Almost two years ago Ben went on a school trip. He left on Monday morning and returned on Friday afternoon, and we got some messages inbetween but we were otherwise largely oblivious to what he was doing. We knew he would be okay – we trust the school staff, and his usual night carers travelled with him to be there if he woke – but it was still strange. Not because we were away from him – we have often left him with family or carers. But because he was away from us, which is unusual.
There is an expectation of linearity in childhood. Babies are expected to reach developmental milestones and then continue to tick life stages off the list: walking, talking, starting school, being left at other people’s houses, riding a bike, sleepovers, school trips… Through these stages there’s a distancing of the child from their parent – probably not entirely smoothly (my children often pull away from me for a bit and then return close for a while, before pulling away again) but there is a broad direction of travel. They become more independent both physically (Max no longer needs me to tie his shoelaces) and mentally (Molly will take what her teacher has told her to be true over anything I say). If children have siblings there is an expectation that they are like a little chronological train – the first child makes their way along the track and others chug along behind.
For Ben the path is less linear – in some ways he is right on that track, wanting to watch 12 Certificate Marvel movies rather than the more gentle films I encourage, preferring to listen in on adult conversations than be at the bottom of the garden with his brother and sister, and learning from and communicating with teachers, carers and TV programs as much he does as with me and James. But in other ways, particularly physical, Max overtook him a long time ago and there are ways in which Ben will always be dependent on me and James (or other adults) to help him.
Time, and our family’s passage through it, is not progressive in the way that I had expected. I entered into parenting expecting linear development of my children but it won’t be like that. Ben entering his teens will have no effect on his ability to walk away from me, and yet he is becoming more mature and bursting out of his unadjusted wheelchair. The ways in which I am his mother are in some ways completely different to when he was little, and in some ways (feeding, dressing) exactly the same, so being his mother concertinas time in a way that feels, as Ellen Samuels has said, like time travel.
Ellen Samuel’s essay, Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time, talks about the ways in which time shifts or stretches when you are disabled. It’s a brilliant essay that I would recommend reading – an eloquent insight into how disability affects so many aspects of life beyond the solely physical.
From the essay: ‘Crip time is time travel… Some of us contend with the impairments of old age while still young; some of us are treated like children no matter how old we get. The medical language of illness tries to reimpose the linear, speaking in terms of the chronic, the progressive, and the terminal, of relapses and stages. But we who occupy the bodies of crip time know that we are never linear, and we rage silently – or not so silently – at the calm straightforwardness of those who live in the sheltered space of normative time.’
This made me think about the ways that being Ben’s mother doesn’t conform to the linear path I had been told to expect, because he is disabled. Being Ben’s mother is a process of undoing assumptions, and it’s near-constant work because the world tells us that the right way is chronological and cumulative, and that these things indicate progress. At the beginning, having a child who didn’t do things in the order others did was disorientating. It’s not any more.
Ben will lead the way for Max in some ways (he already has a smartphone, as Max reminds me near daily), and in others he won’t. He will go on school trips, but people will still ask us if he goes to school. He will continue to grow and need ever larger clothes, yet sometimes people will speak to him as if he is a baby. The issue isn’t with Ben, it’s with the ways some people struggle to compute his difference. I can get my head around it, and have, but we are continually butting up against other people who are confused by Ben’s developmental time travel, and express it. I can’t know what that feels like for Ben, but it is annoying as his parent.
Reference: Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time by Ellen Samuels, in Disability Visibility: First Person Stories From the Twenty-First Century edited by Alice Wong.
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 Penny Wincer, who managed to fit in a call with me to answer some questions.
Could you describe your family?
I’ve got two children. Arthur is 11 and Agnes is eight, almost nine. We live in South London though I’m originally from Australia and I’m a single parent, though I have a boyfriend who doesn’t live with us.
How would you describe Arthur?
Arthur is autistic and he has learning difficulties. He can speak but his speech is not typical. He’s a really happy kid but when he’s not really happy, he’s quite unhappy. There’s quite a roller coaster of emotions, which are quite extreme, so it’s never boring!
What does Arthur love doing?
He loves anything really stimulating like fireworks, trampolines, funfairs and bright lights. He loves sand, the beach, water and waves. I gave him some helium balloons this morning and they make him so happy. He also really likes cuddles, wrestling, hide and seek and chasing.
When did you realise that Arthur was maybe different to other children that you knew, or to typical children?
At around 18 months old it became obvious that he wasn’t quite in the same place as his peers. I wasn’t concerned at first, but he started having really serious meltdowns which seemed more intense than other kids. He was always happy or sad and there wasn’t much inbetween.
When he was around two my daughter was born and he reacted really badly. He either ignored her or got really upset when she made a noise. That was when I thought there’s something different here. I spoke to the health visitor at first and because I wasn’t that concerned, she wasn’t either. Arthur’s eye contact with me was really good and I hadn’t realised that he’d stopped doing many of the things he’d done when he was younger like turning round when someone unfamiliar called his name.
I asked for a referral and did a lot of research. In the first appointment with a developmental paediatrician, when Arthur had just turned three, she asked us what we thought and Arthur’s dad and I both said, ‘we think he’s autistic’. She said it was too early to confirm, but agreed it was likely to be the diagnosis eventually. We were expecting it so we weren’t shocked, or even that upset, when it happened.
We were first time parents so we didn’t have other children to compare him to, but seeing the developmental reports in black and white was really hard. I’d had no concerns about Arthur in his first year but I can look back and see he was a bit different. By six to nine months old, Agnes was doing things that Arthur couldn’t do, like waving, and it was a real shock.
When he was diagnosed we thought we’d get some help but really nothing was forthcoming and that was disappointing. We had to start the long process of a statement of special educational need (now Education, Health and Care Plan) when he was three and a half, and he then went to a mainstream school with one-to-one support. He did three years there which he didn’t hate it but he wasn’t thriving. He needed specialist teachers and a low stimulation environment, so he then moved to a specialist school and it is absolutely amazing. I feel so much more supported as a parent.
Can you talk a little bit about how Arthur’s disability, if you would use the word disability, affects his day to day life, and your family?
I do refer to his disability unless I need to describe his needs specifically, and then I might say autistic. Sometimes I prefer ‘disabled’ because not everyone needs to know his needs all the time. Sometimes they just need to know he has accessibility needs. I don’t shy away from the word ‘disabled’ because I want my son to be comfortable with it, and I want the people around him to be comfortable with it. It’s a fact.
Arthur is incredibly rigid and struggles to process information if things are not the same all the time. That means that we have really fixed ways of doing things and if there are any changes it can be quite traumatic (and I don’t use that word lightly). Now he can use language he becomes fixated on and repeats things. He’s generally an anxious child and he finds the world quite scary, and that means him repetitively asking to do the same thing over and over again, to hear the same answer and to understand. Keeping him in routine is really important because then he’s less anxious and more able to engage in the world a bit. He needs a lot of sensory stimulation – lots of physical activity, jumping, wrestling, running. If he gets enough of that, then he’s calmer.
He can use concrete language, so he can point things out to me and ask for some things. But he can’t really use abstract language to tell me how he feels or about something that happened previously or in the future. The way he uses speech is not typical but it’s improving all the time. Speaking is so useful for him but people don’t understand that it doesn’t make him less autistic. It’s still really hard for him to get his needs across. He’s started echolalic speech, so copying things, especially from TV. He’ll be just scripting to himself and he’ll say what seems like nonsense to everybody else over and over again, but then he’ll learn to use it in context. The first time he called me Mama was when he was about four and a half and he learned it from the film of The Gruffalo.
He doesn’t have friends in the typical sense but he connects really well with other adults and is a very good judge of character. When he was really little that concerned me but now I know he can connect with adults and he will be an adult, so he will have friends who are peers eventually.
In what ways is your life how you expected? And in what ways is it different?
It’s so different to how I expected. One of the biggest things is that I’m Australian and Arthur can’t fly so he hasn’t been to Australia since he was one. It’s been a really big deal that I’ve had to get my head around. I go on my own, occasionally, and I will take my daughter eventually, but it’s complicated. It would be wonderful if the kids could know their extended family.
I never expected I would be in a situation where I’m so reliant on the outside world and how precarious that feels. For example, I’m dependent on the local authority for Arthur’s school, transport to school, holiday club, and that dictates how and when I can work. I never expected that my choices would be restricted like that. At any moment, something can change (particularly in the last nine months) and I’ll have to completely reshuffle my life to replace whatever has gone or changed. It’s one of the things that I find most challenging. It’s quite hard to explain to people the lack of control and the lack of options that I have with a disabled child.
I think the difference between being a parent of a typical kid and being a parent of a child with a disability is it’s not better or worse, but we might need more – more rest, more breaks, more help. It’s all fine and manageable when I get the extra help I need and the extra rest I need. I don’t wish it away. It’s just different. But when you have all that taken away, suddenly you realise just how quickly you’re hanging by a thread. I need help and rest to be a together human, a good parent, friend or girlfriend. I think that’s true for everybody, I just think it’s a bit more extreme for those of us with kids who need a bit more from us.
But I think it’s as good as I expected it would be. It’s also way more challenging than I expected, but I think most parents would say that. Parenting is more emotionally extreme than I expected. I thought it would be a bit more calm and stable. I’ve coped with way more than I thought I would. I have a life that I love. I have moments where I’m definitely not coping, especially this year, but generally I have a really lovely life.
How has your parenting and your approach, particularly to Arthur but maybe to both your children, changed over time?
I think when he was first diagnosed, I was in a panic about how much support he needed and how quickly he needed it. Everything I read was about early intervention but nothing was being provided. I went looking for play therapists, paying for private occupational therapy. I changed his diet. I was stressed out to my eyeballs becoming an expert. And thank god I chilled out because it was completely unsustainable. Eventually I calmed down and realised I can’t control this. I accepted that we’re never going to get the right amount of support, and we’ll just do our best with what we can, which is not easy. The thing that scared me so much when Arthur was three or four was the fear that I would be the reason he didn’t thrive. That it would be my fault because I chose the wrong therapy. You can completely twist yourself in knots about that kind of stuff. Every now and then I have a flash that I’m doing the wrong thing but I don’t dwell on it the same way. I have accepted that his disability is out of my control and I just have to do my best and I can’t do anything else.
How has being Arthur’s parent over the last eleven years changed you?
I see the world completely differently. I didn’t used to think I was a judgmental parent or person but I’ve had every bit of ego stripped away from me as a parent. I realised how little control I had over my life and I think that’s been an incredible experience which I’m grateful that I’ve had. Society was telling me that as a mother, it’s all my fault if he doesn’t thrive. And actually I’ve learned that isn’t true. You don’t have control over everything, and that kind of takes your judgement out of it. I look at families who are struggling now and I see a million reasons why that might be happening.
I used to be very eco conscious to the point where I never used to drive my car, everything was on foot. The kids were in cloth nappies. Then I realised that a lot of those choices were taken away with Arthur’s disability. Like he only eats one kind yoghurt (one of only four foods he eats) and it’s in a tiny plastic pot. I’ve just got to buy the plastic pots. And now I need to use the car far more, to keep Arthur safe and for us to be able to function as a family. So I’ve had to let go of judgement around how other people make those choices, and that’s been incredible.
My son, Ben, is about to turn 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 starting a series of interviews with parents who are raising children who are not typical. We will discuss parenting, language and expectations. This week it is with Sabrina Russo, who kindly let me video call her one evening to answer some questions.
Could you describe your family?
I am married to Simon and I have two children – Theo, who’s about to turn seven, and my daughter, Lucy, who’s going to be four in April and she is the child with disability in our family.
What does Lucy love? What is her favourite stuff, what makes her happy?
She loves Peppa, completely. She loves the swings at the playground. She’s actually getting too big to lift into the baby swings and there’s no other accessible options so that’s something that’s going to start annoying me very soon. She loves singing. She is a real scribbler, especially on the table rather than on paper. She loves having stories read to her.
When did you realise Lucy was different to your older child, or not typical perhaps?
I noticed that there were certain things that she wasn’t doing when she was about four months old. That sparked a kind of question mark, in my mind. I remember putting her in a baby bouncer that had little dangly toys and suddenly thinking she doesn’t swat them in the way that I remember Theo doing. I thought she was very relaxed. I took her to a baby physiotherapist who said she was a bit floppy but he wasn’t alarmist in any way. I googled hypotonia, which is weak muscle tone, and I remember reading one line that said hypotonia is not a condition itself, it’s always a symptom of something else. I then went down a rabbit hole of trying to diagnose my kid and many months of not being taken seriously by medical professionals.
That was tricky because you don’t want to be the mother looking for a problem. People would say, ‘Well, she’s just taking her time. Don’t worry about it.’ But there were lots of little things that were adding up in my mind. When we got to the point where she ought to be weaning she couldn’t swallow any purees. She started having some tests and when she was one and only just sitting up the doctors started properly looking into it. They did a genetic screening and that showed there was a bit of her DNA missing. I think the period was maybe nine or 10 months of searching for an answer and when it came I felt vindicated in a weird way. It was kind of a relief. But it wasn’t a straightforward diagnosis in the sense that it isn’t a genetic anomaly that correlates to a recognised syndrome because there aren’t enough people that have it. There wasn’t a ready-made support group where I could find out about things and get a glimpse into the future, so there was quite a lot of sort of worry and uncertainty at the beginning.
How did you find the early years with Lucy?
She was a very undemanding baby. She didn’t really cry much and she was very observant. She just slotted into family life and Theo was very sweet with her.
But after we had her diagnosis I had a feeling that I had no idea what I was doing. From the practical stuff of accessing services and doing what’s right for Lucy, but also at a deep identity level. I already felt like being a parent was quite hard. There’s loads of stuff that you don’t know if you’re doing right. I felt the weight of responsibility of this child being more vulnerable than we had imagined and we have to make sure that she has a good life.
Now, a couple of years post diagnosis, I know that in a lot of ways it’s not that different to parenting any child. There’s a kind of relinquishing of control that happens anyway when you are a parent. It’s always a big responsibility. With typical kids you have all sorts of situations that you feel slightly out of your depth. All the time. But I had a kind of slight imposter syndrome – I had this kid who was going to need me to be a good parent, as opposed to a good enough parent. I felt like I needed to up my game, be more professional. It wasn’t that I thought she was a burden. It was more a reflection on myself. I worried about me as much as I did about her – about my, our, ability to be the people that she would need us to be.
What is different from how you imagined parenting two children would be?
I don’t know what my expectations were. I think I had expected that they would be friends in a way that they’re not right now. Lucy adores Theo and is fascinated by everything he does. And he is really sweet with her but they don’t play. But they both really like having stories read to them so we can all read together.
I think we do a lot more split parenting, where one of us takes a kid each and we do the thing that is appropriate for that child in order for them to have a fun time. Then we reconvene as a family rather than trying to do everything together, because it often doesn’t work. You have this notion of what a good family life is and you think that means doing everything together, but that’s not necessarily what it has to look like.
What have you found hard, over the course of Lucy’s life?
I found it hard at first knowing how to talk about her disability. I still find it hard in a way. I don’t know how much to say. When you first meet people, how deep do you go? I’m someone who is really private in some ways and a big over-sharer in others. I sometimes tell people more than they are expecting and then they get that look on their face, and I’m like, ‘Oh, no, don’t worry. It’s okay.’ Or I don’t say anything at all, but then sense that the other person may be looking at Lucy and wondering ‘why isn’t she walking?’. I’d like a handbook for navigating social interactions so they aren’t awkward. In a way, I think this will only get easier when society as a whole stops being so weird and awkward about disability. It just needs to be a normal, ‘fact of life’ thing to talk about.
When you’re in a couple and you’re processing stuff at different speeds, that’s tricky. My approach to the early days was knowledge is power – I’m going to absolutely learn everything I can until it desensitises me to the shock. I reached out to parents whose kids had not exactly the same genetic deletion as Lucy’s but close. It turns out every single child had a completely different set of things. I’d come back and say to Simon, ‘I spoke to this mum and her kid is completely non-verbal but she can walk and she can do x and y’. Then I’d talk to another parent and say, ‘her daughter speaks, she speaks loads, and she’s autistic.’ So I was trying to prepare myself for all the eventualities – Lucy might speak, she might not speak, she may be autistic, she may not be autistic, she might walk, she might not walk. I wanted to know about all these possibilities so they wouldn’t faze me. Whereas my husband, Simon, was kind of in denial and didn’t want to know about the future. He had the attitude of Lucy is Lucy. We’ll just take each day at a time and we’ll figure it out, whatever happens. Navigating our relationship with each other was difficult at times while we struggled with that tension.
Now, we’ve met in the middle and taken each other’s perspectives onboard. Initially I found Simon’s approach quite frustrating, but I think our paths have converged which is good. If you do come out the other side, you do feel like your partner’s really got your back and you’re a team.
Are there things that make you angry, or are there things that you feel like parenting Lucy has opened your eyes to?
The process of accessing benefits and services can be bewildering. I put off applying for DLA for her for ages – I’d take one look at the pile of paperwork and think I couldn’t face it. Now we’re trying to get an EHCP and it’s so much harder than it needs to be. It’s just unnecessarily difficult and it’s clear that those difficulties are a way of discouraging people from doing it, right? Nothing is co-ordinated.
I’m not even thinking yet about physical accessibility of buildings and urban planning because we’re still in buggy mode and we can mostly lift her. But that will soon become something that I start getting angry about. I was with Lucy at a big station the other day and the lifts weren’t working. That’s just unacceptable – this is public transport and this is a member of the public. If you’re going to do maintenance on a lift you need to figure out some alternative.
There’s loads of stuff that is unnecessarily onerous for disabled people and then you wonder why you don’t see so many disabled people around. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophesy. You don’t see people out and about having a good time because places can be so inaccessible, and because there’s this lack of visibility, disabled people continue to get overlooked. Disabled people can and do have full lives, but society doesn’t make it easy. All of that makes me angry. Not for me obviously, the impact is on my kid. She’s the one who ultimately stands to gain or lose, I’m just the middle woman.
I also found it quite remarkable that throughout the whole time when I was trying to find out what was going on with Lucy and then getting her diagnosis, at no point did any one of the millions of professionals that we’ve come across ever ask me ‘How are you doing? Are you okay?’ Thankfully I am, but there were moments when I felt overwhelmed. The system doesn’t think holistically about families and helping the whole family.
How have you changed since having Lucy, and what has helped you?
Before Lucy, I had no real first-hand experiences of disability and my perceptions, I now realise, were heavily influenced by a lot of limited narratives that we see in the media and popular culture. I think it’s important to seek out and meet people if you can in a similar situation, because you see that often they are living a pretty normal life. I took to Instagram early on with the purpose of finding people who were leading the kind of good lives that I wanted us to be able to have and that’s been really helpful. I needed to see the things that I felt were important to us, that I wanted our future to have – fun, adventures, travel – and that I worried (because I didn’t know) that having a disabled kid would make impossible. I was, I am, determined to find people who are doing it and actually there’s a lot out there. That was really good for me in the absence of support groups for Lucy’s condition.
Since having Lucy a lot of stuff makes me very emotional. I am very touched by people who really see her. People really warm to her because she’s a very joyful kid. And celebrating all her hard won achievements, every tiny milestone, cheesy as it sounds, really has helped me savour them and focus on what matters.
I went to a panel discussion at the Wellcome Collection in late 2019 that discussed ‘The Trouble with Charity’. One of the topics of conversation was that disabled people are often seen as recipients of charity, a view compounded by campaigns like Children in Need that tugs at heartstrings to encourage donations. We all know these videos – where poor, sad disabled people need your money to get better equipment or more opportunities.
Most of us will have mainly seen disabled people on screen, or in any media coverage, in these kinds of positions – as beneficiaries of benevolence. Being talked for by non-disabled helpers or being grateful for the charity they have received. The panel discussed how much airtime is given to parents of disabled people, rather than disabled people themselves, and how this reinforces a sense that disabled people cannot talk, advocate, for themselves.
I asked a question to the panel about how parents should approach this issue and the disabled speakers answered thoughtfully but clearly – that parents should not talk for or over disabled people. They shouldn’t take up space in which disabled people could advocate for themselves.
I feel like my work at the moment is at the heart of this conundrum. I am a non-disabled person who talks about disability, and I could be taking up airtime or attention that would otherwise be occupied by a disabled person.
But I am also a non-disabled person who unexpectedly became the parent of a disabled child, and the last eleven years of being Ben’s mum have given me a rapid education. Up until his birth I had a probably-typical understanding of disability, which is to say very limited, and I found many aspects intimidating or incomprehensible. Now, I don’t. A lot of my insight has come from being close to and raising Ben, but most has come from listening to disabled people. This took time and I can now see there is an inevitable gap between new parents, who know little about disability, don’t know where to look for information and are worried, and disabled communicators who could help.
The challenge of being a new parent coupled with the responsibility for a disabled, in my case complex, child means the early years are often very muddled. I found it very difficult to separate which of my concerns were to do with being a parent for the first time (a colossal responsibility and profoundly discombobulating for anyone), and which were to do with Ben being disabled. I wonder whether I could have more quickly come to realise that Ben’s disability didn’t mean our lives would be sad and small, and found the disabled people and their families who were living lives that we could aspire to.
I think in the early years the gulf between my little baby and a disabled adult, however content, was just too large. I wasn’t ready to anticipate my boy growing up, but I was hungry for stories from other families and to see other parents living lives similar to ours. Through those families, I gradually came to see that there was a whole world of diverse disabled people living lives that were good and true, if sometimes challenging.
All parents are thrown in at the deep end, despite being surrounded by advice and people in similar situations. No parent does everything perfectly. New parents of disabled children generally have even more to contend with, yet are less likely to find themselves represented when they look around. They may depend on their experience of disability so far – the campaigns they have seen fundraising for needy adults, the limited exposure they have had to people needing help to access places and services. I couldn’t work out where our family fitted in for a long time.
It took me a long time to realise that Ben’s challenges weren’t only ours to face. They felt individual and specific, but they actually fit into a collective experience of being a disabled person. A lot of Ben’s difficulties are about how he is treated rather than how his body works. The power of disabled adults will become his power as he grows. I am more observant of whose voices are being centred.
As Ben’s mother I will always have a different experience of the world to him. I can be his carer, advocate and ally but I am (currently) not disabled. Yet I am his mother and that is itself a particular and specific role, for me as an individual and as a collective. I think talking about my experience is valid and there should be space to do it, as long as it is done carefully. The challenge of talking about mothering while not oversharing is not unique to me – it’s true for all mothers, of all children. The reason we share is because we are trying to work out what we are doing and who we are. I want to attempt to articulate what I have learnt because I’d like to help reduce the number of people who, like me, had no idea. I hope that is what I have done in my book, which is published in seven weeks (argh!), and I am excited and terrified for people to read it.
My son, Ben, is about to turn 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 starting a series of interviews with parents who are raising children who are not typical. We will discuss parenting, language and expectations. This week it is with Alex, who kindly joined me for a walk in the pouring rain to answer some questions.
Could you describe your family?
I’m Alex. I have a husband and two children – Betty who is 11 and has complex needs, and Agnes who is nearly nine who doesn’t have complex needs. And a dog – a recent addition to our family!
What does Betty love doing?
She really loves singing and listening to music. Swimming and being in water. She likes being with people that she knows, though she struggles to know how to interact with them so that can be tricky. She loves Ben (Jess’s son), and his speaker! And bubbles.
How would you describe Betty? Would you say she was disabled?
Betty has some physical delay and she looks different and so sometimes I describe her as disabled and sometimes I say she has special needs. I think I refer to her having special needs more to do with behaviour, and say disabled more for her access needs. I remember when she was born and a nurse was talking about her having complex needs and I was really confused. I asked, ‘Oh, has my child got special needs?’ and she said yes. I didn’t know what the terminology meant. But now I use both.
When did you realise Betty was going to be different or disabled?
I was referred for tests during my pregnancy which showed she would have a rare genetic condition that nobody else has so we didn’t know what it would mean for her. As soon as she was born she wasn’t breathing, she was very still and didn’t cry at all for the first few days. She was floppy and couldn’t feed so there were immediate challenges straight away but the magnitude of it didn’t hit me until later.
How does Betty’s disability affect her day-to-day life?
It affects everything to do with her day-to-day life. Her genetic condition has affected her physical and mental development. As she’s got older she’s been diagnosed with ASD and ADHD, eye problems, scoliosis.
When she was a baby everything was focussed on her fine and gross motor skills, like sitting up and holding things. Initially it was all about endlessly grasping toys and trying to get her to stand. We had loads of equipment – a walker, a standing frame, a special chair, a wheelchair and all that. Then things moved on to her speech and language. Now our focus is on her behaviour because she’s very anxious and she gets very frustrated and which manifests itself as quite difficult behaviour. Now we have less equipment but her needs impact our family every day and she needs care all the time, in everything we do.
In what ways is your life how you expected it to be and in what ways is it different?
I was trying to have a kid for years and I couldn’t so we had to have fourteen rounds of IVF and then egg donation, and I had two miscarriages as well. By the time I had Betty I was so thrilled, so thrilled, to have a child I think that overwhelmed everything else. I couldn’t quite believe I’d got pregnant and had a baby. When she was really young I remember walking about in the rain one day and I was crying because I was so happy because I had a baby. Even though she was in hospital all the time and had to wear a helmet and actually it was quite difficult.
It’s maybe not what I thought it was going to be, but I don’t honestly know if I thought that far ahead because the pregnancies kept going wrong. Then once she was here I couldn’t think about the future too much because it’s too scary.
We’re very fortunate, very lucky in lots of ways, but it can be difficult. When I was pregnant with her and I knew there was something wrong, I thought my life was going to be hard. Everything I read, everything I was told, was all about how bad it was. There was nothing positive. It was all about the challenges you’re going to face, all ‘disability is bad’ and ‘she won’t be able to do this’, nothing about the benefit of just having a child, whatever they’re like. Just hanging out with them. I thought my life would be miserable and it’s not.
Is there anything that could have made the difficult bits easier?
There’s been plenty of people that have been incredibly insensitive. The first few years were difficult because I was in it and learning everything. Every report and every doctor that we saw told us what she was not doing, or what was wrong. People would say things like ‘I don’t think she’ll go to mainstream school’ but she was two! I’d think ‘Why can’t we just focus on now?’ I was lucky that when Betty was about one I found an amazing community nursery and that was really life changing. They were so kind and welcoming whereas other nurseries just didn’t want her because she was more work.
I think it would have helped if services had been more joined up and we’d had more access to services when she was little. Everything is stretched and help is limited. It comes down to money and understanding from people
We had a really lovely nurse that came and gave me a list of all the things I could access, like conductive education, Disability Living Allowance, but unless someone tells you that information it’s quite impenetrable. I think one of the best pieces of advice I would give is try to find some other parents with kids that are different. That is the biggest help that I have had, and that is often where you find the best information. Just because my daughter has a different disability to your son, it’s the same experiences we’re having, even though they’re different kids. In the way their siblings deal with it, or we deal with it, or our families. A lot of it is practical stuff. I think finding people who understand is profoundly helpful.
What would you change if you could?
I would make Betty’s challenges less difficult for her so she could have an easier time but all the things that affect me are things that could be changed. When the Olympics and Paralympics were on in 2012 we went to the Olympic village and it was so easy and brilliant. If things were more accessible and people were more understanding and a bit more appreciative of difference then it would be easier for everyone.
What do you wish people knew about your family?
When Betty started to walk, when she was four or five with a walker, people would all go ‘oh look! She’s walking!’ like that was it. I could tick it off. People have the best intentions, but they cling on to these things, like walking, when she still now has problems with her gait. It’s more complicated than just learning to walk.
I’d like a bit more understanding that you’re not saying no to things or not doing things because you’re being difficult or don’t want to but because you can’t. I don’t want pity, but there’s a lot of planning you have to do just to get out the door, or go on holiday, or feed my child. It isn’t quite straightforward. Everything takes time.
Sometimes you’re knackered because you’re up all night, so maybe be a bit less judgey and a bit less pity-face. We’re not brave soldiers because we’ve got disabled children. We’re just mothers.
Betty is an 11 year old child. She has special needs but it’s not all she is. It’s just part of who she is. She’s a kid. She’s my daughter and she’s funny and she likes ABBA. She can’t do lots of things but that’s alright. I think sometimes you can end up defining everything by about what your child can’t do not what they can. Don’t pigeonhole her.
How has your parenting, and your approach to your daughter’s disability, changed over time? How would you describe how you have changed?
I’m more relaxed about it but I’m armed with knowledge and experience and I don’t think I could have fast-tracked it. I was so worried at the beginning about targets and appointments – every week there would be something at the hospital, but I quite liked that. It was like a security net in some ways being surrounded by people who knew what they were talking about. I felt like I was doing something.
We did endless exercises at home but it all became a bit about that, to the exclusion of anything else. I remember talking to somebody who had taken a standing frame for their kid on holiday with them and they were doing it by the pool and now I’d be like ‘You’re on holiday! Why don’t you just not do that?!’. But you get so caught up worrying that something bad is going to happen if your child doesn’t do so many hours in the standing frame. Now I think I could have done three times the amount of time in the standing frame with Betty and it wouldn’t have made any difference to her development.
I think having my second child made me realise that. I did very little with her and one day she just got up and walked across the room! I hadn’t spent hours showing her what to do or buying her special shoes. I think in hindsight I would try and just enjoy having a child irrespective of the fact that they’ve got a disability.
People see me as the parent of a child with a disability not just as a parent. Sometimes it’s quite nice if you meet people who don’t know and they just treat you like everyone else, not be weird about it or try and help, try to make it better. People want to help and that comes from a place of kindness but it’s exhausting when they’re trying to fix it for you and it doesn’t need fixing and it can’t be fixed.
Agnes had to have a massive heart operation as soon as she was born and the heart problem could have been an indicator of a disability. I was a bit more like ‘well, it’ll be alright, it’s just heart surgery’ but also I was a bit less scared of it. I’m not scared of disability.
I’m not very good at asking for help and just to acknowledge that it’s harder for me than it might be for somebody who hasn’t got a disabled child was quite difficult for me to do. I don’t want to be needy. I don’t want pity. I don’t want a sad face and a link to an article about gut health. But some people will just bring you a meal round if they know you’re struggling. Sometimes I just want a lasagna, or a beer!
Having Betty has completely changed my whole view of everything. You see everything through the lens of having a child with difficulties and it’s made me not sweat the small stuff. But also be a bit more tolerant of some people and a bit less tolerant of others. I’m more understanding of people who are different.
I’ve met some of the greatest, loveliest people through having Betty and it’s made me think about things differently. I’ve had experiences I never would have had and lived my life in a way I wouldn’t have lived it so I’m grateful for that.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?