I wrote this article for a local publication and so it is pretty specific to our particular corner of south London: it first appeared in the Autumn 2014 edition of Camberwell Quarterly, the magazine of the Camberwell Society.
Living in Camberwell with a disabled child
My son Ben will soon be five years old and has lived in Camberwell and Peckham his whole life. Ben is bright, loves books and is developing freckles in the summer sun. He also has cerebral palsy which severely affects his ability to sit, stand, eat, drink and walk.
Following his birth in Camberwell during a winter of snow, Ben lived in three different houses in SE5 and then, last year, the big move to SE15 – so we have spent his life pushing him around Camberwell and learning how to navigate this bit of London with a disabled child.
We have been lucky to live so close to Sunshine House, on Camberwell Church Street. This beautiful building is exactly what a child like Ben needs: inspiring architecture, totally accessible for a buggy or wheelchair, stuffed full of dedicated therapists and useful doctors. I spent many hours enjoying the walk down Camberwell Grove and through the churchyard, then regretting the weight of a laden buggy as I huffed all the way back up to the top of the hill.
We were also fortunate in Ben’s first year to stumble across Camberwell Grove Early Years Centre. Parents of disabled children frequently struggle to find adequate childcare for their complicated kids, but the manager of this nursery welcomed Ben with enthusiasm and I was able to return to work. Ben has been going there for almost four years now and his younger brother will start shortly. Collecting Ben when he is playing in the lovely, huge garden with children he’s known for years is something to treasure.
In terms of activities for Ben, Camberwell is poorly served. Now Ben is four and uses a wheelchair, I cannot think of any local playgrounds that have any equipment that Ben can enjoy. He loves books, but he can’t get down the stairs to the children’s section of Camberwell Library. So we often travel to the Horniman Museum which puts on wonderful story telling sessions on Sundays. Ben is usually the child laughing loudest and longest at an elaborate tale of how the lion got his roar.
Transport is a mixed bag. The new ramp and lifts at Denmark Hill station are a great development, and it is entirely our fault that we moved one month after they were completed. Our nearest station is now Peckham Rye which has a labyrinth of stairways which make it pretty much inaccessible for a wheelchair user.
As a result, it’s usually most convenient for us to drive. Unfortunately Southwark has a hardline policy on blue badge holders, meaning that – unlike in Lambeth – we can’t park in resident permit bays. Given that Camberwell is increasingly dominated by controlled parking zones, this often means we circle the area looking for an elusive disabled bay.
We work hard to include Ben in as many aspects of local life as he can be, but it’s complicated. It’s easy for disabled children and their families to become isolated because they struggle to be included in ‘normal’ activities. There is a real need for us all to fight for more inclusion for disabled people.
In the meantime, the world gets better by small acts of kindness and friendship. We appreciate and enjoy Ben having a place in the communities of Camberwell and Peckham, where mothers talk to him in the playground and shopkeepers return his smile.