Navigating the Wheelchair Accessible Path to Adoption

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Katrina Kelly

My path to parenthood was not a straight path. I had to search for the curb cuts and find the universal access signage, move past flights of stairs and narrow doors. Ultimately, I found my wheelchair accessible path to adoption.

And let me tell you, the view from up here is fantastic.

The Long and Winding Road

I’ve wanted to be a mom since I was about 5. I was even Mom to my imaginary friends. Fortunately, a quarter of a century later, my husband was on board. We had actually talked about having children on our third date.  The question for us was not whether we would be parents, but how best to get there.

Because I have Spinal Muscular Atrophy with scoliosis and a weakened diaphragm, I have limited real estate for growing a baby on my own. I chose not to pursue pregnancy after weighing my individual risks. 

I narrowed my choices to surrogacy or adoption. I asked around a bit about surrogacy but decided it wasn’t the best path for me. Most of my friends and relatives were unavailable to be surrogates because they were busy making babies of their own. And I personally didn’t want to work with someone I didn’t know. This put us on the path to adoption, with all of its turns and alternate routes.

I started researching adoption seriously about 6 months into our marriage. We were total newbies—even though adoption has been an important part of both of our families. So like any good Xillinneal (I am told that this is a word), I took to the internet. I learned that in the US there are essentially three routes to adopting a child that is not a relative.

Door #1: Infant Adoption

The first route most people think of is infant adoption. To adopt an infant, families typically need to work with an agency and be chosen by a birth mother. I was not sure whether I wanted an infant because I would have a difficult time participating in most of the things he would need. I can’t lift up a can of Diet Coke, let alone lift a 15 pound wiggly baby to change his diaper. Ultimately, the decision was made easier for me because of hurdles inherent to the process. I had friends pursue adoption who waited years to be chosen because one parent was *possibly* Middle Eastern (shakes head).

I personally could not face the rejection of birth mother after birth mother who’d fear that I would be unable to care for their child—wanting to do the best for their child. Because our society has framed “disabled” as “incompetent,” I had a hard time picturing us moving to the top of a birth mother’s list of potential parents anytime soon.

I saw a few too many sharp turns on the path to infant adoption and decided to look at our other options.

Door #2: Foster to Adopt

Another path to adoption is foster to adopt. Parents can become registered as foster parents and can foster children who are available for adoption. After a time, they become eligible to adopt.

This is one of the less expensive options and many parents can get subsidies for their child’s medical expenses throughout their childhood.  Additionally, foster care agencies tend to be more open to parents with disabilities. In fact, I know a woman who uses a power wheelchair and a ventilator who has adopted several children from foster care.

This is certainly another great option, and one that we seriously considered. I found myself regularly visiting to see if I found my child. Ultimately, we found our son somewhere else, but I imagine this would have been an excellent wheelchair accessible path as well.

Door #3: International Adoption

The third adoption path is the one that we ultimately chose: international adoption. I had always had an interest in adopting a child with a disability. I knew that many parents shy away from adopting children with extra medical needs, needs that didn’t scare me in the least. I Googled “adopting children with disabilities” and found a website called This website listed children from all over the world with different disabilities or other special circumstances that left them waiting for a family. There were so many countries with children in need—where was our child?

I discovered in my search for our child that some countries put up barriers for parents in wheelchairs. For example, both China and the Philippines closed the doors (and locked them securely) for my husband and me. Prospective parents with wheelchairs are automatically disqualified from those countries, with very limited exceptions. Other countries have varying restrictions and every parent needs to do their research. Finally, we settled on Bulgaria because it seemed to be the most tolerant of seemingly imperfect adoptive parents. Bulgaria understood that even if imperfect on paper, we were perfect for our child.

Destination: Family

I took to and scoured page after page of children from Bulgaria. We were seeking a child that was out of the infant stage but still fairly young since we were new parents. I came across a little boy with the cutest smile and the cutest story to go with it. They described him as always helping his friend who was blind to reach toys. I was smitten. Then I saw that he had spinal muscular atrophy (the same as me). Everything else faded away. I knew we had found our son. The whole process took about a year and a 3-inch three ring binder of paperwork.

At the end, we had to travel to Bulgaria to meet him and then travel again to pick him up. That was certainly an adventure, and not the most wheelchair accessible part of my path. Fortunately, he was in one of the most accessible cities in Bulgaria. They had an accessible walking trail and accessible buses. I became friends with a Bulgarian wheelchair user through an accessible travel page. He helped me navigate renting accessible equipment and finding transportation. It was challenging, but we made it work for our son.

On the pickup trip, my husband traveled with my mom because I had been warned that Bulgaria’s capital Sofia was particularly inaccessible. I met them at the airport, and like the Grinch my heart grew three sizes that day.

Parenting is not without its challenges, but I am so grateful that we pushed through, found the open gates we needed, and now I have a pint-size kiddo with wheels like mine.

Katrina Gossett Kelly wears several hats. She is an attorney at Faegre Baker Daniels in Indianapolis, specializing in trade secret litigation and litigation for large nonprofits. She also performs improv at ComedySportz Indianapolis and serves as a disability advocate throughout Indiana. Her favorite job of all, however, is being mom to her young son, adopted last year from Bulgaria—an adorable little boy with the same disability as Katrina, spinal muscular atrophy.