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By Daniel J. Vance

Kelly Buckland of Boise, Idaho, is a wheelchair-using quadriplegic. He is executive director of the Idaho State Independent Living Council and president of the National Council on Independent Living. Last year he helped the Idaho legislature pass a number of groundbreaking laws for people with disabilities.

Perhaps the most significant law helped secure equal child custody rights for parents with disabilities, a national first.

"Often, mainstream America does not recognize that people with all kinds of disabilities should have the same civil rights and control over choices in their lives as people without disabilities,” Buckland said in a telephone interview. “For instance, here in Idaho, we looked at all the child custody laws, such as adoption, child protection, termination of parental rights, divorce, and separation laws. In every single case 'disability' was [listed] as a reason to deny a parent custody or to take children away from them. You simply could lose your child because you had a disability and for no other reason.”

The Idaho legislature last year eliminated all discriminatory language in its laws, legislated that parents with disabilities couldn't be discriminated against in child custody cases, and decided that government employees performing home evaluations must have expertise in parenting with a disability.

The largest problem was in divorce court,” said Buckland, “where a parent would use their spouse's disability against them when the judge was deciding custody.” In more than a few cases, he said, an Idaho parent with a disability even lost custody of their child to an abusive spouse.

In one Idaho case involving two legally blind parents, one parent actually argued for custody on the grounds that they were less blind. Buckland said that a particular degree of blindness or any other disability doesn't make a parent good or bad. It's that person's ability to love, teach and care for a child that is important.

Idaho was the first state to award equal rights. Kansas could be next, he said.

As for Buckland, he is a quadriplegic from a 1970 spinal cord injury. “I broke my neck in a diving accident at 16,” he said. “I was diving off a boat dock and hit my head on bottom. I loved the water and was a certified life guard. I knew you're supposed to check the depth before you dive. I was just being lazy that day.”

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