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

Sister Molly

Ben and Max’s sister, Molly, is four weeks old. We have survived a month with three children, something which feels like no mean feat.

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That seemed unlikely after our first family outing one week in, when we made it just 100m from our front door before Max broke the rules about how far ahead he was allowed to go on his bike, we shouted, he started crying, Ben started crying because Max was crying, and we all went home. Since then we have managed a family swimming trip and some less eventful local walks. So we might actually be capable of leaving the house as a family of five.

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Both boys have been unbelievably sweet with Molly, and very tolerant of the disruption and imposition involved in having a new-born sister. Through a combination of James having a month off work, numerous carers and family members helping us out, and a baby that sleeps a lot, we have been able to keep things as routine as we can. Ben has shown once again that he can cope with a lot of change and take it in his stride, while Max has been demonstrating his capacity to be both a kind big and little brother. We have all had a lot on, but we’re doing okay

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We do not approach birth lightly. Ben’s disability is because of problems during his birth and we therefore know too much about the risks of things going wrong and having lifelong implications. Max was ill immediately following his birth and had to be admitted to NICU. We sort of assumed that our third baby would end up in NICU, even though a neonatal consultant took the time to explain to us how (very) likely it was that we would have a totally healthy baby.

One of the people who really understood our concerns about the birth of this baby was the obstetrician who we saw throughout this pregnancy and who had previously delivered Max. She is someone we have huge respect for, whose judgement we trust, and who had successfully guided us through my second pregnancy when we were at our most anxious about having another child.

This time we knew in advance that she would not be able to deliver the baby because the elective caesarean was booked during the Christmas period when she would be on holiday. Another obstetrician would do it, it would be fine, we told ourselves. As we prepared on the morning of the birth, getting in to gowns and talking photos of my puffy face, we were calm but nervous. And then she popped her head round the curtain to say hi. Dressed in jeans and tshirt, she was officially on holiday but had come in specifically to do my caesarean section.

That, there, is an emotional moment: the joy of knowing we were in her hands (literally in my case), that our baby had the best possible chance of therefore being fine, that someone so thoroughly understood how difficult this all was for us and had come into work especially.

And then Molly was born, screaming before she was out of my womb, to be immediately declared, with a thumbs up, totally and utterly healthy by the neonatologist we had demanded be on hand to check. No resuscitation, no breathing difficulties, no-one at all worried about anything. She breastfed immediately and, following the facilitation of the obstetrician who knows we spend too much time in hospitals, we were able to go home the following day. You would not believe how uninterested everyone is in a healthy newborn baby – barely any observations, no-one came to check her overnight. If you hadn’t had experiences like ours you would have no idea of the anxiety and stress lurking just across the corridor in the neonatal unit.

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We have now had four weeks of admiring and nurturing little Molly and she is a delight. Third time lucky, we had a baby who didn’t need a canula in their head, or a tube in their nose. She immediately breastfed and sleeps like a champion (just not always at night-time). We take none of this for granted – it is luck of the draw whether you have a baby that does the basics easily or not.

We have not lost and will not lose sight of what a privilege it is to have her here with us, healthy and thriving. Nor what a delight it is to share this baby girl with these boys of mine. We are all lucky.

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Ben is 6!

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Ben is 6! Like every year, the actual day is full of mixed emotions. While we are joyful that we are celebrating six years since Ben joined us, on the day I am also mindful that this time six years ago Ben was being resuscitated then being transferred on his own in an ambulance to a different hospital, and that our lives changed forever.

But it gets easier every year, as the memories are less immediate, there is more to celebrate and Ben is more engaged in birthdays.

As is now our annual tradition, James made a video to summarise Ben’s year. I won’t post it, partly for reasons of privacy but also because of self-indulgence; while most parents will happily watch a ten minute video of their own child, no-one I know really wants to watch a long video of someone else’s child, even if that child is the subject of a semi regular blog they read. It’s surely the modern equivalent of being made to sit through someone else’s holiday photos.

So, here’s the executive summary. It is unashamedly positive. Let’s ignore the tiresome stuff for now.

In Ben’s sixth year he:

  • Enjoyed ice-skating and went round the rink quite a lot faster than grandpa;

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  • Went down a zipwire, swung from a sports hall ceiling and went kayaking at the Calvert Trust;

  • Did a lot of triking;

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  • Was a lovely older brother to Max, letting him wear his lycra suit and clamber all over him;

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  • Moved house (again – his fourth since he was born);
  • Got a new wheelchair-accessible car (which is great but unfortunately turns out to be one of the cheating VW emission scandal cars…);
  • Got his own eyegaze computer to use at home and used it to tell us knock knock jokes;
  • Went to the House of Commons and met an MP;

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  • Lost four baby teeth, swallowing at least one;

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  • Did a lot of trampolining;
  • Went to a summer playscheme for the first time and made a biscuit the size of his head;
  • Went on holiday to the Cotswolds and Cornwall. Next year places beginning with D. Suggestions welcome;

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  • And last but not least, left one wonderful school and started at another, settling in quickly.

Ben had a lovely birthday. Over the years we have learnt what works and what doesn’t. We are less concerned these days about what a typical six year old birthday party would be like and just do what we think he will enjoy – small family celebrations, lots of presents and balloons, ice-cream cake which he can at least taste if not eat.

If I do say so myself, we have done particularly well with Ben’s presents this year. It’s tricky to think of things he will really like beyond yet more books, but he is really enjoying a puppet theatre where we put on shows for him with hand puppets, a lightbox that we can spell words on, and a teddy bear that will play Daddy’s voice (from Kuwait this week) or anyone else who records their voice via an app. So satisfying when all of the thought I have put into presents he will like pays off.

The coming year will involve more change for Ben, not least with a new sister and another house move. His somewhat relentless life will continue with the usual levels of complexity and endless appointments, but he has continued to prove that he can take it. It feels like he (and we) are more resilient and happier than ever. We will inevitably have some blips. I am certain the arrival of a third child will throw us all off course, he’ll get the usual winter bugs and we will face unexpected challenges. But, but… if I had been able to see how well we are all doing six years on from the awful day of his birth, maybe I wouldn’t have been quite so sad.

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Brothers and sisters

All kids look up to those older than them, and Max is no different. Ben is almost 6, Max is 3 and Max wants to do all of the things Ben does: go to school, go swimming, watch Dennis the Menace.

Max knows Ben is disabled and because chronology is tricky when you are 3, Max wonders whether he will become disabled when he is older. He doesn’t see this as a particularly negative potential development. He wants to know whether he’ll get a wheelchair like Ben’s, or go to the same school when he’s disabled.

There is something bittersweet about our able-bodied son climbing in to Ben’s wheelchair when Ben isn’t using it, about demanding to sit in Ben’s specialist supportive chair to have his snack. I hope it continues like this – Max’s relaxed attitude to disability is how we would all be if we came across more disabled people at school and work.

Over the summer we went to the Liberty Festival at the Olympic Park . It was on one of those British summer days when the rain was relentless and so I can’t say we stayed that long, but they had curated a selection of cultural and sporting events which deserved sunshine and crowds.

One of the activities was a racing track, and a basketball court, with loads of sports wheelchairs for people to use. What an incredibly simple idea, but have you come across it before? Giving people the opportunity to just sit in a wheelchair? There were loads of kids trying to play wheelchair basketball and race along the track. Max was super keen even though the chairs were way too big for him, and off he and Ben went to race (with James pushing Ben). He still talks about it – remembering the time that he got to go in a cool wheelchair and raced against his brother.

I am mindful of this whole business of how you raise siblings of your disabled child. I am pregnant and we expect (fingers crossed, which didn’t go that well with Ben’s birth) another, female, mini-Jess in December. We have thought carefully about this. There are disadvantages to Ben of his parents being spread between other kids, just in terms of time and attention if nothing else – there is less time to model a PODD communication book if another child needs a wee or is in the midst of a meltdown. And there are ever present risks of a sibling feeling like Ben gets the lions share of our attention, of everyone’s attention. Ben’s needs dictate our holidays, mean there are constantly carers in our house, that our lives are disrupted by hospital stays.

Max is also seeing various things I wish he wouldn’t. He recently asked me to teach him how to click with his fingers. When I asked where he’d seen clicking, he recounted in painfully accurate detail an incident a few weeks ago when a lady (who was in a position of responsibility and should have known better) was clicking in Ben’s face as an apparent attempt to distract or entertain him. When James asked her not to, and suggested she speak to Ben rather than click her fingers directly in front of his nose, she got very defensive and we all ended up having an argument. Max was with us and was confused by it all, ‘You and Daddy were very cross, and the lady was shouting, and Ben is in our family’. He thinks people shouldn’t click in Ben’s face, but he likes the general idea of clicking.

We hope all of these potential stresses and strains are convincingly outweighed by the massive advantages of there being more people in our gang. Max loves his brother. He wishes Ben didn’t go to school so that he was at home with us every day. He makes us buy Ben toys so he isn’t left out .

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Meanwhile a chatty 3 year old is a marvellous lubricant in social situations and forces all of us, not least Ben, to engage when it would be easier not to. We do all sorts of things as a family that we wouldn’t do if it were just me, James and Ben. And we all laugh more. We now have to charge the stimulator in Ben’s tummy daily so Max has been comparing Ben to an iPad. Ben thinks this is funny as do we all. (Yes, we overuse screens in our house and Max spends too much time with an iPad – another consequence of being Ben’s brother).

So let’s hope we can produce another one like Max. I mean, of course we won’t. Kids have a habit of being their own people as the two we’ve got have shown. But if the next one is even a bit as accepting then it will be okay.