for ten years (Cong Cai, a member of the council of Shanghai Youren Foundation). We started the project with shared confusion; except for the advocacy for equal rights, in what other aspects can we understand the maternity of women with disabilities, in this case, visual impairment? Do they have autonomy over their maternity? And to what extent can we integrate the complexity of disabled women’s motherhood into contemporary conversations in China?
Recently, reflecting on maternity is enjoying new visibility in China. When Chinese young women in cities express their independence, competence, and autonomy in and through work against motherhood, the voices of disabled women are often missing. Alongside this, there is also a narrowed understanding of disabled women’s maternity because it is regarded as equal SRHR (Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights) of disabled people. As for motherhood, the complexity in real practice remained unaddressed.
To solve these discontents, we invited 20 women with visual impairment to depth-interview about their experiences of visual impairment and reproduction. Most of them come from rural areas and small towns in China. Seeking better economic opportunities, they work as massage therapists in more prosperous cities. Prior to this, their education was primarily limited to traditional Chinese medicine and massage training received at schools for the visually impaired. It is noteworthy that their husbands are always massage therapists with visual impairment.
Prior to the investigation, we anticipated a story about having babies to challenge the stereotype of disabled people – however, cases were rare. It seems that even though visual impairment might be inherited, the interviewees felt it was a regular rite to have a baby in their 20s and 30s regardless of the visual impairment. When asked whether their families had argued with them about the choice, most of them said their parents did not prevent them from getting pregnant and some parents or/and parents-in-law provided them with babysitting or even economic support. Despite the challenges that visual impairment may bring to raising children, most interviewees' parents supported them based on traditional beliefs such as "everyone should get married and have children, and the older generations should help with childcare", which is similar to the ideas of non-disabled couples' parents. One interviewee's (Jasmine) expression of her intention to remain unmarried and childless caused great anxiety for her father. However, when she eventually got married and chose to have children, her father felt deeply relieved. This dynamic of anxious parents and adult children reluctant to marry and have children reflects a common situation in many Chinese families in recent years.
The Chinese disability community fights against stereotypes towards disabled people, one of which is the protectionism from their parents. Parental protectionism arises from societal bias against disabled individuals. On one hand, parents see disabled children as hopeless and a disgrace to the family. On the other hand, they fear potential harm to their disabled children outside, leading them to keep the children at home. Our interviewee Gina, who grew up in rural Tibet said that, two or three decades ago, because parents lacked knowledge about how to bring up blind children, they took care of blind children yet at the same time tied them up to protect them. Jasmine recalled how she fought for the opportunity to get special education against her father's will several years after she lost her eyesight. Her father had been ready to support and protect her until death but did not believe that she can live independently. In the end, she went to school and learned massage skills. In our research, blind women got used to living with visual impairment(s) through special education or in life with non, or less-protective parents. Women in their 30s or 40s who grew up in the countryside (Indigo, Lily, Lulu, Abby,) have been engaged in housework since they were young. Two interviewed women (Jasmine and Abby) with experience in disability advocacy concluded their disability is “a lifestyle”. So everything they achieved independently is the practice of autonomy in deciding to be a mother. In this sense, for them, their blindness does not impede them.
As aforementioned, elder generations will participate in intergenerational parenting. The majority of the interviewees welcomed the assistance provided by their elders when some of them also wanted to prove their abilities as mothers. After her mother-in-law took on all the parenting tasks, Jasmine felt like an "empty vessel" and considered herself a "failed mother." Her perspective reflects a dual consciousness of being both a woman and a person with disabilities. As a mother, she resented being treated merely as a machine of reproduction, and as a person with disabilities, she firmly believed in her own capabilities.
Nonetheless bringing up a child is always difficult. A newborn baby is an unknown and fragile puzzle for a blind woman to explore answers. As Abby recounted, it was on the third day after her delivery that she held her daughter for the first time. She was alone with her baby. When the baby cried, the nurse told her: