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Disabled Mother and Gifted Daughter Lead ‘Regular’ Life

Courtesy of Meg Nielson(PHILADELPHIA) -- Single mom Bonnie Brown is mentally handicapped, yet her 15-year-old daughter, Myra, would like to attend the University of Cambridge, in England, after she graduates from Merion Mercy Academy near Philadelphia.

Three social workers from a county agency spend 29 hours each week with Brown, 48, to help her with everyday tasks such as paying bills. Myra attends a private high school paid for by a benefactor found by the Philadelphia agency Community Interactions.

The disabled mother and her bright daughter may be an unconventional pair. But they don't see it that way.

"My mom does everything that a regular mom does, so I never thought of her as different, and I don't want other people to," Myra told ABC News. Myra said it takes her mother longer to understand things like driving directions, and a social worker confirmed to ABC News that Brown does indeed have a low IQ.

Brown sometimes has a hard time disciplining Myra, social worker Charlene Jordan told ABC News.

"I'm trying to teach Bonnie, you can't be her friend right now, you've got to be her parent. She's going to hate you, but it's all right," said Jordan.

Brown and her daughter represent a striking success story when it comes to disabled parents.

As recently as a generation ago, disabled people were prevented from having kids through state-sponsored involuntary sterilization programs. Starting in the early part of the last century until 1970, public health officials incapacitated more than 65,000 disabled people from being able to have children. Authorities believed the offspring of mentally handicapped people would have presented a burden to society, according to a report from the National Council on Disability.

Today being a disabled parent is less of an oddity, with new laws to protect the disabled, and changing attitudes about their capabilities. But they can run into unjust custody troubles, Mark Perriello, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, told ABC News.

"Too often parents with a disability face discrimination, state bureaucrats who try to take their child away based on little fact and misconceptions about what it means to be a person with disabilities," he said.

That's changing, thanks to more states enacting anti-discrimination laws for disabled parents that can help them keep custody of their children, but only a federal law would cover everybody, he said.

"There needs to be more support for parents with disabilities," Perriello said.

According to 2010 U.S. Census data, the most recent available, at least 4.1 million, or 6.2 percent of, American parents of children under age 18 have a mental or physical disability.

Between 40 and 80 percent of parents with an intellectual disability lose custody of their children, according to a report released in September by the National Council on Disability, "Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children." That compares with 13 percent for parents with a physical disability.

And then there's the huge psychological and physical toll borne by children who are their disabled parent's main caregiver -- a number estimated to be roughly 1.4 million, according to a 2004 survey by the National Alliance for Caregiving. The survey is a one-time study that hasn't been updated, which underscores the inadequate attention paid to these children in need, said Connie Siskowski, founder of the American Association of Caregiving Youth, a nonprofit in Palm Beach County, Fla.

Children who care for a disabled parent are typically sleep-deprived and depressed, she said. They often suffer from medical problems and drop out of school.

"When you're worried and under a lot of stress, it is really tough to learn," said Siskowski. "I've had kids who say, 'Every time I hear an ambulance go by, I wonder if it's going to my home."

Brown and Myra are "really fortunate" to have access to services, she said.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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