A Sibling Perspective: Interview with Fiona

My son, Ben, is 11 and my approach to his disability has changed a lot since he was little. I knew very little about disabled people when he was born and my experience of being his mother has been a rapid education in the issues surrounding disability. If I had known then what I know now, I would have done things differently and I would have found it helpful to have read stories of other people with similar experiences.

This is my latest interview in an occasional series – usually A Parent Perspective, but this time A Sibling Perspective – with Fiona, who lives with her disabled brother, Ewan. I found it so interesting to hear her thoughts about growing up with her brother.



Could you describe your family?

My mum and dad have three children – I’m the oldest, then my sister, Kirsty, then Ewan who is three years younger than me and is disabled. We grew up in Sussex and then moved to Scotland when Ewan left school to a house that is designed around Ewan’s needs. Ewan and I have always been incredibly close. My parents were Ewan’s carers but they’re not getting any younger and I wanted to be involved so now I am his main carer. My parents, Ewan, my husband Dom and I all live together which means there’s a lot of bickering because we all have strong opinions! But it works well for Ewan because he has me and my husband around and we can go out and do things very naturally. We do have paid carers as well.

Could describe Ewan and what he likes doing?

Ewan’s very cheeky. He loves to entertain us by doing something daft or mischievous. We both work at a candle shop, which is a social enterprise designed for people with disabilities. He and I are joint workshop leaders which I think Ewan really enjoys. We’re lucky to have met a nice group of friends, both with and without disabilities, and we go out – evenings at the pub, lunches, an art class. Ewan’s quite social and loves spending time with my husband, Dom.

Ewan is 36. We describe him as being disabled – having a learning disability. He needs a lot of support though he can do lots himself. He uses a wheelchair and doesn’t speak but he has fantastic communication. Ewan uses Makaton sign language, or at least his version of it! He also has some vocalisations – he’ll make sounds for yes, no, and some names that we recognise. He can get anxious in some situations and find them challenging.

How does Ewan’s disability affect his day to day life? What are the things that you, as a family, plan around?

At home he’s just Ewan. If we’re planning a day out sometimes it can be difficult to know what we’ll be able to do, what he’ll find interesting, whether we’ll be able to get in the building, whether there will be a Changing Place. From his point of view, his anxiety affects him. If Ewan’s worried or excited about something he has a lot of spasms in his arm, and that can cause pain.

Do you remember as a child realising that Ewan was different to you and your sister?

We didn’t know when Ewan born that he was disabled. Because he’s the youngest I think my mum realised that he wasn’t doing things that my sister and I had done. I remember being told that Ewan was blind and ‘handicapped’ (as it was in those days), and then he didn’t learn to walk and talk. He was obviously different but I don’t remember it really being much of an issue. I’ve always been very close to Ewan and I’m very proud of him, so people would get told about him all the time! I’ve never experienced anything negative about him being my brother.

To say that my parents weren’t fazed by it sounds ridiculous, but that’s the way it came across. Obviously he needed different things, different care, but it was always more of a practical thing, and mum and dad were very aware of trying to treat us all the same.

Did you choose to be Ewan’s carer?

Yes, I chose it because I feel that it works. It doesn’t really feel like I’m his carer except for the obvious things where we help him physically. It’s just our relationship and it’s fun. The hardest thing for me is stepping back and entrusting somebody else with the role because it can be difficult for other people to know how much independence to give Ewan, for example, and they can be tempted to make a choice for on his behalf or perhaps take over an activity.

Was there a natural progression over time as you took over from your parents?

When my husband and I moved to Scotland we allocated which days each of us would do Ewan’s care and I always wanted more days so we could go and do fun things. Now I support Ewan Monday to Friday and my parents do it at the weekends, though since we live with each other there’s overlap.

My parents know a lot more than I do about Ewan’s medical history and so they are more involved with that side of his care. Ewan used to have more health worries but thankfully since his epilepsy has been under control he’s been better. I am starting to take him to important hospital appointments on my own.

As a familywe bicker a lot, but not over Ewan’s care. I say I don’t want other people worrying about us because of Ewan, but I was worried about my parents and whether they were coping with all the care that they were doing before we moved up here. And now, they worry about me. I think that’s what families do!

What has worked particularly well for Ewan at particular stages of his life?

From the age of six he went to a brilliant school in Sussex. The whole school was geared towards their students, all of whom had very complex disabilities. They did everything, like scout camp for example. Ewan had the opportunity to do so many things, learned loads, and he enjoyed it. He’s not really had the same opportunities since he left school because not everywhere has the facilities.

When we moved to Scotland there were a few disabled children just leaving the high school and there was nothing here aimed at people with disabilities, which is why things like the candle shop came about. I’m talking on Ewan’s behalf here, but I think we’ve been really lucky. It feels like we’ve been in the right place at the right time.

Are there things that have been particularly challenging either for him, or for you as a family?

Ewan does always seem to be quite happy and he doesn’t seem to worry if he can’t do something. I think we lived in a bit of a false sense of security for a long time, thinking that he had everything he needed at home. It’s only since finding the first Changing Places toilet that the penny dropped for me, and I wondered why we were only just discovering them. Noticing how inaccessible places are makes me angry and frustrated. I think we’ve been incredibly lucky compared to many other people, in terms of support and services. We have been in the right place at the right time.

I think that no one talks about the benefits of having a disabled sibling…

I agree, or they do but it’s that ‘inspiring’ thing. I guess it’s hard to appreciate unless it is your experience. I know friends who have had harder times that us – we’re very lucky that Ewan’s health is good. If he didn’t sleep or needed a lot of medical attention our experiences would be different. I feel like we’re very lucky. Sometimes I don’t understand how other people don’t get it and don’t see the world like I do, and then I remember that they’re not all as fortunate as I am.

Do you have any advice for other siblings or for parents of disabled children or adults?

I’m not really in a position to give advice, but perhaps it would be: don’t compare. I’m not a parent but I think we’re all individuals. We’re all going to be the people that we’re meant to be, irrespective of disability. You can’t possibly compare one person to another, or the speed at which they’re doing something. I think my parents knew Ewan was going to be different so didn’t compare or worry about milestones.

I’ve spoken to my mum about it and she was upset when she first heard Ewan’s diagnosis but that’s the only sad thing I’ve ever heard. I sometimes feel like families are beating themselves up for not doing enough therapy with their children, that they think they’re not doing the best by their child, and that’s quite hard to watch. I think what will be will be.

You can find Fiona on Instagram @ewieandfi and on Twitter @fmmchiarini

A Parent Perspective: Interview with Caro

My son, Ben, is 11 and my approach to his disability has changed a lot since he was little. I knew very little about disabled people when he was born and my experience of being his mother has been a rapid education in the issues surrounding disability. If I had known then what I know now, I would have done things differently and I would have found it helpful to have read stories of other parents with similar experiences.

This is my latest interview with a parent who is raising a child who is not typical. This week it is with Caro, who is one of the friendliest people I’ve met on the internet.



Can you describe your family?

There is me, my husband, and our children: a boy of 17, a daughter of 15, and my youngest son is 11. My daughter is autistic and has Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA).

If you met her, depending on what your benchmark of neurotypical is, you might notice she’s different but she’s quite hard to spot. Behind that facade is an absolute ocean of anxiety. My daughter also has Obsessive Compulsive Condition (OCC, or OCD – whichever is your preference) which is part of the pathological demand avoidance. So whilst her brain is telling her, ‘You’ve got to be in control, you can’t do what this person is asking you to do’, the OCC kicks in and she will say, ‘I’m going to do it, but I’m going to do it my way’. They just fight each other all time and it makes life very debilitating.

Women and autism don’t have the greatest history. For every female diagnosed as autistic there are three males which means that a lot of women are being missed. Women present very differently and the current questionnaire, the system of how we diagnose autism, is based on male research.

Lack of understanding means that when I explain even to the most learned of healthcare professionals my daughter is autistic and has PDA, I’ll get a little head bob, and ‘I’m so sorry’. It really annoys me because that’s not helping anyone – her or the path that lies ahead for others. We need to change that whole conversation.

Was there a moment when you noticed your daughter was doing things differently to your older child?

She didn’t walk until quite late but I wasn’t overly worried. She was doing this thing as a toddler where she would turn my face to speak to her. I had previously looked after a little boy who’s deaf so I thought she had hearing difficulties. We took her to see a doctor and he said she has really bad glue ear but it will clear. When she started at nursery she was speaking and walking but she wasn’t socialising the way my son had. I went to see another paediatrician who wasn’t that worried and at the bottom of the note that he sent to my GP, it said ‘Mother worried’.

I’ve got a lot of ‘Mother concerned’ notes and it wasn’t until she was in year two that somebody started to take it seriously. By then she was on her third school. We had a terrible situation where she was being treated terribly by one of the members of staff in a verbally abusive way. My daughter had been told she was stupid, he would rip work up in front of her. He sent her down from year one to reception class. We removed her straightaway but I think that had lasting effects on her.

She was diagnosed with audio processing issues when she was seven but we started seeing more people privately because the waiting lists to get a further diagnosis were years long. When she was nearly nine she got the diagnosis of autism, and a year later, a diagnosis of pathological demand avoidance. By then her issues with executive function were obvious. She was still in a mainstream school and masking a lot, so a lot of what we were being told wasn’t really fitting with her behaviour at home.

At one stage as a family we didn’t go out socially for about a year, not because we were embarrassed about her behaviour, but because it was so upsetting and difficult for her. We would parent the children almost separately, so my husband would sometimes take the boys and I would take my daughter. I think that was an error – I think siblings should be exposed to it all – but at the time we felt it was a lot for us and for them. My husband played sport for a living and therefore he worked at weekends so I was on my own a lot with all three.

How do you approach language around autism?

I listen to autistic people saying, ‘This is how I want to be addressed,’ and I use that language in my family. I’ve always felt that communication is the key. Where you don’t have information there is a void, and people can fill it with anything they want. There is no embarrassment to any of my daughter’s diagnoses.

How do you judge how much to share about your daughter?

I don’t want to give too much of her away, because I think she deserves her own social media footprint. I think we want to make sure that we maintain a level of respect for the person that we’re raising, because I would hate for my daughter to read or see something upsetting. But I felt very lonely for a very long time, because there were no other parents at her original schools that were in a similar position, and it felt very isolating to me. When I started sharing on social media, people said, ‘Me too’, and it felt less lonely. It’s a difficult line and I often sit back and take a break, but there are phenomenal support groups on social media.

I realised, probably a bit late, that I was putting her face up and then rethought. I definitely was guilty of saying, ‘Oh, woe is me,’ a few years ago. What I didn’t do enough was sit and listen, because my daughter isn’t the first autistic person to be born and she won’t be the last. I’m listening to autistic people because I can talk about my learned experience as a parent or carer, but I can’t speak about what it’s like to be autistic. Most of the information that we have has been from healthcare professionals that are neither autistic nor raising those that are.

How has your approach to your daughter’s autism, or parenting, changed over the years?

My daughter had a lot of behavioural issues when we were out when she was younger (which makes perfect sense now) and my eldest son found that exceptionally challenging. I was saying, ‘You go and play with your friends, everything is fine.’ I didn’t really know what I was dealing with and didn’t feel supported, even though I’d read every available book and seen countless doctors. Actually what I was lacking was self-confidence. When I read your book, I saw you got your confidence early and I envy that.

Anyone that’s ever been into a meeting with their Local Authority will know it’s probably one of the most terrifying things you’ll ever do. I remember sitting in a meeting about her, listening, and when I walked out I said to my husband, ‘They’re all completely wrong about her. I’m never going to go into another meeting so ill prepared again.’ The next year I spent weeks preparing for the meeting and handed a booklet of papers out to everyone. I said, ‘I’m really uncomfortable with the language that you’re using.’ I corrected things that were wrong. It’s not about dismissing what professionals are telling you, it’s that not everything will apply to you and it’s about getting the confidence to pick and choose what will help your child and your family. I think that starts with looking on social media or reading a book or finding people in similar situations.

My husband, Will, is the most incredible support. I’m the primary carer and I struggled with not earning money for a long time. I didn’t want to be a burden but I undervalued what I was doing because caring isn’t valued by society. When I’ve sat through those hideous meetings thinking I can’t do this, he’s there saying, ‘You absolutely can.’

My husband and I are very different. I am over communicative, he under communicates. We are polar opposites in lots of ways, but our life goals and the way we raise children has been in sync. I do think there is luck involved. My family are really important support to us – especially my mum.

I get messages from people saying their family members have criticised how they parent their autistic child, how they should be firmer. How can people not see how unhelpful and damaging that can be? I remember someone very early on into our daughter’s diagnosis a friend sending me a link to an article about how to cure autism. It’s what’s called ‘soles of your feet’ behaviours – things that you can’t see that you do, that you forget are there, but they’re part of you. If people that love my daughter will say or send things like that, then heavens only knows how we’re ever going to make the path less challenging for her and people like her.

No child comes with a book of instructions. I spent far too long looking back and thinking we should have done things differently. I think that would be the advice I would give myself now: you’re doing the best you can at the time. I think we made terrible errors with my daughter when we didn’t know what was going on, where I was telling her off for doing something she had no control over. I didn’t know what else to do at the time.

Do you think there are things that you’ve learnt through parenting your daughter that have changed the way you are with your other children?

Yes, definitely. There are loads of things that my daughter has taught me that has made me a better mum. I’m much more patient. I now always listen first, there is absolutely nothing off limits. I think I would have been far more staid had it not been for her and the way that she is. I have seen now that behaviour is communication so rather than reacting straightaway, I’ll ask, ‘What’s going on?’ My daughter taught me that trying to fix things is no good when the situation is full of anxiety, noise and stress.

How has parenting changed you over the time that you’ve been doing it?

I think I am a much better person. I used to look back and regret a lot. This is not how I thought my life would be – not being negative, it just isn’t what I expected. I am now more than okay with that. It’s absolutely wonderful.

I think as carers we sit on a tightrope between our children and people that aren’t like our children, and we want society to meet a little bit in the middle. I want people to understand that it can be difficult, like any parenting, but there are so many incredible parts. I’m trying to listen to autistic people whilst caring for someone that is autistic, whilst not being autistic myself.

I wouldn’t change my child, not for me, but I’d take away some of her anxiety and her challenges if I could. My daughter has changed us all and she is glorious and brilliant (with splashes of, ‘How are we going to deal with this?!’) My boys are better humans because of their sister. My husband is entirely different to the man that I met 25 years ago. I absolutely wouldn’t change a single tiny hair on my daughter’s head. I am so glad that I am her mum.

You can find Caro on Instagram @spikey and Twitter @CaroTasker

A Parent Perspective: Interview with Fay

My son, Ben, is 11 and my approach to his disability has changed a lot since he was little. I knew very little about disabled people when he was born and my experience of being his mother has been a rapid education in the issues surrounding disability. If I had known then what I know now, I would have done things differently and I would have found it helpful to have read stories of other parents with similar experiences.

This is my latest interview with a parent who is raising a child who is not typical. This week it is with Fay. We became friends when Ben and Caleb were small, and Fay and I were trying to work out how to be parents.

Note: includes a description of pre-term birth.




Can you describe your family?

We’re a family of 3, plus a grandparent. I’m a single parent who works part time with a 5 year old, Sarai, and an 11 year old, Caleb.
 
How would you describe Caleb?

Handsome! He’s so affectionate, nothing phases him. For example, he can usually use his iPad but today his arms are a bit all over the place so he can’t, and he’s getting us to work it for him. That’s what I admire about him, no matter what he’s been through, he just continues to smile.  

He loves YouTube, reading, lying in bed listening to the radio – only Capital radio! Thankfully he was born in this generation where there’s all this technology, otherwise I don’t know what I’d do!
 
Caleb’s not able to walk, sit unaided, feed himself or get himself dressed, but he gets by. He’s got people who will get him dressed, feed him, help him look good. He uses a wheelchair.
 
When did you first realise that Caleb was going to be disabled, or have special needs?

I went into labour at 21 weeks. When they examined me they said I was miscarrying and I burst into tears. I asked when it was going to happen. They said it wouldn’t be too long and put me on bedrest. A consultant in pre-term labour came to see me after a scan and said, ‘I’m really sorry you are miscarrying, but you’re young, you can always try again’. I was just waiting, worrying, and nothing happened.
 
Then the bleeding changed and I felt Caleb move for the first time. There was nothing I could do. I went into labour one night, and Caleb came at 23 weeks exactly. I thought he was dead because I couldn’t work out what was going on. I just saw this red ball and I didn’t want to look, then they took him away. They said he was alive.
 
But that’s when the problems started because he was in NICU and really unwell. Other children came in after him but then left hospital and we were still there. I became a mini-nurse, watching all the screens. We were discharged in October after seven months. In January we had a community paediatrician check-up and the doctor said, ‘Have you heard of cerebral palsy?’ and I just cried. I started looking at him differently. I had been thinking he wasn’t sitting up yet because he was premature. Then all these healthcare professionals started coming in and out of our lives and I started noticing a bit more.
 
For Caleb cerebral palsy was just the fact that he couldn’t sit, walk, he couldn’t really talk. Every time he went into hospital it was always to do with oxygen, because he had chronic lung disease. He was actually doing alright – he was rolling. You’d wonder where he was and have to follow the oxygen tube round the house, find him under the table! That threw me when he was later in hospital after hip surgery because that wasn’t to do with his chest. I’m used to him being ventilated, but that time it was different and unfamiliar.
 
In what ways is your life now how you expected it to be, and how is it different?

I didn’t really have expectations. I got pregnant at 22, had Caleb when I was 23. Life now with Caleb is great. Once you start having a better understanding of disability, how to manage it, have a relationship with your child – it’s kind of like having super-powers. If I was to do Mastermind in Caleb I’d ace it! It’s just one foot in front of the other, learning to be content with what we’ve got, being proud of ourselves for what we’ve endured. I think acceptance takes a while. I think the acceptance is 99.9% there for me and things have fitted into place. I’ve learnt how to manage, how to adapt.
 
There are highs and lows. Caleb’s always happy, and it’s me who goes through the emotions. There are days when I feel like I’ve got this – I know what I’m doing with meds, baths, feeding. And then there are days where I just don’t want to do it. I can plan like everyone else but things don’t always go to plan, illnesses come on all of a sudden. Sometimes I get a bit of anxiety. I try not to think long term. I get on with it but I’m thinking I don’t think I’ll be able to lift him in a year’s time. I’m being an advocate all the time.
 
How do you think raising Caleb has changed you?

He’s changed me for the better. When I was growing up I was quite insecure but having Caleb has given me confidence. I don’t take any crap because I’m fighting a battle every day. It’s made me a stronger person, as well as more emotional. People used to say ‘When Caleb goes to school you won’t be able to be there to fight his battles’, but I’ll still be there, fighting all his battles. I didn’t think I had it in me.
 
How much of what is difficult in your lives is to do with people not helping in the way they could, rather than Caleb’s disability?

The lack of understanding, even from family members, is difficult. Sometimes Caleb says something and they ask me, ‘What did he say?’ I’m thinking he’s sitting right next to you and understands you. Why can’t you say, ‘Caleb, why don’t you say that a bit slowly because I didn’t hear you’ If I’m there I will intervene and Sarai will say, ‘He said this…’.
 
In my culture there’s a thing of ‘God will help, God will see it through’. So if I say we need to do something, people say, ‘No, you’re being defeatist here. Where’s your faith?’ I have faith, but you have to help yourself. Caleb has glasses and people say he doesn’t want to wear them so don’t put them on, but I’m his parent and he needs glasses. I know my kid better than anyone. Maybe because I don’t have a partner, it’s like they still don’t see me as an adult. It frustrates me because I am the adult – I’ve got two kids.
 
There are some professionals that are really clued up and there are some that aren’t. We’re fortunate that we’ve got good relationships with our health professionals, really good ones that I can have a proper conversation with. I think sometimes if you’re really difficult they put you at arms’ length and you don’t get the support you need. You’ve got to be open with people and tell them how you’re feeling. I find with healthcare if you don’t ask, you’re not going to get.

How much do you think your age affected the way people treated you as a mother? Do you think people underestimated you?

Sometimes I’d be at an appointment with my mum and they would talk to her, not me, and she can barely speak English! I think people underestimated me, sometimes in a patronising way, where they were like ‘Don’t worry, in time you will get it.’ As if when I’m 40 I’ll suddenly get it.
 
With doctors there’s a spectrum. You get some that are bubbly, keen, really engaging with the kids. And then you some who have minimal words, no social skills, who look more uncomfortable than me. You get the really nice nurses who ask you how you do things, and ones who aren’t like that at all. You meet so many different types of healthcare professionals. I’ve learnt to ask the questions I need to ask.
 
When Caleb started school aged four the headteacher asked, ‘Does Caleb need all of this?’ waving her arm at his equipment. And I said, ‘Yes he does. Every single one. Do you want me to tell what it’s for?’ She said, ‘Oh no, it’s fine, it’s just a lot of space’. I said that’s not my problem and from then she didn’t like me. When Caleb got a specialist buggy she said we couldn’t leave the buggy outside the classroom. I said, ‘You know Caleb can’t walk so how do you expect him to get home?’ People think you’re being difficult, but actually it’s them not thinking before they speak.
 
What do you wish other people knew?

I was the first in my group to have a baby and no one understood the severity of what I was going through. People say, ‘Fay you’re always smiling, you just get on with it’, and yes I do but it’s really hard. I have to make appointments, chase up test results or a new piece of equipment, or something is broken and I need to get it fixed. There’s so much to organise.

People haven’t offered support – even just to come over and hang out. Some people are intimidated by his feeding tube but it’s not complicated. Caleb isn’t fragile, he’s like any other kid. Please just treat him like a normal child. I’ve been at people’s mercy a lot which I don’t like.
 
I also wish people thought more about emotional wellbeing. I wasn’t put in touch with other parents of disabled kids. I was lucky to meet other parents at a conductive education charity. I struggled with not having a support network. Once you’re in your own four walls, no matter what you’re going through, you always feel like you’re the only one going through it.
 
I wish Caleb had more social life and friends. With Sarai, Caleb has come out of his shell a bit more. He mimics her, they wind each other up and it’s so nice to see that. Sarai’s never known any different. If Caleb and I go to pick Sarai up from school, she runs up to him. Sometimes she does notice when people stare and ask about Caleb, but if her friends ask a question she’ll just answer it: ‘That’s his wheelchair.’ I’ve explained to her he’s disabled and she used to say ‘be-abled’. She wants Caleb included. I think that’s why they’re so homely because the love they get at home is enough for them.

A Parent Perspective: Interview with Kara

My son, Ben, is 11 and my approach to his disability has changed a lot since he was little. I knew very little about disabled people when he was born and my experience of being his mother has been a rapid education in the issues surrounding disability. If I had known then what I know now, I would have done things differently and I would have found it helpful to have read stories of other parents with similar experiences.

This is my latest interview with a parent who is raising a child who is not typical. This week it is with Kara Melissa Sharp, whose blog I first found when Ben was tiny. I loved seeing her family’s travels and approach then and hearing about how they all are now.

Could you describe your family?

I have two kids: Sebastian is almost 13, he has cerebral palsy (CP) and a seizure disorder, plus a G-tube (gastrostomy feeding tube). Sebastian is significantly affected by his CP. He uses an eyegaze communication device. His sister, Tallula, is 8. We’re from all over the place – I’m from Michigan (USA), their dad is from Australia, Sebastian was born in London and his sister is Canadian. We’ve been in Toronto, Canada, since 2010.

Sebastian has a service dog – a golden doodle named Ewok. When Sebastian has seizures Ewok licks his face and it helps him come out of them; he smiles and Ewok stays by his side for the remainder of the day. He’s definitely an important member of the family.

What does Sebastian love doing?

He loves to be in the kitchen when I’m cooking – to be a part of making dinner and his blended diet. He’s excited that when we move we’re going to get one of those big mixers that goes on the counter with a switch so he can control it. He loves baking – he has an Instagram account called @baking_jedi which his caregiver Layla helped set up. She also helped him redo his eyegaze (communication aid) so it has more teenagery language like, ‘Hey, Whats up?’ and emojis. He thinks it’s hilarious.

Sebastian loves joking. He has lots of jokes on his eyegaze. For years, he has brought in a joke to school each morning (on his step-by-step switch or on his eyegaze). We have so many joke books but still we’re running out of jokes.

He loves being with Ewok, taking him for walks, and Star Wars – the new movies and he likes to watch us put together Star Wars Lego. He loves spending time with his sister. He likes socialising with friends though because of Covid he hasn’t had that outside of virtual visits – he has a few good friends that make it a priority which is nice. He also likes playing soccer in his walker, going swimming, riding his bike.

What is the language that you use to describe Sebastian?

I’ve never used the term ‘special needs’. He has a disability, he is disabled. I’ve talked to disabled people and there are a lot of good conversations about the language they prefer to use to refer to themselves. I remember when he was little learning about people-first language, for example saying Sebastian has a disability instead of Sebastian is disabled, but several disabled people that I’ve spoken to don’t like people-first language. It comes down to identity and being disabled is part of his identity.

How were Sebastian’s early months and years, and at what point did it became clear he was (or was likely to be) disabled?

He was born not breathing after a pretty traumatic birth. He was in hospital in London for 16 days and I remember the paediatrician saying Sebastian would probably have cerebral palsy. I didn’t know what that was or what it meant.

It was hard when Sebastian first came home. The nurse had to come regularly to check on him, he pulled his NG (nasogastric) tube out a lot and I had to learn to put it back in. We went to therapy and no one would tell us he had CP, until a neurologist finally told us Sebastian had dystonic cerebral palsy when he was 3 months old. We didn’t tell anyone. You just pretend everything is fine because with a baby it’s easy to pretend everything is okay.

We moved to Cairo when Sebastian was five months old. I was home with him all the time and the only person who really knew Sebastian was our cleaner, Hueida. She didn’t speak much English but she communicated that she could tell something was different about him. We announced on my blog that he had CP when he was about 10 months old. It was on World CP awareness day. I read what we wrote recently it was like this thing we created to tell people what was happening in our lives but it really didn’t tell them.

I was looking after a baby in a country where I didn’t speak the language, had no family and no friends. My partner worked all the time. I had to order books about CP and when they arrived they were so outdated and unhelpful. It was before Facebook etc but I joined a Yahoo group and met two moms from Melbourne who both had sons with CP. I got to meet those moms and their boys on a visit to Australia and it was amazing. That was my real introduction into a community, compared to Cairo where there was a boy with CP who used to beg outside the train station and a school for kids with disabilities. I went to visit and asked what language they used to speak to these kids because they were speaking to me in English. They said, ‘Oh they don’t talk. We don’t talk to them,’ and I thought my kid cannot be here. That was when we knew we would have to move for Sebastian to be able to go to school.

How does Sebastian’s disability affect his day to day life, and what do you do to help him access as full a life as possible?

Sebastian needs help with everything so we have always done hand-over-hand projects and found creative ways to help him do art. We recently got an Xbox with a huge package of switches. His dad and caregiver have figured it out so he can hit the switches with his head to stop and go. He co-pilots so someone else does the direction and he likes racing games. We’ll try to find as much technology as possible to make his life easier and provide more independence.

When he was little there was so much focus on being able to walk, sit up and talk and I feel now like those are not the most important things – the priority is that he can communicate with the world. His eyegaze computer is on our table all the time so he can access it.

We take him everywhere. We go to museums and parks and we have travelled the world. I think it’s really important that people know that these things are possible, even if it involves more challenges. It is important to us to take him out into the world.

How is your life different or similar to what you expected?

My mom was a stay-at-home mom and I always imagined I would be at home with my kids before returning to teaching. Their dad is a journalist and we thought we would go to different locations for a few years at a time.

I haven’t worked since Sebastian was born and my kids haven’t had access to that kind of international education. I had to accept that his education was going to be different but I still worked really hard to make sure he had the most equal education possible – that he was actually taught things and not just put in a room. I never realised how hard I would have to fight for his education. Our kids couldn’t go to the same school near us which was important to me. They now go to a school further away in a different, really diverse, community. There’s also other kids like Sebastian and his sister has people who know what it’s like to be around other kids in wheelchairs.

It was hard for me at first not returning to teaching, but then I got used to it. I’m taking my Masters in Creative Writing Non-fiction right now, and it’s one of the first things I’ve done for myself since I had Sebastian.

I don’t think I imagined how isolating it would be with Sebastian, but also the community that I’ve found, the people in my life, would not be here if it wasn’t for him. We have a wonderful community of folks that love and support Sebastian and our family.

How do you think being Sebastian’s mother has affected what kind of mother you are to Tallula?

I get upset when things aren’t done properly when it comes to Sebastian because I worry about his health. When Tallula was little and she could do things like climb I would think: on the one hand I know what a brain injury can do, on the other hand I’ve never seen a child of two climb onto a chair like that and it’s amazing! I think I’m not as worried about her. In the early days watching Tallula grow was mind-blowing. The parenting is different, because the child and their experiences are different.

How your approach to Sebastian’s disability changed?

I think in the early days I tried to educate people – I had a blog and I wanted people to know that Sebastian has CP but also we have a really good life, live abroad and travel. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for us but to know that just because Sebastian can’t talk doesn’t mean he can’t understand you. I had other parents reach out to me and I was helping them in the way that the other two parents in Australia had helped me, and that felt really good.

When Sebastian was 8 I realised he didn’t want to have a Facebook page with his pictures. He never wanted people to know what medical stuff was going on with him so I stopped doing it. I took our photos off Facebook, shut down the page and made my blog private.

Living in Toronto, we’re more connected to people in real life so it was easier than it had been in Cairo. Also, I had been educating people for eight years and I was getting tired. I loved hearing from people when they said that something I wrote helped them, but also I needed a break.

So the difference now is how much I put out there in the beginning versus how little I put out there now. Now I’m writing about my experience as a parent and what that’s like. I’m working on a writing project with Sebastian – which is great because he’s directly involved.

Reading what others in the disabled community have written about representation and “not about us without us” I have learned how important it is to give Sebastian the choice to share what he wants because they are his experiences, and it is his identity. I want to speak for myself as a parent, and I want to enable him to speak for himself, which does take a lot of work since he communicates differently, but is so important to me.

What do you wish other people knew about your child or your family that you feel like you have to explain?

I think the biggest thing is that he gets it. Sebastian’s smart. He hears you, he can communicate, he has thoughts. It’s not okay to treat him like he’s not there or like a baby. I’m tired of pushing him in a wheelchair and kids saying, ‘Look at that baby’ and not having that parent say, ‘That’s not a baby, that’s a kid in a wheelchair.’ That’s what I want to see change. I don’t want to be the person who’s educating all the time. I shouldn’t have to either shut you out because I don’t feel like dealing with that today, or get really worked up and say ‘Hey, actually he’s 12, this is a wheelchair – it helps him access the world around him. It’s awesome’.

Also I wish people thought more about ableism. We just watched a Pokemon movie and I had to stop it because the main villain is in a wheelchair because he has a degenerative disease and there’s this small scene where he says, ‘I’m confined to my chair. I have no power to do anything.’ I stopped the movie and said to the kids, ‘Look guys, this is ableism’. I’m interrupting a super fun movie and Tallula’s looking at me, but I’m not letting this pass because it was such a small moment but so big! I told them he absolutely has power. And of course they know but I just needed to make sure, but Tallula was kind of trying not to laugh at me because she says, ‘Mum, I know this stuff!’

Kara can be found on Instagram and Twitter as @freeastrees.

All that really matters

When I write this blog, I hope that it is read by people who may find themselves saying things to me like ‘I could never do what you do’, or ‘I’m so sorry’ with their head tilted slightly to the side and a tone of pity in their voice. When I tell people I have a beautiful, thriving son who is eight years old and is also disabled, I don’t want people to react with pity or sadness because it is unnecessary and ignorant. And with those people in mind I write blog posts about triking! And fun playschemes! And ziplining! I write about why we are lucky, and why wheelchairs are enabling (not disabling). I have a feeling that negative portrayals about disability are so ubiquitous that I’ll try and write about disabled children who are well, having fun, happy.

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Then suddenly I realised that maybe I have become some version of all those irritating people on social media who have apparently perfect lives, whose children are never dirty and always engaged in constructive activities. Perhaps I am one of the people that I would unfollow because there’s only so many pictures of Mediterranean holidays and accomplished crafting in tidy houses I can take before feeling a bit shit that my kids are all currently watching Kids YouTube in mismatched clothes surrounded by junk.

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What ends up on the internet isn’t an accurate portrayal of everything going on in a person’s life, and I don’t believe it has to be. But as a species we inevitably compare ourselves to others and I would hate other parents of disabled children to think they are doing badly because they are looking at me with my family and our apparently nonstop wholesome adventures.

All of the adventures we do have are facilitated by me having an enthusiastic husband, a hugely supportive extended family, and a lot of paid help. For all my hatred of the pity faces, and even with all these people helping us, there are aspects of our lives which are tough. We have too many children with differing needs. Ben has specific needs and access requirements and that means we can’t do everything we would like to as a family. Our family is like an oil tanker that takes a long time to get going and has a huge turning circle. We need to be shovelling coal daily (though presumably that isn’t how oil tankers are fuelled these days) to keep the show on the road. The days that have been successes have been carefully organised and James and I will have been put considerable work in for the kids (and us!) to get fun out.

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The majority of days aren’t special days, they are bog standard normal days when the boys are at school, then at home and everyone needs to be fed and cleaned. We have just had two months of not having anyone to help me in the daytime on weekdays and I have to set my expectations accordingly. A good afternoon/evening is one in which I haven’t shouted that much, when the kids haven’t watched TV from the moment they got in the house to the moment they go to bed, when everyone has had some of the food they should and not too much of the food they shouldn’t.

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Some weekends we are taking Ben to a planetarium or an outdoor education centre, other weekends when we have no help and we are tired or have things to do, Ben might watch hours of TV. He’s happy, and he’s learning almost nothing from the second hour of Strictly Come Dancing but we’re enjoying a family chuckle at Bruno. We can go a whole weekend with no physio, ignoring the standing frame, forgetting to practice with the electric wheelchair, not having time to get the trike out, and Ben watching up to four films.

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I’m not particularly proud of those weekends, but I really resent the idea that parents of disabled children are held to a higher standard (by professionals, by themselves) because they have to work that much harder to support their child’s development. And I hate the idea (which I am 100% guilty of) that we look at other parents and feel crap because we’re not teaching our kids phonics, stretching their hamstrings and working on their fine motor skills all the time, every day.

It should be enough to spend time just keeping our kids alive and happy, enjoying their company, or getting done the stuff (and man, there is always a mountain of stuff) that we need to. The bureaucratic load of having a disabled child is tedious but ever present. It takes extra time to feed, bathe and change a child who can’t help with these things. There are extra pressures, more appointments, difficult conversations with professionals. All of this takes physical and mental energy. There is little benefit to a child of doing all the physio someone recommended but having a mother who is losing her mind.

Sometimes you have to just batten down the hatches, recognise your capacity at that point, and accept that you’re doing your best right now. If someone asks how Ben is and I can reply ‘fine’, then we’re doing well. So your kid hasn’t done their exercises, but you’ll probably never know if they would have made any difference, and meanwhile they are clean, fed, apparently happy (or not actively unhappy) and, most of all, loved. You might even have read them a book. That’s all that really matters.

 

The Perils of the Internet

Like practically everyone in the developed world, I am trying to be more thoughtful about how much time I spend on my phone and on social media. I try, with mixed success, to not spend time on my phone around the kids, and to avoid disappearing into a blackhole of news about people I don’t know. Every once in a while I think about deleting the apps. Sometimes I actually do it, but I can’t quite resist because those clever engineers know what they’re doing and I enjoy the pretty pictures and surreptitious snooping.

But it’s also because I get genuinely useful information and a sense of solidarity from the social media I use. It’s brilliant to be able to make connections with disabled people, to learn more about their experiences and their politics. It’s great to be able to talk to other parents of disabled children. I find out about events, equipment and approaches, from organisations and individuals. I think there is huge value in sharing experiences, hence this blog!

But once you find yourself in this little corner of the internet, there are many stories written by parents of disabled children, and it can be uncertain ground. There is a fine line between sharing experiences and oversharing information about a child who may not be able to consent.

I question myself a lot about what it is okay to write about and what is not, particularly when I read things which I think are inappropriate – perhaps because they show photos which I wouldn’t want to see of me as a child on the internet, or because they dwell on how difficult their life is because they have a disabled child.

I worry that when that child is an adult they will be sad to read what was written about them. I am sometimes concerned that the parent’s account is disrespectful to disabled adults with the same impairments as their child. I am by no means beyond reproach – I am sure I have shared things that I thought were okay at the time, but would now not. Sometimes I think that maybe I shouldn’t be sharing anything at all, but I keep coming back to my conviction that as long as disabled children and adults are perceived as ‘other’ by much of society, there is value in attempting to puncture ignorance with our stories. I try my best to respect all of my children by carefully editing what I share (and perhaps I should share more photos of myself…).

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What I am particularly drawn to are stories about disabled children overcoming communication difficulties, and adults that use Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC). It is inspiring to see people who have found the communication system that works for them, and are able to say what they want to say. It’s encouraging to see that methodical, consistent use of AAC can pay off – that children who were unable to communicate have a viable way to do so.

If there’s one thing these kinds of internet stories are good at, it’s celebrating the role of the parent, most likely the mother, in facilitating their disabled child’s access to AAC. Often the mother has fought for the right device, has pushed those surrounding the child to presume competence, has homeschooled the kids when the schools weren’t good enough, has modelled AAC language to their child consistently. The kid is therefore doing really well (possibly writing messages saying how grateful they are to their mother).

And, obviously, these stories are amazing. I want Ben to be the subject of these stories – celebratory, happy stories featuring quotes from a child that found it tricky to use expressive language.

So, does Ben have the right AAC system? Is he getting the right education? Is he getting enough specialist input? Should I be homeschooling him? Am I, personally, doing enough to encourage literacy? Are we modelling enough? Are we doing it every day, in every place, at every opportunity? Because if Ben doesn’t become expressively literate, will it be my fault?

These are the kind of myopic, self-obsessed thoughts I have as I peruse Facebook and it’s not that relaxing. I know I don’t want to homeschool any of my kids – I taught an English camp for Spanish kids when I was younger and I learnt from that summer that I am a terrible teacher. I shouted a lot, particularly when it looked like the kids were enjoying themselves too much. I think there are all sorts of advantages to going to school beyond literacy. But still. The pressure. My god, the pressure.

(Sidenote: if crafting expertise was crucial to teaching literacy, I’d be all over it. Gratuitous World Book Day photo:   )

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And then, occasionally I get a moment of thinking we’re not failing. We’re doing our best, and maybe we’re actually doing okay.

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Today Ben was home from school because he has yet another cold (don’t get me started on the sickness count in this house this winter, it is beyond tedious). Molly was with us, and I was pottering around trying to get stuff done between the nose wiping and Calpol distribution. Molly had pulled Ben’s YES and NO symbols off the velcro on the back of his chair, and she was standing next to him holding them up, saying ‘Yes, Ben. No, Sam’.

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This is how Ben answers questions – he looks at yes and no symbols. She is doing this because two year olds copy what they see around them. She has noticed our modelling and she is using AAC with her brother. It’s a little bit magical. We must be doing something right.