‘My Brudder is Bisabled’

This is an elaboration on an Instagram post from May. You can follow me on Instagram for cute photos of my kids and occasional thoughts @jessmox

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Molly helped me as I was putting Ben’s AFOs on one morning (AFO: ankle-foot orthosis – a custom made plastic splint to support the foot and ankle and keep them straight) by picking them up off the floor each time Ben kicked them off. As she climbed back up, she asked why Ben was kicking her in the face? We had a chat about Ben being disabled and I told her that her brain is in her head and it tells her legs how to move, and the messages between Ben’s brain and legs get confused. She’s 3. She listened and moved on.

I think so much of the cause of people feeling disability is unfortunate, bad or alien is because they don’t have the language to discuss it. If adults don’t use straightforward language to talk about disability with kids, and rather refuse to discuss it or use opaque, unfamiliar words, it reinforces the idea that there is something to be scared of or intimidated by. They get the impression there is something awkward that parents don’t want to discuss. Kids are never too young to be given the words to describe different kinds of people. These conversations can be just as cute as any others: ‘my brudder is bisabled!’

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I don’t pretend to speak for everyone on this issue. The rich variety of humans means people like to be called different things, but disabled is a descriptive term not a slur, and it is the most appropriate word to describe Ben along with boy, child, white, male and awesome. Disabled is a political term used to describe people who are disadvantaged and excluded because of their impairments.

Other people would like to be called other things, or parents would like their children to be called something else. I have friends with children with learning difficulties who would describe their children as having special needs. Some adults would not like to be described as having ‘special needs’ since they would say their needs aren’t special, they are specific.

I have read pieces by disabled people talking about how horrible it is to be stared at, and other pieces saying parents should never tell a child to look away from a disabled person – that this compounds a sense that there is something to be embarrassed about. I know that having a child who points and stares at someone, possible saying something deeply uncomfortable very loudly, is awkward. It can be embarrassing. I also know that having a child who is stared and pointed at can be painful.

But most people don’t take offence at children. Parents are often embarrassed because they realise they don’t know what the right thing to say is and they know they are unprepared for this discussion and perhaps are realising how little they have taught their children about disability and inclusion. Children are often pointing out difference and asking straightforward questions which can be quickly and easily answered.

If you have tried to educate yourself in the terminology of disability and taken time to hear disabled people’s stories you are likely to be less intimidated by getting language wrong. The best way of dealing with all of this is to ask people, or parents, what words they would like to use. You don’t need to know the correct word to describe someone to say hello to them.

I have explained to many children that Ben is disabled – that his body works differently and he cannot always control it. I have answered questions about why I am connecting a tube to his stomach and pushing water through a syringe, or why Ben is dribbling, and how his eyegaze computer works. When children ask these questions their parents often look panicked, but kids are inquisitive and I am happy to explain all of these things because none of it is problematic. It’s all really quite straightforward. A lot of it is technologically amazing.

Molly had a friend come to play today and she showed her some teddies. One of them has a gastrostomy button like Ben. ‘This teddy is disabled’, she said as she showed her friend, ‘and this one is a monkey.’

There’s nothing to be scared of. If in doubt, smile and be kind. Let’s raise our kids right.

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‘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.