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.
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!’
My son, Ben, is 11 and my approach to his disability has changed a lot since he was little. I am interested by how and when this happened. 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, but I was just doing my best with what I knew at the time. I think I would have found it helpful at the beginning to have read stories of other parents with similar experiences and so I am interviewing parents who are raising children who are not typical to discuss parenting, language and expectations. This week it is with Rachel Wright, who kindly met with me (virtually) to answer some questions.
Could you describe your family?
I’m a cliché. I married the boyfriend that I got together with at 17. It gets worse though, because he’s a doctor and I’m a nurse. We have three sons: S is 15, J is 13 and E is five.
How would you describe your eldest son?
He is a boy that laughs from the tips of his toes to the top of his head – he has the dirtiest laugh on the planet. He loves Pointless and could happily watch five episodes in a row. He loves swimming and music, making disco showers the best time of the day. He sings very loudly and if you’re not attuned to his kind of singing, it may sound like he’s complaining. To those of us close to him, it looks and sounds very different. He enjoys an eclectic range of music from Romeo and Juliet to Chemical Brothers, and some cheesy Christian kids music he’s been subjected to since he was born.
If a doctor asked me what the matter with S, I’d say he has quadriplegic cerebral palsy, is registered blind, PEG (gastrostomy) fed, has microcephaly and very complex health needs. He needs 24 hour, seven days a week care.
I describe him has disabled, or as having complex needs, or I talk about his life-limiting epilepsy. I recognise that I’m not disabled so the terms and language used are not for me to own necessarily, but I am not ashamed of his cerebral palsy and disability any more than his blue eyes and brown hair. I’m not going to attach any level of shame because I value vulnerability. I am convinced that our fragility isn’t something which needs fixing rather our weaknesses are at the heart of where connection and purpose is born.
When did you realise that S was going to be disabled, or that he wasn’t going to be a typical child?
As soon as he was born, he didn’t breathe and was ventilated. We were given percentages at that point of his chances of having a disability. We carried hope with us until clarity came at ten weeks old when we had an MRI scan that showed every part of his brain was affected. We went into that hospital with the hopes of minimal or no impact, and walked out with the reality of a very severely disabled child.
How does S’s disability affect his, and your, life day to day?
S likes things the way he likes them. I guess partly because of learning disability and partly blindness. He’s most comfortable when his world is structured and he knows what’s happening. Obviously he still surprises us in a positive way but there is also no hour where there isn’t something that needs doing, whether that’s his milk, meds, or repositioning. That continues through the night. It’s been 15 years of day and night care, which impacts our lives.
I find it really hard to express the relentlessness of that without feeling guilt over betraying one of my biggest loves. I don’t know how to explain how hard it is without implying a level of not loving enough. What I try to remind myself is love doesn’t give me more hands, more hours, or more emotional strength. As a nurse, I got lunch breaks and to go home and sleep. As parents we might have to do the night and then still take the kids to school in the morning, before going to work and then caring the rest of the day. I think it’s really hard to look after your emotional self with the constant logistics of caring for a child with such complex needs – the 80+ people that we have to communicate with, the necessary tasks. With our other kids, I can take a break, say ‘let’s just get pizza’. But I can’t be like ‘let’s just not draw the meds up tonight’. There isn’t that option.
It can feel like there’s no margin in the day, and there’s so little permission to not do things. The emotional drain of that can make you feel like you’re failing the whole time. You get to the end of the day and you can just see the five things that you didn’t do, even if you actually did twelve other things.
In what ways do you think being a parent has turned out how you expected it to? Are there things that are particularly different or, or things that ended up being the same?
I had expected to be parenting somewhere else in the world, maybe South America or Africa. I was going to deliberately choose my life to be different, where we would be doing medicine in other countries. I guess I expected to have complexity, but I thought it would be completely different. When S came along it threw our plans of working abroad out the window because we needed to be near lots of support. We’ve now been living in our house for nearly 11 years, and that’s the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere my whole life.
Another way it’s different is our capacity to be outside. My husband loves camping and we will camp all year round, but it’s difficult to be spontaneous, to have that ability to travel. S can’t camp when it’s cold and we need five hours of near military operation to simply leave the house. There is so much kit we must remember or practical aspects to consider. We do try to take it in turns to travel alone or without S each year.
The way it is similar is the way that we approach things. I guess S expedited our mid-life crisis. We are focused and very value based. We continue to struggle with an evolving faith.
How do you think being S’s parent has affected how you parent your other children?
I think parenting brings out the best and worst in you. It amplifies aspects of your personality. We were both pretty laid back. When we got pregnant a second time, S was nine months old and wasn’t rolling or grasping, but by the time our next son was born we were in and out of hospital with S’s epilepsy and feeding complications. It was a massive change. I think our parenting was all up for grabs, because it was so disorientating.
That definitely meant when J loved food, he had whatever he liked! I loved how excited he was about ice cream. When he was fussy and didn’t want to eat I knew he wasn’t actually going to starve, so I didn’t worry about it.
Until J was eight years old (when E came along) he had lived his whole life as the second child, just having to muck in because the world didn’t revolve around him. But we also had to try everything out on him because we hadn’t done it before. He was doing things for the first time, but without the undivided attention of being an eldest child.
I worry sometimes that because of S’s complex needs, I didn’t support J to the extent that I could have done. The way J progressed just blew my mind but maybe I would have been more on the ball if I hadn’t had such a skewed perspective. Meanwhile Ethan, as the youngest, just runs rings around all of us.
Are there ways in which being a parent has changed you over the last 15 years?
Yes – completely, and not at all! I think I really lost myself for the first few years, under layers of guilt, expectations on myself, perceived expectations of what other people thought of me. Having S threw everything up in the air, and we had to piece things back together.
I’ve become a lot more feminist. I have a husband who is proactive at home he easily takes care of children and home when I’m not there but the logistics are all still down to me, partly because it’s not realistic to split responsibility for that.
At the start of the pandemic, in March/April last year, I had a massive meltdown because all the emotions I had when I first became a parent were exposed again. Everyone else was making decisions for me. Everything I had worked towards disappeared and there was nothing I could do about it. I was so consumed by the jobs that had to be done minute-to-minute that I couldn’t see how to carve anything out for myself. But also, the layer on top of that was that it would be so different if I had been a man. If the expectation hadn’t been that I was the person who was going to stay at home. My husband earns a lot more money than me, my position as a nurse would always play second fiddle to his role as a GP because I earnt less and couldn’t support our family with my wage. But that feeling of loss, that the last 15 years of not working has impacted my ability to do things now, is something I’m processing.
It feels like when we were clapping keyworkers last year we’d realised the things that made a difference were people that put food on the shelves, who were looking after the vulnerable. But that narrative was sadly still founded on pity rather than value based. We continue to do that with Children in Need and Comic Relief. We portray families like ours with a big violin and a greyed out scene, and then they get a therapy or opportunity and the sun comes out, faces start smiling and…isn’t it lovely. People are quite happy to give a couple of pounds to that. It makes us feel better and distracts us from the need to value and fund the infrastructure within society needed, or recognise our gender-specific values.
The reason things like EHCPs (Education, Health & Care Plans) and IEPs (Individual Education Plans) fail is because we take these things, which rely on collaboration, and plonk them into a patriarchal system that relies on an ideology of productivity, that is financially driven. They don’t look at how this affects people – how much they feel valued, or whether they’re failing because they’re not in a system that can support them. Then when the plans do fail, they say ‘Oh, look, we tried to be collaborative but it didn’t work’.
I think as a parent I’ve got an incredible capacity for guilt. With my five year old, if I don’t sit and read to him he might not be a great reader, but he’s going to learn to read. With S there’s this feeling that it’s down to me. It partly comes from the number of practitioners who are telling me, ‘Just do 10 minutes of this. It’s really vital.’ So vital that they’re not going to do it for us, I have to do it and they’ll see us in six-month’s time. Imagine if practitioners sat down together and decided with families what the priorities are, because parents can’t do it all. This should be about a person’s life and all the people around them taking some of the responsibility.
I’ve always been a challenger and agitator but I get consumed by the emotions of having to fight battles on behalf of my son. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me, I want to live in a society which values S and our family. I want part but not all of my identity to be tied up in being a parent. Slowly I’m finding who I am again. I love that Brene Brown quote: ‘When we deny our story, it defines us. When we step into our story, we get to write a brave new ending.’ I was so geared up for a different story that I lost who I was, and it was only when I started stepping more fully into my story that I began to be able to make proactive choices which feel more like thriving than simply surviving.
I’m trying to institute a new tradition in our house: on each of the children’s birthdays we will all get up and do birthday breakfast, open presents and be generally celebratory, and then I will go back to bed for at least an hour. I think it is a good idea for all of us to remember that this is the anniversary of these kids coming out of my body and that body could do with a little lie down.
Molly’s birthday a few weeks ago was the first time I implemented this brilliant new tradition, and as I was lying down remembering her birth two years ago, I read an article by Chitra Ramaswarmy about her tendency to catastrophise. It was poignant to be reading about how incubating and then having children affects your outlook on life, particularly if one of your children is diagnosed with a disability.
Ramaswarmy experienced a very tough year in which numerous difficult things happened. By its end she had – after a complicated pregnancy – given birth to a healthy baby, her partner and mother had been seriously ill and recovered, and her son had been diagnosed with autism. Was it a year of disaster or, actually, was her family lucky?
Ramaswarmy describes how she is naturally a catastrophist, and inclined to be anxious about the potential for the worst case scenario to occur. She makes the case that the parenting is an antidote to catastrophising:
‘The hard graft and small, pure joys of looking after a baby and a little boy with autism anchor me to the present. The baby keeps me healthy, makes me feel lucky and gives me a constant dose of perspective. She is also exhausting: I am too tired and busy to catastrophise with as much fervour as the habit demands.’
This rings true for me. I am not a catastrophist. My natural tendency is towards slightly anxious optimism. But there is no doubt that I thrive when I am rooted in the present, and nothing keeps you in the present like having a small child, and then another, and then another. It’s not all rose-tinted snuggles – Ben’s early months were difficult for us all and he was frequently made miserable by reflux and feeding difficulties. But my focus on looking after him meant that by the time I looked up and around we had largely weathered the storm.
I went on to have two more babies and, luckily for all of us (and I mean luck, because these things are just a roll of the dice), Max and Molly were babies that were easy to please. I have been largely too busy caring for all of them over the last eight years to spend much time thinking about what might have been, or what might go wrong.
What really resonated with me was Ramaswarmy’s reaction to her son’s autism diagnosis:
‘Then there is my brilliantly singular, loving and brave son. Before he was diagnosed with autism (that happened this year, too) I feared this moment: how will we manage? What will we do about school? How will he develop? Is everything going to be OK? The mystery and idiosyncrasy of autism can be frustrating, but it is also a visceral reminder that none of us knows what lies ahead and that compassion is the most powerful weapon against anxiety. So, here I am, living and thriving in the future over which I once catastrophised. And you know what? It is not so scary after all.’
We have had Ben’s birth described as a catastrophe, and in purely medical terms that may be true. But it has not been a catastrophe for our family. Sure there are difficult times, and complications, and we are sometimes sad and frustrated, but there is no catastrophe here. Something that was unfamiliar and therefore terrifying has become normal to us, and with familiarity comes an ease (hugely helped by the privilege of having carers to help and living in an adapted house).
Over Christmas, all the kids were largely at home every day for two weeks, something that is rare, which meant they spent more time together than usual. Molly can now talk and asked about, or talked about, Ben at least every hour. Ben happily tolerated her climbing on his wheelchair, wiping his face, pressing her cheek into his. Max is currently obsessed with gags about bodily functions and Ben encouraged him by laughing at his poo jokes. Ben let Max play with all of his Christmas presents. Molly clambered on Max and ruined his games and he only snapped after such goading that any jury would be on his side. Ben and Max watched Star Wars for the first time and were scared and excited by the same bits. We went ice skating, for walks, swimming and to the cinema.
The ‘mystery and idiosyncrasy’ of cerebral palsy can be difficult, but it is also a prompt to live this life that is happening right now, even if it is one that would have counted as a bad outcome at some point. We have three healthy kids, and it’s not so scary after all. Are our family the survivors of a disaster, or are we lucky? Perhaps ask me again when they’re all teenagers, but on the basis of this Christmas we’re extraordinarily lucky.
In the dim and not-so-distant past when it seemed impossible Obama would be replaced by a misogynist as the President of the USA, I watched a video of someone protesting at a Trump rally. The internet was full of footage of protestors at Trump rallies, and inevitably Trump insulting the protestors, but this was different. Different because the protestor was a 12 year old boy, who has cerebral palsy, who uses a wheelchair, who talks using a communication device.
JJ Holmes lives in America and had been following election coverage by using his iPad to search for Trump events, typing the words in using his nose. He knew Trump had mocked disabled people and eventually convinced his mum to take him to a Trump rally so he could protest against him. She warned him it might get ugly but he wanted to go anyway.
He pre-programmed phrases into his computer before they went, so that at the rally he could shout slogans like ‘Trump mocks the disabled’ and ‘Dump Trump’. He could play the messages through his communication device by pressing a button with his leg (there’s a brilliant video of him using the button here. As it wasn’t that loud, his mother and sister chanted along so he couldn’t be drowned out too easily.
After a bit the supporters surrounding them turned rowdy. Trump heckled JJ from the stage and told security to ‘Get them out’, and they were jostled out amidst JJ’s wheelchair being shoved and some pretty horrible things being said to all three of them.
I mean obviously there’s much to be depressed about in this little anecdote, and that’s before we even knew Trump would become President.
But out of the murk I find inspiration: a 12 year old disabled boy convinced his mother to take him to a political rally to protest Trump’s attitude toward disabled people! He programmed chants in to his communication device!
I can’t tell you how proud I would be to have raised a son who was so politically aware and knew the power of protest. A boy who knew he was disabled and knew that was okay. Who knew that Donald J Trump (as JJ refers to him) was wrong to belittle disabled people. Who was brave enough to go to an adult event and make himself heard. Who was willing to be heckled and shoved to make his point.
I would be so proud of my son for learning to communicate with his nose and his leg, and having the patience and determination to make himself heard.
I am filled with admiration for a mother who took her 12 year old seriously, and facilitated his protest even though she knew it could get ugly. Who told journalists, ‘He’s not some puppet I wheeled in there. This was him – this was all him.’ I would be proud to be such a staunch ally. To treat communicating through a device as equal to talking (or shouting). And to have raised a daughter who wants to protest too.
I’m proud of a world where disabled people are helped by technology and supported to communicate when they can’t speak.
What the whole story relies on is JJ’s ability to shout (even if his device’s voice output isn’t quite loud enough to be heard above enthusiastic Trump supporters).
Ben has been using his eye-gaze computer for some time now and is beginning to create messages or questions within his communication software, or he uses the computer to read himself stories. We try to give him as much autonomy over the computer as possible (whilst hovering around, interfering, facilitating and modelling) so he can choose what he wants to do. When he chooses to use it for communication, we take the messages he says seriously.
By ‘says’ I mean that as he selects words within the communication software, they go in to a window at the top of the screen. When Ben goes to the ‘speak’ cell the computer says all the words out loud. When he is reading himself a story he selects the ‘speak’ cell and a paragraph of, for example, Mr Stink by David Walliams, will be read aloud by the computer.
But the loudest volume of Ben’s computer isn’t that loud. He can hear it as he is quite close, but you can’t really hear it if you are across the room, and you definitely can’t hear it if Max or Molly are squawking. So Ben’s speech and language therapist recently gave us a speaker to sit on top of the laptop, the volume of which can be controlled within the communication software. It can be turned up really loud, because if you are going to give an AAC user the opportunity to communicate as a neurotypical child would, you need to give them the ability to SHOUT if they want to. Or whisper. Or somewhere inbetween. Ben should be able to compete in volume with his siblings even if it’s not something I particularly relish the thought of.
In the same way that I ask Max many, many times a day to please not shout, Ben should be able to be loud and annoying. There is a temptation to think of children like Ben as ‘good’ because they are relatively quiet and controllable, but part of being a child (any child) is being disruptive and protesting and Ben should have as many opportunities to do that as he has to be compliant. If we get to the point of Ben purposefully turning up the volume of his computer and shouting at us all, and me having to tell him to turn it down, that will be a good problem to have.
Meanwhile, JJ’s recovery from the Trump rally ordeal was helped by him meeting Obama the following day who was every bit as friendly as you would expect, crouching to his level, listening to JJ’s messages and shaking his hand.
According to a Clinton official, when he was told he was about to meet Obama, ‘JJ jumps out of his seat and erupts into cheer . . . his smile almost bursting out of his face. His body overcome by light, when just the day before it almost succumbed to hate.’
Let’s keep heading toward the light, people. Let’s confront bullies and prejudice. Let’s give all our kids the ability to communicate, to shout and to protest. Let’s take them seriously and hope that one day we might meet Obama.
I have been thinking a lot recently about we approach Ben’s wheelchair. I have written before about the differing perceptions of wheelchairs – particularly, how once you are over the psychological hurdle of not walking, wheelchairs are freeing, wonderful things that can compensate for legs that won’t support a moving body. It’s a very simple and elegant solution to a problem. I think the outsider perspective that wheelchairs are constrictive and negative is largely based on someone’s fear that their own legs might stop working. Restrictions placed on wheelchair users are largely a result of the environment around them being inaccessible rather than the inherent disadvantage of using a wheelchair. Perceiving wheelchairs as negative isn’t inevitable – Max loves having a turn in Ben’s chairs and sometimes wonders whether he’ll have one when he grows up.
When Ben was small we were fearful of him not walking (though it became clear pretty early that this was likely). When he was young he was in a buggy, which was age-appropriate and no big deal. As he got older he moved into a specialist buggy, and then into a paediatric wheelchair. We needed time to get used to each stage; they were harsh physical reminders to us of his disability. But we accepted and adapted, and actually his inability to walk was towards the end of our list of worries. Ben’s difficulty with eating and communicating were (and are) harder for him day-to-day and have more impact on his quality of life than his inability to walk.
I still don’t love his wheelchair – I don’t think it’s designed that well, or looks that nice. It was given to us by wheelchair services. Considering how much time we spend looking at and interacting with it, I’d quite like to be more involved in the choice. I sometimes resent the difficulty of manoeuvring it around, the fact it means we can’t go in some buildings or use lots of public transport. It’s hard to clean and occasionally bits fall off. But Ben using a wheelchair, and us therefore being able to go to ice rinks, museums and parks, is infinitely preferable to us being stuck at home. He is perfectly happy in it.
I recently read a blog by Tonia Christle, a disabled woman, about her experience for growing up with a cerebral palsy. She writes about the early years:
‘I am five.
My family likes taking pictures of my sister and me. We like being the same. Our clothes match, but not our bodies, because I have a walker and my sister doesn’t. When we get our pictures taken, our family likes us to be the same, too.
They like me to stand without my walker. They say it’s better that way. They are grown-ups, so I listen. I stand leaning against a wall, or hanging onto a chair or a cabinet, or my sister. Just as long as my walker is not in the picture. My walker makes me worse, so I stand far away from it.
I want to look my very best for the picture so I smile, hanging on very tight so I don’t fall.
My family never came right out and said they wanted “normal” kids. However, as a young child, I listened to the way my family spoke about me and my adaptive equipment (which is very much a part of me.) And, though I am now in my thirties, pictures of me with my walker, crutches or wheelchair are rare finds. Many pictures are portrait-style and don’t even include my legs.’
I am definitely guilty of this to some extent. We have plenty of photos of Ben in his wheelchair (or home chair, or standing frame, or walker). But we also have photos where we have taken him out of his wheelchair so that the chair isn’t in the photo, so he ‘looks his best’. I have taken photos of his face (not his body) because I think this is most photogenic (which is partly because, of course, his face is VERY photogenic in my entirely unbiased opinion!).
(I’m not pregnant again – old photo to illustrate our normally unsuccessful attempts at group family photos)
We presume competence with Ben (we assume he can understand everything we say), and I try not to let anyone talk in front of him negatively, but I hadn’t really thought about the impact of talking about his equipment.
‘Your child is unique and special because they use adaptive equipment. It is something to celebrate, because this equipment allows your child the freedom to live the life they want to live.’ Tonia Christle. (emphasis added by me)
This idea of embracing the equipment is crucial if you are the parent of a disabled child, and involves a bit of a mindshift. It takes time, and we are getting better (I hope) as Ben gets older. Being a good mother, and ally, depends on accepting Ben as he is. That means embracing all of him and his aids. His wheelchair makes him better, not worse.
We must accept this not just in words and intention, but in the everyday: in our photos of this time in his life, in how we talk about his equipment. Don’t talk about how annoying his wheelchair is, how cumbersome, or how ugly. Don’t deny how intrinsic it is to him. Don’t let anyone else talk this way in front of him either.
This is obvious. We are careful to talk to our kids about what they can do rather than what they can’t. We talk positively about disability, equality, difference. We need to remember to include Ben’s equipment in our acceptance of his difference.
I was reminded of this revelation by a recent exhibition in London of paintings by Lucy Jones . Jones is a talented, successful artist who happens to also have cerebral palsy. She has painted self-portraits throughout her career and this exhibition includes a self-portrait with her walker.
An essay about her work describes the context of her self-portraits (which includes feminism in the 1970s), the effect of prolonged study of her own body, the depiction of her disability:
‘In Lucy in the sky 2005 she wanted to say something about being happy, about feeling safe. She is out walking, with her wheelie; she can’t fall over and is free to go anywhere. The painting started with her face, then she added the black and red top, after that the pale blue trousers. Then she had to decide on the background.’ Sue Hubbard, ‘Becoming Lucy Jones’
Jones’s disability is represented in her paintings and is part of their creation. She talks about how as her confidence grew through her career, she began to paint more of her body, to paint the ‘awkwardness’ of how she looked with CP. These paintings are about how she sees herself, how others see her, and what others project on to her. The paintings describe her coming to accept her walker as being part of who she is, and having the self-confidence to represent it.
The reality of disability is that much is projected on to disabled people and often the problem is with other people’s perceptions rather than the disability itself. The aids and equipment are helping, they’re not a hindrance, and we should treat them as such.
We mustn’t make Ben think he is less because he uses a wheelchair, but rather try to help him have the self-confidence to use it proudly.
I am having an incredibly boring couple of days. Ben has vomiting and diarrhoea. It has unfortunately coincided with the days when we do not have help from nannies/carers and Max ‘settling in’ to a new nursery. Obviously Ben can’t go to school. It’s not really possible to look after both kids so James had to take yesterday off work. As always, my work gets pushed aside.
Any parent is familiar with the curious mix of boredom and worry that accompanies having a sick child. Max’s developing speech means he can now tell you a lot of what he thinks or feels, so when he woke up vomiting on Saturday night he could scream ‘I sick!’. Over the next few days he could tell us that he felt sick, that he needed a cuddle, that we needed to be gentle when we changed his nappy. It’s not fun seeing him ill, but amazing that he can be so eloquent about it.
That’s the first time we’ve nursed a speaking child though an illness – we are much more used to a child who is unable to say how they feel or what they want. Ben is often sick; when he vomits we have to wait and see whether it’s a sign of illness or just another bit of reflux. It became clear yesterday that he was ill and couldn’t go to school. So ill that we stopped all food and he had small amounts of dioralyte (though his gastrostomy tube) while watching hours and hours of TV. Today he woke pale and quiet and withdrawn. By mid-afternoon today he’d had half a banana (whizzed up in the blender and pushed through his feeding tube) and was complaining that Bob the Builder was unsatisfactory entertainment so hopefully he’s on the mend.
James and I know Ben so well we can generally tell by his movements, facial expressions and noises whether he is happy or not, whether he’s in pain or content. But we never know what’s coming – he can’t tell us he feels sick before the inevitable puke. He can’t tell us he’s hungry to indicate his tummy is ready for some food. So we just have to guess, and sometimes that means what goes in comes right back out again. So. Much. Wiping. And entirely homebound.
Earlier this week Ben had a general anaesthetic in order to have some tests. Other people can have this scan without sedation but Ben would move too much. It meant a whole day in hospital while we prepared for and then he recovered from the anaesthetic. Ben’s five weeks in hospital after he was born has left us with a strong distaste for the artificial light, overheated rooms and lack of control of a stay on a ward. It never gets any easier leaving Ben after he’s been anaesthetised (he’s had two operations related to his gastrostomy), sitting around eating M&S sandwiches while wondering what’s going on, worrying that he’ll wake up and won’t know where he is. It’s horrible when they do say you can go and see him because he’s confused and upset, and looks tiny in the massive hospital bed.
One of the questions his assigned nurse had asked in the morning was whether Ben could talk. We said no, but that he understood speech. Throughout the day we told him who each new person he met was and explained what was going to happen. Ben hates any kind of fiddling (he cries when he is weighed, even though this only means being held by me while I stand on some scales) but after 45 minutes of ‘magic’ cream on his hands and a lot of warning, he was surprisingly okay about the cannula being put it. They took blood at the same time as preparing for giving him the anaesthetic. Ben has a yearly blood test to check he is getting all of the necessary nutrition, something he finds traumatic. At least this reduced the number of times he’ll need to be pierced with a needle.
In the afternoon, as he recovered and waved his bandaged arm around, he started complaining that the entertainment was not up to scratch. A sure sign that he was on the up. He then whinged when the nurse came near him with a pulse/sats monitor. His nurse understood what he was trying to say, ‘You said he couldn’t talk, but I’m in no doubt what he means.’ Indeed.
The summer holidays have really derailed my commitment to writing blogs. Despite Ben still going to nursery for two days a week though the school holidays a combination of my husband being away in June, our nanny being away for most of July, me trying to do some work, then us going on holiday for two weeks meant I was struggling to keep on top of basic tasks. And my house was a tip.
I had good intentions of writing when we were on holiday – wouldn’t it be the perfect opportunity, with all that spare time? But Ben developed a fever on Day 1 of our stay in Devon and spent a considerable amount of time vomiting (in a carpeted holiday home, hard to tell sometimes whether I was more stressed about Ben or the soft furnishings). Then his gastrostomy site got infected so he was really sore. Then we went on to Cornwall where we stayed with good friends and loads of kids so I was too busy sipping Aperol Spritz in the hot tub to be writing.
Talking of which, if Ben could talk I’m certain he would tell us the hot tub was the highlight of his holiday. He is at his calmest, stillest, most relaxed in the very hot water. I spent 45 minutes in there with him one morning. He would happily have stayed longer but I was concerned about whether he was actually being cooked and whether his fingertips would ever rehydrate.
I had purposefully reduced the amount of Ben-admin I did on holiday – which meant I spent only one morning making calls and answering emails. On our return to London, I caught up with everything and we had embarked upon all the appointments we had postponed while we were away…
We returned to London on Friday and then (these are only the Ben-based bits):
Saturday – 1hr physio at home
Sunday – 1hr physio at home
Monday – 1hr physio at home and checking fit of a new chair. Cooked, blended and froze a week’s worth of food for Ben (approx 1.5 hrs). Confirmed Ben can attend a hospital appointment for some tests. Rearranged Ben’s specialist dentist appointment so he can go to a picnic with friends from nursery later in the week. Ordered repeat prescriptions from pharmacy.
Tuesday – Opthalmology appointment at hospital. Waited in for collection of Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle we had borrowed for holiday. 1hr physio at home. Tracked down spare part for Ben’s chair which had been delivered to the wrong house.
Wednesday – new chair for Ben delivered. Met with Assistive Technology team to start loan of eyegaze computer which wouldn’t work. Met with council transport co-ordinator to complete application for Ben to get the bus to school. Packed bags and made food so Ben could stay with my parents overnight. Dropped Ben off, then deliver medications that I forgot to pack originally. Called company to arrange fitting of spare part to Ben’s chair.
Thursday – picnic at Ben’s nursery to say goodbye to other kids/parents on his penultimate day. Spoke to community nurses about Ben’s sore gastrostomy site. Rearranged some hospital tests. Caught up with Ben’s speech and language therapist and arranged to meet next week. Met with Assistive Technology team to get eyegaze computer.
Friday – Ben’s last day at nursery. Traded voicemails with Community Dietician. Collected medicines from pharmacy.
We are constantly trying to think about the balance between Ben being a small boy and being a disabled child. Other 4 year olds get to spend summer holidays playing in parks, going swimming, making cakes. Ben rarely has a day without an appointment. In this instance, he had just had two weeks of illness/recuperation/relaxation, and most of these appointments were important to ensure his ongoing comfort, development and nutrition, so I think it was okay. But it’s not fair. As his parents we have to keep reviewing whether the things we make Ben do are right, and that he isn’t missing out on too much of the fun stuff.
I often talk with friends/acquaintances about why I am not working as an architect, why I’m not employed on a permanent basis; weeks like this are why I’m based at home for now.
(P.S. In that last photo of Ben doing physio exercises, he’s watching a video on the iPad to encourage him to keep his head up. His favourite thing at the moment is an old BBC Jackanory film of Rik Mayall reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. He has watched it tens of times and thinks it is HILARIOUS.)
I met a woman recently who has two small children, one of whom has cerebral palsy. She would like to return to her skilled job but can’t find suitable childcare for her disabled child. A therapist recently asked her whether she thought it was right for her to go to work, didn’t she think she should stay at home with her disabled child who really needed her? I suspect no-one ever said such things to me because they somehow knew I might do something regrettable to them. Only someone who has no experience of looking after a disabled child would think it was a good idea for their mother to have no respite.
I went back to work when Ben was 10 months old. It was a bit more complicated than that sounds because ‘back’ meant to an employer who had last employed me three years previously and the job I had gone on maternity leave from was in Qatar. But ‘back’ I went, for two days a week.
We obviously needed some childcare. I had no real understanding of how it works in London and so had half-heartedly put Ben’s name down for the two nurseries I walked past each day – one a small private nursery who were perfectly friendly but didn’t seem optimistic about us making it to the top of their waiting list any time soon, and an Early Years Centre run by our local council.
I visited a potential childminder and sat in her sitting room as an evangelical Christian TV channel was put on mute. I explained Ben’s needs (being fed through his gastrostomy tube, medications, needing to be entertained, held, helped to sleep). She was happy with all this but she was recently qualified and had no particular experience of a child like Ben. Then she talked about how she would have up to four children with her. I left and phoned my husband, James, to tell him there was no way that woman could look after Ben; that she had no understanding of how relentless a job it would be.
We decided that if Ben was going to be in any kind of childcare it should be a nursery, where staff could take turns if he was miserable for hours and there would be more going on around him. So I called the Early Years Centre to check our progress on the inevitable waiting list and, in a moment of extraordinary luck, the manager answered. She listened to me describe Ben and called back that week to offer us a place for two days a week, starting in a few months.
Leaving Ben at the nursery was very hard. The first time I took him, I called James to weep – convinced that I couldn’t possibly leave Ben, that he wouldn’t be okay, that I could never return to work. It takes an incredible amount of trust to leave any child in someone else’s care – particularly a child who staff have very little experience of, when they have only just been taught how to feed him, when he occasionally chokes and turns blue with no warning. A child whose care involves liaising with physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, community nurses, dieticians and who will vomit on you at least once a week.
At the same time it was very easy. All I had to do was go to work, stay there all day and pick him up. It meant leaving the house at 6.30am in the dark and crossing London but it was so incredibly liberating. I could walk up any flights of stairs I liked with no buggy, I read books for the first time in almost a year. I felt a bit duplicitous that people might think I was an average 30 year old woman and not realise I was Ben’s mother. At work, people talked to me about all sorts of things that weren’t related to babies or cerebral palsy or mothering. I could pee whenever I liked, and think about what sandwich I might have for lunch. It was restorative and important to remember I was competent.
James was very supportive but inevitably late for work having dropped Ben and a mountain of bags off at nursery. They had generally been up most of the night anyway – Ben’s sleeping was appalling and we had a deal where James got up with him before I worked. And he had a big job at the time so was normally coming home from work at about 7pm to help me get Ben to sleep, having supper, then working on his laptop until after midnight. It was brutal.
Going to work was absolutely the right thing to do, and only possible because I had a very supportive employer.
One of the challenges for a parent of a disabled child is that your child is highly dependent on you, but you need for your own sake and theirs to find a way to have a break. By the nature of Ben’s difficulty in independently eating/drinking/moving/playing, he needs adults around all of the time and they need to be people he and we trust. We feel we should have him with us all the time. But because his needs are so high, because he can’t entertain or occupy himself, because he can’t sleep through the night, we need to have a break and must learn to let others take care of him.
Ben’s keyworker at nursery was a Sierra Leonean woman (let’s call her A) with only one setting when she talked and that was LOUD. Ben had (still has) a startle reflex so he jumped at loud noises and often found this upsetting. He was totally confused by A but over time he accommodated the noise and the enthusiastic physical affection. A, meanwhile, became one of Ben’s fiercest defenders. She was just the first of a number of keyworkers that took it upon themselves to care for Ben, teach him to look and laugh, buy his favourite books out of their own money. Heaven help anyone who didn’t appreciate him (leading to a succession of agency 1:1 assistants who were deemed unsatisfactory and dismissed).
The nursery story isn’t all sweetness and light and I’m sure I’ll come on to the trickier moments (when I actually withdrew Ben for a bit), but at its heart Ben’s nursery is a place that is totally okay with the idea of difference. It has middle class kids living in the surrounding Georgian houses and working-class kids from the estate down the road, social service referrals and children who are there five days a week while their parents work in media, kids from all countries and permutations of families. It’s often a shambles, but as a lesson to kids that everyone should be included it’s doing pretty well and we were all very lucky to find it.
(Photos are of Ben at 10-12 months old, when he started at nursery)