Something Beautiful: Special Needs Adoption

Winona Jean Carlson, owner of Jean Marie’s Fabrics in Springfield, Oregon, is 80 years old and still works 60 hours a week. She opened her store 42 years ago and works as a seamstress, tailor and teacher.

But Carlson’s most beautiful work may not be her craft. She and her husband adopted three daughters—all from tragic circumstances, two with disabilities. “Our first daughter is 52 now,” said Carlson. “She has severe cerebral palsy. We knew she had it when we adopted her. The doctors said she would never walk and that she was mentally retarded. But she did walk. She has a doctorate in law from Willamette University. She’s written 28 books.” Carlson smiled that rapturous smile which belongs to proud parents.

Adopting a child with disabilities or special needs can be, as Carlson said, both difficult and rewarding.

SNAC—the Special Needs Adoption Coalition—defines special needs adoption as an adoption when “the child is over eight years old, part of a sibling group, has some physical, mental or emotional disabilities, or is part of an ethnic minority.”

The trouble is, special needs adoption has a bit of an image problem. It is often stigmatized, dramatized or misunderstood. Across the U.S., adoption agencies and similar organizations are working hard to rebuild their public relations strategies and language around special needs adoption—because this issue is complex and far from two-dimensional.

Take this story of Carlson and her adoptive daughters, for example. While it’s an incredible and inspiring story, it becomes problematic when all the special needs stories we tell follow the same narrative of an underdog-overcomer and their hero/savior parent. It may be amazing and true—and we should tell those stories!—but there’s so much more to the picture than a moment of glory.

Not every child with special needs will grow up to win a marathon, land a Nobel Peace Prize or become a world-traveling inspirational speaker. The child who is loved and grows up to live a so-called “ordinary” life is no less valuable and inspirational. Parents who adopt children with disabilities or other special needs know that day-to-day life can be hard, exhausting and challenging. But they also know that, at the end of the day, a child with special needs is just a child. And parenting one of these beautiful young people can be the greatest adventure of a lifetime.


If you’re considering adopting a child with special needs (or if you know someone who is), you’ve come to the right place. I’m excited to share with you some steps to take and resources to take advantage of as you navigate special needs adoption.

Educate yourself about special needs adoption.

The Department of Human Services (DHS) and private agencies with the Special Needs Adoption Coalition (SNAC). For an orientation or more information, call 1-800-331-0503 or a Special Needs Adoption Coalition member agency​.

Ask yourself questions.

DHS advises you ask yourself the following questions to begin:

  • “Does everyone in our family believe that adoption is right for us? 
  • Do we have friends or family that will support us in this decision? 
  • Do we have space in our home for a child? Can we take siblings? 
  • Is there an age group or gender that would work best with our family? 
  • Are there special needs a child may have that we would not be comfortable taking on?”

Check out No Hands But Ours.

This is an amazing resource for parents interested in special needs adoption.

Join a broad support/knowledge network.

One example is this excellent Facebook group: Special Needs Resources – China.

Prepare yourself for a child who has been through trauma.

I encourage you to check out the work of Dr. Karyn Purvis, whose work in child development can help you prepare to deal with trauma and its consequences.

Think about the special needs you would be prepared to handle.

When you start the adoption inquiry process, you will be asked to fill out a Medical Conditions Checklist (sometimes abbreviated MCC). Looking it over in advance will give you time to do some research and start asking questions. You can find an example here.

Surround yourself with community.

Who in your life will be able to step in and support you as you parent a child with special needs? Start talking about this possibility with friends, family, your place of worship, your workplace and other contacts in your life. There will be times when you will need both physical help and verbal encouragement, so think ahead.

And finally, be community.

Adopting a child with special needs may be the best and most worthwhile decision you ever make. But if you realize that this path is not for you, be on the lookout for parents (both biological and adopted) who are raising children with special needs. How can you help them? Here’s a list of ways you can support adoptive families even if you don’t adopt.


Winona Jean Carlson is grateful for the three precious girls she adopted, and so proud of how far they’ve come. “People’s lives are a little like sewing,” she said. “It’s tedious and hard. It isn’t always delightful.  But it’s worthwhile. Sometimes it takes a lot of care and patience to make something beautiful.”


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