Getting Political About Education

Having three children at school has freed up time for me to usefully spend on admin and being angry. We have to submit an application for Ben to go to secondary school next year (How is he old enough? Where did my baby go? Etc. etc.) It’s a straightforward form where we express a preference and the Local Authority then processes applications, consults with schools, reviews Ben’s Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), and allocates a school to him. 

But of course it doesn’t feel straightforward at all, because all decisions about education are set against a bleak landscape of onerous budget constraints. 

We would like Ben to move to the secondary campus of the school he already goes to, but this will require our Local Authority to agree to him continuing his education ‘out of borough’. Judging by the experiences of our friends with children slightly older that Ben, they might push for him to stay ‘in borough’, which is cheaper largely because the transport costs are lower. We’ll see… 

What makes it anxiety provoking is that it’s hard to trust that decisions about Ben’s education will be made on the basis of what is best for him rather than on the basis of squeezed budgets. Spending on education has fallen, and the amount of money given to Local Authorities to fund schools has dropped, while the number of pupils needing extra support has increased. Of course it has, because if schools are stretched then they need formalised funding (an EHCP) instead of informally supporting children within the standard offer of schools.

Ben’s EHCP sets out what he needs to learn and it’s worked brilliantly for him. It opened the door to his current school which has supported him well. The process to get him into school initially was horrific, but let’s save that for another time. So the EHCP process can, and does, work for some and Ben has benefitted hugely from his EHCP setting out what he needs and then matching the funding accordingly. But past success is no guarantee of future provision. We don’t know if the Local Authority will agree to Ben staying at the school that he has thrived in and if they don’t then we will have the option to argue our case against the Local Authority in front of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal.

The introduction of EHCPs was meant to solve the issue of funding for pupils with special educational needs but of course it has not, and parents take their cases to tribunal every day either to get the support their child needs or to get an EHCP in the first place. They have a good chance of winning – 92% of the appeals decided last year were in favour of the child, family or young person. 92%! So Local Authorities know they are likely to lose but take families to tribunal anyway. It is estimated that Local Authorities spent £40m spend in 2018/19 on SEND tribunals. By all accounts, going to tribunal is hugely stressful and expensive (if you can afford a lawyer) and the child or young person is left waiting for support.

Families are going to tribunal because it is the only way to get what their child needs in a system where there is almost no extra capacity. The number of pupils in special schools has increased, but mainstream schools are still trying to support pupils with special educational needs and insufficient funding. As the head of Max and Molly’s school told us, ‘A recent survey of 600 Headteachers showed that 94% found it harder to resource SEND than two years ago and only 2% felt top up funding was sufficient to meet Education Health and Care Plans.’ This kind of funding shortfall inevitably results in children not being taught as well as they could be, and those who could manage in mainstream schools with the right support moving to more specialist provision where they will. Which is a kind of segregation.

The effect of this creaking system on children and their families is awful but obvious. But even if you, like us, are lucky enough for your children to be in good schools, with really good teachers, it feels like you’re on the edge of a precipice. In England total school funding has fallen by 8% since 2010. Education spending as a percentage of gross national product has fallen from 5.8% to 4%. We know what the pinch of funding cuts feels like – the respite stays that have been withdrawn, the transport to playscheme that evaporated, the wheelchair appointments can’t keep up with the growth of Ben’s legs. My family has been insulated from the worst, but none of it feels secure. Perhaps we are just one decision away from Ben not being at the school he loves, or getting the help with communication that he needs. 

It doesn’t feel like the system isn’t set up to be fair and right, but rather is trying to keep going in almost intolerable scarcity and it needs to ration the resources it offers. It doesn’t offer additional help when it might be useful, it needs each person to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the help is essential before the money can be released. 

This should fill us all with rage: for the pupils who aren’t getting the support they need, for the families that have to commit to stressful tribunal processes, and for schools that are struggling to give pupils educational support in a near impossible situation. I’ve written about this before here, and no doubt I will again, because it’s outrageous. The government are encouraging schools and parents to see SEN pupils as draining funds that could otherwise support more kids. They are overseeing a shift that encourages pupils towards special schools, not necessarily because that is the best place for them, but because that is the only place that might have appropriate support. That is a travesty for all our kids, who find themselves educated in less diverse, less inclusive schools.

Who knows what will happen with Ben’s secondary placement. I think it’s common to find a child moving to secondary school stressful but surely it doesn’t need to be this way. The system is set up to pit families against Local Authorities, schools against parents, and the dynamic is forever stacked against those with least power. Education is not this government’s priority and that’s exactly what it feels like.

Of all the things this government is doing to reduce opportunities, increase inequality and further demonstrate its disregard for disabled people, this is the one I am most angry about this week. It’s not fair on our children or their teachers.

Wonder

I have been reading even more books than usual to Ben during lockdown (or whatever we’re meant to call this period now). We have been choosing longer books and taking a week or two to get through them. Max often listens too.

We have just finished Wonder by R.J. Palacio which is about a boy, August, who is ten years old, has facial differences and starts a new school. It’s about how people react to the way he looks and how he makes new friends. Some parts are told from the viewpoint of his sister and his school friends. A lot of it is about his relationship with his parents, how he feels about his appearance and how he manages other people’s behaviour. It’s all the stuff that parents typically worry about when they have children who are different, or actually probably just all parents.

I make a concerted effort to read diverse books to my kids. I seek out stories about people who look different to them, or celebrate different holidays, or live in different kinds of families. I don’t think it’s enough to hope your children will see a range of people in the culture they consume – you have to proactively curate it. I’m not doing in perfectly, but I’m trying.

In the books I buy and read, I don’t protect them from potentially tricky topics. Books are a great way of introducing the beginning of something before it comes time to have a Big Chat, or perhaps there will never need to be a serious chat because books are a great way of introducing nuanced topics and having a whole series of little chats. All chats and topics are different but books have helped me have chats with my kids about flowers, racism and reproduction, just in the last few weeks. Of all the stories, I particularly seek out ones that depict disability because I want to try and provide some balance to the overwhelming majority of the stories Ben hears being about non-disabled people.

So we started reading Wonder, and I found bits of it difficult. There are sections where kids are really mean to August and I worried that I was telling Ben that kids are bullies, but reminded myself that Ben might not relate to August. Not least because his physical differences are entirely different to Ben’s. So I continued, relieved when we got to a bit where August made good friends. Ben was engaged, enjoying the story, showing no signs of distress.

There were a number of points where I welled up while reading – partly because I’m an absolute sucker for this kind of storytelling, and partly because people’s kindness often moves me to tears and August makes a really good friend in the book. There are passages where there is a danger of August being depicted as the kind of ‘inspiration porn’ that so enrages disabled people – the plucky, courageous person who is congratulated for completing an everyday task, living an everyday life. But there is also something beautiful in Wonder about the way August rises above horrible people and makes meaningful connections. His teacher makes a speech at the end: ‘It’s not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed… we carry with us, as human beings, not just the capacity to be kind, but the very choice of kindness’, I read to the boys as my voice wobbled around the threat of tears. August is clever, hard working and funny. He makes friends in the book, just through being himself.

When we got to a chapter written by August’s sister, Olivia, I worried because she eloquently describes her parents not having time for her when they are so distracted by her brother. I didn’t (don’t) want Ben to feel like his siblings might be resentful of him, or to plant in Max’s mind that he’s been dealt a bad hand in siblings or families. I found it hard to read the passages where Olivia doesn’t want August to come to a show at her new school, because she is embarrassed that her brother is so different, but she feels awful for feeling that way.

I realised that reading books like this is as important for Max as it is for Ben. It’s easy to forget that having a disabled sibling is, in itself, an identity. It affects so much of who Max is, what he does, and how he lives. I would love for him to see that being Ben’s brother is hard in some ways, and wonderful in others. But there are things he finds difficult, and perhaps it’s helpful for him to know that other siblings find this too. It’s very unlikely he’ll suddenly become resentful of his brother because he heard a character in a book was. And if Max is at all resentful, me pretending he isn’t won’t make it go away. 

What Max mainly wanted to talk about as we read the book was why other kids, friendly and not, were behaving the way they were. Max wondered why one particular boy, Julian, was so mean and why his parents didn’t want him to be friends with August. Max has some experience of kids not liking his brother and far from it making him self-conscious about Ben it has, so far, just made him really sad, which made me even sadder.

But for every unkind character, there is a friendly one. And August’s parents are there beside him. There is a bit at the end where August and his dad are discussing the astronaut helmet that August wore all the time, for years, so people couldn’t see his face. August’s dad is telling him how much he hated the helmet: ‘The real, real, real, real truth is: I missed seeing your face, Auggie. I know you don’t always love it, but you have to understand… I love it. I love this face of yours, Auggie, completely and passionately. And it kind of broke my heart that you were always covering it up.’

‘Oh, that is SUCH a parent thing to say,’ Max groaned. ‘That’s exactly the kind of thing you guys say.’ Too right, kid, and not going to stop anytime soon…

Limping through lockdown

It has now been over four and a half weeks of us being at home – at first in self-isolation because Molly was ill, then in the typical lockdown that everyone is doing. It has been over five weeks since I slipped on a small hill in a kids’ playground and broke three bones in my ankle. Tomorrow will mark exactly five weeks since I was wheeled into surgery, telling James I would see him in two hours, only to return five hours later with three metal plates and ten screws in my very swollen ankle.

I was discharged from hospital two days before Molly got ill and so our lockdown is inextricably linked with my ankle injury and my often clumsy attempts to manoeuvre myself around on crutches, bearing no weight on my left leg. Having a leg in a cast was not ideal preparation for having three children at home, all the time. Yet, when I was first in hospital the thing that upset me the most was being separated from my family. I was so lonely and all I wanted was to be in my own house with my children. So in some ways all my dreams came true!

Once I could leave my bed, my inability to move, carry or help has been difficult and it has felt like the worst timing because what we could do with now, more than anything, is two adults who can both look after our children. My incapacity meant James doing everything, for all of us, for weeks and it was a lot for him. More than once when I tried to be helpful and independent, I fell over. I have found it incredibly frustrating. I am unused to dependency and have found it hard to rely on nurses, my husband and my children for the most basic of my needs.

But in some ways I injured myself at the best possible moment. We had bumped into a friend in the playground just before I fell and so she distracted Max and Molly while I worked out how to get myself to A&E. I had delivered a massive work project the day before I injured myself so it has been okay that I haven’t worked for a month. James had returned from a work trip to Canada two days before I was admitted to hospital. I was discharged from hospital just before the pandemic took full hold, and my limited mobility is less of an issue since I’m barely allowed to leave my house.

We have bought me a one-legged scooter and so I can now prop my healing leg on it and potter around the house. I can cook, and carry things from one place to another without needing to pack them into my rucksack. I have made it out to the garden and have played an extremely amateur, ridiculous, game of seated volleyball with Max. I have been reaping all of the benefits of a house without steps, with doorways wide enough for a scooter, and a lift that takes me to my bedroom. I have been so grateful for the mobility aids that have allowed me to move around and increasingly parent my children. And yet I am so resentful that I can’t use my legs like I am used to. It’s been a surprise to find myself dependent on crutches and a scooter and I struggle to reconcile my long-standing belief that mobility aids are freeing, not confining, with feeling incredibly constrained, all of the time. I hope this is more a process of change management in my own mind than latent prejudice against disability, but it’s hard to fathom my own thoughts when I have only left the house twice in a month and we’re in the midst of a pandemic.

Because obviously the pandemic weighs heavily. When Molly was ill, we attempted to self-isolate her and Max from Ben, so after years of encouraging our children to touch, kiss and cuddle each other we had to stop Molly going near Ben in the house. It felt necessarily but wrong. Max stopped sleeping in the same room as Ben. We still had some carers coming to spend time with Ben, and we had to tell Molly and Max not to go downstairs when they were here. After years of encouraging an ease around Ben and his carers, we had to police everyone’s exposure to each other, spraying cleaning fluid in their wake. It was heart-breaking. I’m not sure how long it will take for us to undo our policing of touch.

As Molly entered her second full week of illness, it seemed like Ben was in a vulnerable category and we tried to work out what we would do if he got ill. We spoke to Ben’s lead consultant and he suggested a plan which made us feel reassured, but we were on tenterhooks every time Ben coughed or grimaced. Somehow he has so far remained unaffected, and now we are all healthy, touch wood. It now seems like Ben no longer officially counts as vulnerable, though who knows, and there is only so much we can do to keep him safe. We remain vigilant, nervous and concerned.

In the midst of all of this, I scoured the internet for guidance about how we should manage carers coming into the house. Not having carers was not an option given my inability to look after Ben and James needing to look after all five of us. I cannot push Ben’s wheelchair or move him between his chair and his bed. I can barely change him without wobbling perilously and can’t get to him in the night in any kind of timely fashion. So we came up with our own version of guidelines for how we would manage the risk, long before the government produced anything helpful.

I noticed news reports that told us, with a tone of reassurance, that many of the people who died had underlying health conditions. I knew that is how Ben would be described. I was relieved that children did not seem to be among the worst affected, but then there were reports of child deaths, and plenty of other people to still be worried about. When NICE published guidance setting out how access to critical care would be managed, I noticed that it was on the basis of frailty, and that according to their criteria Ben would be frail. I realised these criteria didn’t apply to children, and I was both relieved and still stricken, because Ben will one day be a disabled (apparently frail) adult, and we have friends who are disabled adults. I am still shocked that a formal, public document set out the ways in which a disabled person’s access to life-saving treatment would be considered rather than assumed. It was later edited to say the guidance should not be used with younger disabled people, but why did it take outrage to prompt that clarification? Of the many things I never imagined before COVID-19 appeared, I didn’t think I would ever worry whether my child would have to compete for medical attention and whether his disability would count against him if he did. 

I’ve barely articulated any of these thoughts because I am mainly aware of our luck. We are currently healthy, in a large house with a garden where we have time to appreciate the tulips. We have offers of supplies and the money to buy them. I have a husband to help, and subscriptions to streaming services. We have as much hope as anyone else does of home-schooling our children, albeit with the colossal pressure of being not only Ben’s teacher but also his physiotherapist, occupational therapist, speech and language therapist and support system. 

We could be in a much more difficult situation, and I know many are. We are okay – letting our kids watch marginally inappropriate films, making and eating too many cakes and wondering how to get any work done. We are more fortunate than many, yet each morning I remember that this crisis has laid bare an assumption that Ben’s life might be, if not now then in the future, a little bit less valuable than someone else’s and I just hope that we are going to weather this storm and then come out fighting, with strong ankles perhaps.

How to wee in space, or South Kensington

Do you know about Changing Places? Ben can’t use a standard accessible toilet so when are we are away from our house we need a Changing Place which is a room with a changing bench, a hoist and room for us and his wheelchair. Without a room like this, our options for visiting places are limited.

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Many of our favourite places to visit in London have taken it upon themselves to install Changing Places: Tate Modern, Barbican, Royal Festival Hall. They have just opened a new one at City Hall, and there’s one in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Yet other places have so far been apparently incapable of finding the space, funding or enthusiasm to install one. Between the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum there are no facilities to cater to any of their more disabled visitors despite the thousands that must visit every year. The museums are next to each other in Kensington – it would be easy for disabled visitors to move from one museum to the other to find the facilities they need but according to the Changing Places map it is a barren wasteland.

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This means that when we visit one of these museums, which we do often, our day is determined by how long it is reasonable to stay out before we need to return home. It doesn’t matter how much fun we are having, how interested Ben is in nocturnal creatures or how much Max doesn’t want to leave Wonderlab. We have to leave and drive home because there is no toilet within two miles for Ben to use.

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Let’s just think for a second about using the loo, or rather not being able to use the loo. I’m a woman so I’m used to queueing, but I know there’s going to somewhere I can use pretty much everywhere. I drink a lot of tea and water, I’ve had three kids, I wee a lot. Just imagine not being able to go to the loo, restricting fluids and organising your whole day, life, around where there might be a loo. People like Ben have to tolerate a certain amount of discomfort to get to see more of a museum.

During the recent anniversary of the moon landings I read a fascinating Twitter thread about peeing in space. The author, a science fiction writer, points out that it is a common misconception that women couldn’t go into space initially because they lacked the technology for them to pee. Actually, the technology for anyone to pee in space was untested and initial space flights involved a lot of men weeing in their spacesuits and capsules smelling of poo. By the time women were going into space, NASA developed a solution for launch and spacewalks called the Maximum Absorbency Garment (MAG) which was, essentially, a large nappy or pad. Men used them too because they were more comfortable and involved less pee floating around the cabin.

It is super cool that the Science Museum is giving it’s disabled visitors a genuine space experience by leaving them to sit in a MAG while admiring a lunar module, but it would be better to have proper facilities. At the cutting edge of human endeavour, forty years ago, it seemed reasonable for astronauts to wear pads for long periods of time. On a Tuesday morning in the school holidays, in 2019, it does not seem reasonable. It appears that public institutions in central London don’t care enough about their disabled visitors to provide for them.

Presumably at the heart of this is people’s incapacity to imagine what they have not experienced. As a Continence Nurse said to me recently, ‘If I could persuade NHS managers to experience what my patients do, they might provide more for my patients and install Changing Places in hospitals’. Imagine the results we might have if MPs or Museum Directors got the full MAG experience.

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Over the last few months I contacted the South Kensington museums about this issue. The V&A and Natural History Museums told me they have hopeful plans to install Changing Places in 2020. In the meantime the Natural History Museum says it can provide a mobile Changing Place on request. That doesn’t allow for a great deal of spontaneity, as it means we need to plan trips sufficiently in advance, but it is a good interim solution. The Science Museum hasn’t yet responded.

The Changing Places campaign estimates there are quarter of a million people in the UK who have some kind of disability and cannot use a standard accessible toilet. Yet there is no requirement for public buildings, old or new, to install Changing Places.

Thousands of people are living their lives constrained or in discomfort due to a lack of loos they can use. Surely if we can get people into space we could provide a few more specialised loos on earth?

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‘This is Ben. He’s playing the iPad.’

About five years ago I did a BBC Radio 5 Live interview, which was indeed live, about Ben’s nativity play which we had been to the day before at his then school. The BBC had been filming the rehearsals for the play and interviewing parents before the final performance, and a lovely film featured on their website. It was also picked up by 5 Live and Ben’s school asked if I could be interviewed on air. I said I’d think about it and spoke to my husband, James, who said obviously I should do it – why wouldn’t I? And he was, of course, right.

Before talking directly to the presenter on air I had a conversation with the producer of the show who asked about nativity play. He was friendly, but it was clear the story they were looking or hoping for (similar to the website headline: ‘The parents who never expected to see their child in a nativity play’) was one of my surprise that my disabled child had taken part in a nativity play. Ideally I would talk about how amazed I was, that I had never expected this to happen because my child was, you know, disabled.

I gently pushed back and said the play had been amazing but not beyond what I had dreamt for my son, because the school was great so it was entirely within expectations that they’d do a Christmas performance. Then I tried to give them an alternative story (encouraged by James who has done substantially more media interviews) which worked. When I was put on air and talking to the presenter she asked about Ben’s progress at school and I told everyone that he’d read new words the week before which was a much better, feelgood, story. I wrote a blog about it at the time here.

I had never thought about nativity plays and been sad that Ben would never get to be in one. I’d never really thought about nativity plays at all – for either (at the time I had two) of my children. I don’t spend much time thinking about whether they will or won’t take part in these rites of passage. But if I had then I would have presumed that Ben’s excellent schools would make some version of it happen, and they have – we’ve been to a Christmas play every year since Ben started school. I wouldn’t say he has always enjoyed them, but they have happened.

Over the years Ben has got better at being able to take part in these kinds of performances without finding it all too overwhelmingly bright, loud, unexpected and unpredictable. His current school has an Awards Night every year where all of the pupils’ achievements are celebrated. There are some speeches and performances and each child goes up onto the stage to accept a certificate. The first time we went Ben hated most of it, but particularly the moment when he had to go up to the stage, and we wheeled him off the stage in tears straight to the car to drive home, leaving six members of our extended family clapping for children they were not related to. He gets overstimulated by the cacophony of music, clapping, lights, people and being the centre of attention. This kind of event doesn’t happen every day and therefore is hard to handle for him.

We didn’t go to the second awards night. We gave the third a try and didn’t invite other family; Ben’s crying that year wasn’t quite as loud but still heartfelt. This year we tried again and prepped thoroughly. We talked Ben through it for days before, agreed with him who would go onto the stage with him. As the ceremony started James read furiously from a poetry book and Ben allowed himself to be occasionally distracted. When it came to his class’s turn, James and Max wheeled him up to the side of the stage and delivered joke after joke to Ben.

I watched nervously from the audience as they came up to the stage and the headteacher handed Ben his certificate. I could see Ben was tense, already sweating from the stress of it all, but HE WAS NOT CRYING. He even managed a small hint of a smile. And then they wheeled off. Max appeared a few moment later demanding more sweets and when James and Ben returned to our seats we agreed we shouldn’t push our luck and beat a jubilant retreat to the car.

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So when, a week later, the school asked us whether Ben should take part in an evening music performance we were unsure. They reminded us that we had said no the year before. But now, fresh from the success of awards night, maybe we should give it a go? It’s a delicate balance with these things between it feeling wrong to force Ben to take part in events he hates and making him stretch his comfort zone so that he can discover that it’s broader than he thought. We said yes.

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On the day Ben’s teacher said they would take the kids to a rehearsal between the end of school and the performance so we just needed to turn up at the venue at 7pm. We had sent in his dinner that morning and they got him ready to go. We were so nervous we left home early and had time for an unusual Monday evening drink – just two parents having a semi-relaxed glass of wine before going to watch their son in a concert. It felt like a Thing that we hadn’t been involved in any of the preparation for this – we weren’t the ones getting him fed and changed and ready – we would just be spectators.

The performance was in a converted church and we took our seats looking down on the large area of floor which was the stage, where once there would have been an altar. Ben and his gang (five kids, five teachers/assistants because that’s how special needs schools roll) were at the side of the stage and Ben looked more relaxed than we had expected. The concert began and it was a mixture of folksongs played by professional musicians and pieces with children from other, mainstream, schools. We could see Ben getting more tense but his teacher was sitting right next to him and talked him through it.

When it came to Ben’s school’s turn they wheeled the children onto the stage as the compere/conductor explained that musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra had been visiting the school and had composed a piece with the pupils. He introduced each of the children and their instrument: ‘This is Ben. He is playing the ipad’. Ben had a trumpeter standing directly in front of him and when he touched the ipad with his hand the notes changed according to the pressure and direction of his touch. The trumpeter then played each phrase back, mimicking his ipad music, like a freeform duet. Other pupils played drums and buttons linked to recorded music. It was glorious.

Ben sat patiently at the side of the stage for the rest of the concert, listening to beautiful children’s choirs and enthusiastic drumming. At the end we collected him, thanking his teacher for the utterly brilliant way she had helped steward Ben’s emotions through the evening, and saying hello to the trumpeter who was chatting to Ben. We paused outside the church to collect ourselves and our belongings and people came up to Ben to say hello, to say well done. One lady bent down to his level and stage whispered, ‘Ben. That. Was. Fabulous.’ As we walked away, the evening warm and still light, a family coming the other way said, ‘Bye Ben, well done.’ We don’t know any of these people. None of them knew his name before his performance. It was amazing.

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I hadn’t imagined Ben would perform with LSO musicians, not because I’d thought he wouldn’t be able to do it because he’s disabled and would be sitting at home excluded from normal childhood opportunities (see BBC headline above), but because I didn’t know my children would have the opportunity to perform with LSO musicians at all. I would have been proud of any of them taking part in a ‘proper’ concert like this.

But particularly for Ben – it’s not that I’m amazed that he took part in these performances despite his disability; it’s that I’m so proud of him taking part in these performances because he’s disabled. Because he’s worked (working) hard to overcome all the reasons why things like this are sometimes overwhelming for him. I think it’s amazing that he has got to the point of being able to enjoy these opportunities despite finding it hard to cope with the noise, stress, unfamiliarity they involve. I love that the iPad was treated equally to the trumpet, and his disability incorporated, and that all the other parents and children remembered his name and came to say hello. It was one of THOSE moments which I’ll talk about when I’m old and dotty and reminiscing about how much joy my children brought me.

What to expect from grown-ups

I recently took Ben to a new place, for a new thing, which involved us swimming in a pool. It was a brilliant morning – the kind of pinch-me event that makes me so grateful that Ben has these opportunities, that I get to do this stuff with him.

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But accompanying the #blessed vibe, there was the cold, hard reality of needing to get Ben and me into our swimming costumes. We were at an unfamiliar school and there was a teaching assistant on hand to help get Ben and another child ready. As I got Ben onto the changing plinth, she said she would get Ben undressed while I got changed. This seemed sensible since I couldn’t really get naked in room full of strangers, so I left her to take Ben’s jumper and tshirt off while I popped next door. When I came back, I took over and continued to undress Ben. As I was putting some of his clothing in our bag, she started to undress Ben’s bottom half. I said I would do it but as I did, she continued to help. I repeated that I could do it.

She was being helpful. But it felt uncomfortable. I was there and happy to do all of it. We didn’t need help. Ben didn’t know her, and there is an intimacy to undressing which feels odd with someone who he has just met, who he had been cursorily introduced to, and who he is now expected to be on intimate, but unequal, terms.

Ben will always require assistance, he will need people (mostly able-bodied) to help him access the world. There is likely to be an imbalance in power and a dynamic in these relationships where Ben is more dependent, and this be interpreted as weakness. The solution isn’t for me or James to do everything for him, and for us to reduce his dependence on other people by increasing his dependence on us as parents. I am thinking about how to frame these interactions in an age-appropriate way – all children are dependent on adults in some way, but for Ben that means help to be changed and fed as well as taught and entertained.

Some of this is basic – it’s reasonable for Ben to expect people to introduce themselves and explain or ask him about what’s going to happen next before they start to undress him. Some of it is more nuanced. There are people whom Ben immediately likes and trusts, but we can’t expect that this magical energy will materialise in every interaction. Maybe sometimes Ben’s immediate need to be changed, fed, moved or assisted overrides his lack of immediate warmth to the person doing the changing, feeding or moving. Children don’t get to choose all of the adults who they interact with, but I think they should have a sense of what is okay and what is not, and should always feel safe and respected.

Last year we had a carer at home who was mainly assisting and entertaining Ben with us at the weekend. We weren’t convinced she was hugely enriching Ben’s life but with a full family life including two other kids, she helped ensure Ben had what he needed and was read some books. I felt guilty that he was spending time with her (albeit only a few hours), but that’s the bread and butter of being a mother to three kids.

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One afternoon I went upstairs to see how Ben was getting on and as I walked into his room she was hoisting him out of his chair in a way that was wrong, despite having been shown how we do this to make sure Ben is safe and comfortable. I then realised that she hadn’t moved him all afternoon and he was wet and uncomfortable from being in the same chair for hours. I was shocked and explained to her why all of this was unacceptable in front of Ben before asking her to leave the room and having a further chat with her on our landing. I felt protective, like a lioness who needed to corral her cubs and keep them close forever, and I asked her to leave. I bathed Ben carefully and put him in dry, clean clothes and we all watched TV together.

I had reacted in the moment. We generally try to have conversations with Ben’s carers away from the children as we don’t want our house to be a constant management exercise witnessed by them, and they need to have relationships with the carers we employ independently of us. But as I calmed down, I thought it was totally fine for Ben to have witnessed my shock and to know that I thought it was unacceptable.

It is not right for Ben to feel unsafe in his own house. It is not okay for him to be dependent on others for his personal care and for those people to not give it the thought and attention that they should. He shouldn’t have to put up with mediocre communication and monosyllabic conversation. He needs to be able to trust people with intimate moments of access.

I think it’s appropriate for him to see us calling out moments where people do this wrong. We need to make explicit what our expectations are, and to hopefully build in him a sense of what he can expect from adults, how much he has to put up with and when he’s allowed to protest. Later that night Molly, then age two, asked what the carer had done that was ‘naughty’ because she had heard my conversation with her on the landing and had (correctly) interpreted it as a telling off. I told her that the carer had done something wrong to Ben and she had gone home.

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As I put Ben to bed, I explained that it wasn’t okay for the carer to have moved him in a way that was risky, to have left him in his wheelchair for so long. I don’t know for sure how much of this he understood, but I hope Ben – and Max and Molly – know that he has a right to feel safe and comfortable, and grown-ups aren’t always right.

Clicking in the gallery

We took the kids to Tate Britain at the weekend. It’s a good thing to do first thing on a Sunday morning – we can drive there easily, it’s not busy, and we can get coffee and pastries in the café which incentivises the whole trip for all of us.

It was the last day of the Turner Prize exhibition so I had a chat with a guy at the front desk about whether it was suitable for children. I mentioned nudity, and he started talking through whether there were naked people in any of the pieces. I had to clarify that nudity wasn’t the problem, it was what the potentially nude people were doing, since I’d accidentally once walked Ben into a room of Gilbert & George works which were utterly inappropriate. Oh, no, no sex, he said.

And he was right, no sex. But the four nominees for the Turner Prize had all presented video works, two of which were about people who were being or had been killed. Of the other two, we all enjoyed some of a film about the legacy of colonialism in Tripoli. Yes, really. It was beautiful and interesting, and Molly only asked to leave four times.

Video art is perfect for Ben. He is drawn to screens, and these screens were huge. Each artist’s room had just one bench and people came and went so it was easy to manoeuvre Ben’s wheelchair in and out.

James took Ben into a film about queerness and Scotland which seemed safe for kids. For most of the time it was silent, with sweeping footage of ancient standing stones in remote Scottish islands. The other visitors were sitting silently and Ben was engrossed. The only noise was the rhythmical clicks of Ben’s tongue.

Ben has dystonia, which means he has involuntary movements in his muscles. It makes it very hard for him to control his own movements which affects his ability to sit, walk and talk. It also affects the way his tongue works, in that it moves a lot but not in a way that makes eating possible. This means Ben doesn’t control his saliva, and he makes a clicking noise sometimes as he moves his tongue within his mouth.

When he was first at nursery the staff would call him “Dolphin Boy”, for the little clicks he would make throughout the day, like he was trying to communicate on some level unintelligible to mere humans. He would make the sound when he was relaxed or interested in something – never when he was stressed or uncomfortable, when his mouth would be tense. He would often click when he was lying in bed, or when we were hanging out at home and he was content. Over the years he has done it less.

When Ben was younger we were self-conscious about him making noises, particularly in very quiet places. For a child who doesn’t talk, Ben can be quite noisy. He often kicks which makes his wheelchair squeak, or makes noises to complain, or shrieks if he is excited. It doesn’t matter if you’re in open, noisy areas but in silent galleries (or cinemas, restaurants, planetariums, theatres) the noises can seem loud and potentially disruptive. I would hate the idea of other people being bothered by the noise. I’m the kind of person who would rather not eat sweets than risk making loud crackles with a packet of fruit pastilles in a cinema.

Over the years we have come to notice or care about this less and less. If Ben is making a lot of noise he is often not enjoying himself, and we will take him somewhere else, out of the theatre. But if he’s making noise while enjoying something, then so be it. Ben is often the one laughing loudest and longest at something funny at the cinema, but he may also be making some noise in the quiet bits. If someone else is bothered by a disabled child making some noise, then I don’t really care. Odds are they could visit again, whereas outings for us are logistical challenges. I think expecting one mode of behaviour from all humans in every public space is, when you start to think about it, ridiculous. And actually, much of my anxiety about disrupting other people with our family’s noise is (was) presumptive – I imagine people are annoyed, when the vast majority of people either haven’t heard it, or have but are relaxed about it. We meet lots of people who are friendly to us in these situations, even when we’re blocking their exit from the row with Ben’s wheelchair and the four hundred bags we like to carry with us at any one time.

Still, it’s one thing to intellectually decide that it’s okay for Ben to make his noises in places where they might draw attention, but it can be another to not feel a twinge of anxiety about it. Over time, I’ve come to marry the two. I hear the noises themselves less, I’m less likely to see whether other people have noticed, and I care less about all of it.

In the dark room at Tate, James said no-one turned towards the noise as he, Ben and a group of strangers watched sweeping Scottish scenery accompanied by the rhythmical clicks of Ben being content. I think that’s kind of wonderful.

We then rewarded ourselves with croissants and cappuccinos, and then wandered through the main galleries of Tate looking at art back through the centuries. Somewhere towards the sixteenth century Molly took her shoes off and tried to jump off the benches, before shouting that she wanted to run. I tried to tame her while James talked to the boys about paintings of men on horses, and paintings of men fighting.

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Molly’s just turned three, and it’s an ‘interesting’ age. During our trip to Tate our disabled child was at no point the one that we were self-conscious about, that we were noticing people’s reactions to, or worrying whether his behaviour was appropriate for the space. Partly because I think the noises Ben makes are largely appropriate to all spaces, but also because no-one notices him when a small but furious girl is careering towards art of national importance, tripping people up as she goes. There’s a moral in there somewhere, beyond the immediate lesson that one way to distract yourself from overthinking your disabled child is to take a three year old whirlwind with you wherever you go.

‘More disabled’

You should all listen to a podcast called Distraction Pieces with Scroobius Pip where he interviews Jess Thom (link here). They are two thoughtful, interesting, amusing people talking about Jess’s work and life. This is in itself fascinating, but the podcast is also a glorious auditory celebration of difference, as Thom has Tourette Syndrome and Scoobius Pip has a stammer.

I found that when I first started listening I was really aware of their particular styles of speech but by the end (and it’s over an hour long) I hardly noticed. Thom talks about how her family and best friends barely notice her verbal tics – they are so familiar with them and her that they unconsciously screen them out as they listen to what she’s saying. I could feel myself doing this as I listened.

Isn’t that the way… Something new and unfamiliar draws your attention but given enough exposure and time your brain will accommodate it. One’s perception of another persons characteristics is going to depend on your familiarity with them (or with disabled people in general), and on your own preconceptions. I notice this with Ben. People meeting him for the first time can be struck by his disability, by his wheelchair, and sometimes can’t quite get past that to see a boy. We are so familiar with his body now.

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Apart from good discussions about the intersection of creativity and inclusivity, Thom also talks about the social model of disability (the idea people are disabled by society and their environment rather than their own impairments – I talk a bit about it here), making the point that she feels more or less disabled depending on the context. In an environment where she faces steps (she uses a wheelchair) or where her verbal and physical tics are not welcome, she will feel more disabled than somewhere where these needs are well accommodated.

This isn’t the first time I have heard these concepts, but each time I hear them explained eloquently I have an ‘Aha!’ moment and I hope everyone else does too. It requires a flip of mind to realise that the step is the problem, not the wheelchair. And it requires a degree of nuance to perceive disability as a constantly shifting scale that depends on the day, the activity, the environment, the level of support rather than an incontrovertible fact.

I find myself more aware of Ben’s disability when we are somewhere where he is the exception, particularly somewhere where the doors are a bit small, the spaces between the tables narrow, and we have to make an almighty fuss just to get him inside. Or in a theatre where it’s not clear that people are happy with Ben’s noises and his creaking wheelchair. In these contexts we, and the people we are squeezing past, become hyperaware of his disability.

At the other end of the spectrum, our house is where Ben is least disabled. I am so familiar with his body I largely don’t notice unpredictable movements when I look at him and will often only really notice noises that are communicative. At home he can, with help, go everywhere and do what he needs and wants to do. He can move around with his siblings, visit his parents in bed, be part of the action or somewhere quiet. He can have a bath every night. We can care for him easily and facilitate the things he enjoys doing. The house works with us, it encourages family life and visitors.

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It is possible to appreciate all of these advantages, and the privilege of having been able to make this house ours, because we have lived in many houses, visited many pools and cafes and houses that worked against us in small and big ways.

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The scale from ‘less disabled’ to ‘more disabled’ is not linear, and does not correlate with ‘better’ to ‘worse’. When I say Ben is ‘least disabled’ in our house, I do not mean that to be ‘more disabled’ is negative – because I do not believe that to be disabled is bad. “Disabled” is not a value judgement, it’s a description or an identity. When I describe Ben as least disabled in our house I mean that this is the environment in which there are least barriers to him doing what he wants to do, being who he wants to be, going where he wants to go (or where I think he should go, since I am his mother). This is thinking based on the ‘social model’ which Jess Thom refers to in the podcast.

So go and listen to the podcast. Maybe it will challenge your preconceptions about what people on podcasts should sound like. Maybe you will be inspired by Jess Thom’s creative work. Maybe it will expand your understanding of disability a little. I guarantee you’ll learn something, and laugh.

 

 

 

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.

The temptation to interrupt

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If you have a child who doesn’t follow the typical path it’s difficult to have a sense of where they will end up. I don’t mind this too much; I don’t find it that useful to have conversations about what Ben may, or may not, be doing in ten years time.

But everyone looks for role models for themselves or their kids, and some sense of where the path might be going. Disabled adults are rarely found in mainstream media, so I was lucky recently to be at a study day where a panel of five Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) users answered questions from the audience using high tech devices. Three of the five used eyegaze, exactly like Ben is learning to. There is a video here.

It is important, and inspiring (not in an inspiration-porn kind of way) to see people using AAC to talk so eloquently. THAT is where we want to aim for.

But I was really struck by something that one of the panellists – Kate Caryer – said at the event: she pointed out that people sometimes think of a communication aid as a gift or a toy, that users should feel grateful their local authorities have provided. Whereas it is in fact a human right.

Respecting Ben’s right to communicate means his device needs to be there, in front of him, as much as possible, not just when we decide we can fit it into his daily life. We need to make sure the batteries are charged, and the mounting arm is ready when it is needed. We need to force ourselves to fit it even when it feels like a bit too much effort on a busy day.

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But more profoundly, we have to be ready to hear what is being communicated. We have to alter our own culturally-constructed notion of how conversations work.

I find it uncomfortable to leave gaps in conversation – I feel I have to fill them. I first realised this when we lived in the Middle East and would spend time with Syrian friends who were happy to sit companionably with long pauses in conversation. I had to teach myself to enjoy this time and not fill the gaps with mindless waffle. This was made easier by my rudimentary Arabic.

Someone using a communication aid to talk is probably going to take longer, more time than a typical talking person. At the study day, it took time for the five individuals there to answer questions from the audience: they need to hear the question, navigate (with eyes or fingers) around their communication device to find the vocabulary for what they want to say, and then speak it.

This often makes conversation with an AAC user slower than we are used to, and I for one need to force myself to accept that rhythm of speech. This means waiting the extra 30 seconds to see what your conversational partner wants to say, and not interrupting. Ben isn’t able to shout immediately, in the way that Max does frequently, ‘Mummy, I was actually in the middle of talking when you interrupted me!’

I frequently screw up even when I am trying my best. I realised recently that after a conversation with a woman who uses a communication aid, I had said goodbye and walked away. I hadn’t waited to see if she wanted to say goodbye, or even if she had anything else to say. I felt a little sting of shame when I later realised. We can all have good intentions, but we don’t always behave as well as we’d like.

If you manage to fully embrace the alternative pace, there are rich rewards. A few years ago when Ben was just learning to look at Yes and No symbols on the armrests of his wheelchair to answer questions, we went to a local park and met some friends. One of them, who happens to be a nurse, crouched down in front of Ben so she was at his level, asked Ben if he was enjoying his new school, and then waited.

Ben slowly and deliberately looked down at the Yes symbol. It was the first time he had totally independently answered a question from a stranger, and it happened because she asked the question in the right way for him.

If we accept that people with communication difficulties have a right to talk – and therefore to be given the support, equipment and training they need – then they also have the right to be heard. And we, the people taking our communication skills for granted, have to learn how to listen. Not make assumptions about what is being said, or interrup, or fill the gaps in conversation with inconsequential waffle, but actually listen.

I mean it’s a good tip for life generally – many marriages could benefit from partners actually listening to what each other are saying. But rather than forcing the AAC user to navigate their way through their devices to say ‘Stop interrupting me’, maybe we should just take it upon ourselves to get our own houses in order.