Time Travel

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.

Link to buy from Bookshop.org here

New wheelchair

IMG_4188There are certain milestones along this journey of being a parent of a disabled child which are inevitable. Some are actually the omission of milestones: the missing of typical developmental steps, the absence of a first spoken word, there never – in our case – being a first step. Others are very much present: the diagnosis of impairment, the first feeding tube, the first operation.

One of the big ones is the first wheelchair. It’s possible to keep a baby, and then a ‘toddler’, in a buggy for a long time. At some point it becomes clear that the buggy is insufficient and some kind of wheelchair (or the compromise, a ‘Supportive Buggy’ is necessary). This will be for lots of good reasons to do with postural support. It is entirely possible to be convinced by the need for the wheelchair and sad about the arrival of it simultaneously.

Ben had his first wheelchair (more of a supportive buggy) when he was two. It was needed – he didn’t look at all comfortable in the buggy we had for him, and it was showing the strain of near continuous use. So we went for a fitting and a few months later it arrived. We heaved it up the steps to our house.

I wasn’t in love with it, but I could see the advantages. He sat well in it. It folded, so just as with his previous buggy we could lift Ben into his car seat and put the wheelchair in the boot. The slight difference was that doing so injured us almost every time.

Since Ben was still young he often slept in the buggy, and he was sensitive to bright sun, so we asked about a hood and rain cover for the wheelchair (as is standard with  a buggy). It turned out that as these were not ‘essential’, they would not be provided by wheelchair services, but we could choose to buy them ourselves. They arrived just after Max was born and I remember fitting them while James held tiny Max. They worked, but were incredibly clunky and would need to be removed every time we put the wheelchair in the car. They looked like something someone had made in their garage and were as far removed from the slick design of a buggy as you can imagine. I was really cross and after crying for a bit I wrote an extremely grumpy letter to the manufacturers which James had to tone down so that it was only quite cross. We sent them back and found our own solution. I have written before about the way things look here

Since then Ben has had two more wheelchairs, each a bit more ‘wheelchairy’ than the last. Over the last six years we have adapted our house and bought a “Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle” (a car with an in-built ramp, blog about it here) so we have fully accommodated the wheelchair into our lives. I see the wheelchair as an enabler for Ben, and we make do with hats and ponchos so there are no resentful conversations with suppliers of wheelchair hoods.

But what I still struggle with is the particulars of each wheelchair. Ben’s wheelchairs are supplied by our local service which is staffed by great people but, like all NHS behemoths, can be a bit inflexible.

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When we first discussed the possibility of Ben needing a bigger chair last year they showed me the type of chair they thought would be most suitable. Even allowing for the fact that it wasn’t the colour we would pick, and wasn’t set up for him, the chair I saw was really ugly. The base looked to me as though someone had rustled it up out of some spare scaffolding poles. I could see it was practical, and I was told that it was one of the most reliable chairs, but it was winning no prizes for elegant design. The seat was covered in weird synthetic fabric that had a clichéd care home vibe. It was enormous compared to his current wheelchair, and relied on a ‘knee block’ (literally a shaped block, fitted around the knees) to keep Ben in the right position, which he had never had before.

I knew Ben would need a new chair soon, and I respect the opinion of an Occupational Therapist who knew about seating for disabled people. But this was a chair that Ben would use every day, sometimes for 12 hours a day. We would see it every day – in our house, in our car, in family photos. In what other sphere of your life would you think about acquiring something like this and accept the first thing offered to you which happens to be the one in stock? Do people buy cars they hate the look of? Do people get dining chairs that they’re not sure they’re going to find comfortable? There is a huge market for buggies which people spend thousands on and have the kind of designers who formerly worked on Formula One cars.

Of course it would be replaced if Ben wasn’t happy and comfortable, but I really hate the clunkiness of wheelchair design. I resent spending a lot of time incorporating Ben’s needs into the design of our home which – if I do say so myself and may possibly have pointed out before – is beautiful AND fully accessible, only to have it cluttered up with something that may be technically good but is aesthetically shit. It’s unfair to have options for large purchases in every other aspect of our lives, but not this.

The wheelchair service was patient, told me to have a think about it, have a look at other options privately (while recounting some horror stories of chairs breaking and families having to arrange fixes themselves…). Meanwhile, Ben kept growing. An engineer came to adjust the eyegaze mount on the wheelchair and we had another conversation about the chair – we all knew his current chair wasn’t quite heavy enough to support the device, and that a bigger chair would be better. After listening to my monologue about scaffolding poles she mentioned that the base came in different colours. She emailed me later to say it definitely came in black.

And so, slowly, I came round to the idea. The seat fabric could also come in black which made it look a bit less healthcare setting. We eventually ordered the new chair, and it arrived last month. Ben very patiently sat through adjustments and we brought it home with us.

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You know when you are away from your kids for a few days and when you are reunited it’s like you are seeing them anew. You notice the size and the feel of them with a jolt – both familiar and novel. It was like that with Ben in the new chair – it was Ben in a wheelchair, which is our daily experience, but he looked taller and older and relaxed. It made me feel like I must have been squeezing him into a ridiculously small chair before, like we hadn’t noticed that he was now eight. Pushing the new chair is like a dream – no weird knobbly bits on the handle, much less veering unpredictably into gutters. It comes with a tray which is a perk. There’s even just enough room on the side bar for Molly to hitch a lift (don’t tell wheelchair services…)

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There’s of course a little hint of melancholy – it’s wider, it will be a bit harder to squeeze into small spaces. We won’t be able to carry him and it upstairs to friends’ first floor flats like we have done recently. These are sadnesses relating largely to physical barriers, not to Ben’s need for a wheelchair.

Ben’s not hugely keen on the kneeblock so we’re taking that slowly (not as unkeen as we originally thought though – turns out his shoes were too small and we hadn’t noticed which was making him understandably grumpy). It’s all come good in the end. Bring on the adventures.

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Different kids, different kinds of walking

If, like us, you take the view that your child’s disability is part of him and try your hardest not to be negative about it in front of him, how far do you take it?

Molly has just started walking. She’s 13 months and since working out how to take a few steps two weeks ago, she has been practising at every opportunity. She has the typical waddle of a baby and is totally unfazed by dropping to her bum every so often. It’s utterly joyful to watch. If you’re feeling at all depressed by the state of the world, I would recommend spending some time watching a sweet one-year-old walk around like a very tiny drunk.

It feels like a privilege to watch a baby develop these skills and like a small miracle when they keep their balance and toddle off. We, more than most, appreciate the wonder of a baby learning to walk.

And because we are all so amazed we have spent a lot of time talking about it. Visitors comment on it. It can all be a bit of a Molly love-in.

I started to feel a bit uncomfortable about it. How does Ben feel about Molly learning to walk on her own? Is he sad that she is doing something he can’t? When we congratulate Molly does he hear an implicit criticism of him not walking? Was he not really thinking about it much until we all stood around going on and on about how brilliant she was?

I spent a day or two trying not to talk too much about Molly’s walking. Acting as if it was no big deal. Then Max asked me if I was better at maths than him, and I wondered for a moment if I should soften the blow. But then I decided to tell him yes, I was. And I said I’m definitely better at maths than James. I do have an A Level in maths after all and neither of them do.

It struck me that we can’t spend the rest of our lives not being honest about who is good at what, and what one of us can do that the other can’t do as well. Some of our kids will be good at remembering obscure cricketers (James’s genes), some will be good at chemistry (my genes). Pretty unlikely one of them will be talented at everything – so they will all have to experience that irritating feeling of knowing your sibling is better than you at something. In Ben’s case, the nature of his disability is such that he will do lots of amazing things, but some physical skills will constantly elude him. Max and Molly will do things that he can’t.

Obviously, accepting that fact doesn’t mean we need to ask questions like, ‘Isn’t it a shame that Ben can’t walk along walls like Max can?’ (this did actually happen, achieving nothing except drawing everyone’s attention to the disadvantages of being disabled and tainting an otherwise pleasant walk).

I think we have to avoid this kind of direct comparison with all of our children (tricky with Max’s constant questions comparing me to James, James to Superman, Superman to Spiderman, etc etc). Ben won’t walk unaided, but his school annual review lists ‘walking’ (with a supportive frame) under the list of What Ben Likes. Each child is on their own track and we should only compare them against their progress on that track.

Ultimately, I need to chill out and enjoy watching a small child negotiate going downstairs backwards and a four-year-old learn to write. These gross and fine motor skills are easy for parents to take for granted. Do not. See them for the incredible feats of co-ordination that they are. Hold them dear and cherish each milestone.

As a postscript that demonstrates that being an ally to my disabled child is still very much a work in progress, I should mention that I suddenly realised I had written this whole post without asking Ben what he actually thought. So I sat down with him and his eyegaze computer, and modelled what I thought:

‘Molly – walk – great’

I asked him what he thought. He chose:

‘I don’t want to do it’ … ‘Good’

He then got frustrated that I was delaying him listening to The Faraway Tree.

Fair response. Jog on, Mummy, stop asking me stupid questions about my sister walking…

Five years old

Ben has just turned five.

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A birthday means the anniversary of his birth, which was a mixed bag.

But loads of good things have happened since! Each year we make a list of what Ben has got up to over the previous 12 months; achievements noted, developments made and skills gained. Parents of disabled children often talk about ‘inchstones’ rather than milestones. Early on, it became clear that the gross motor skill developments that characterise a typical child’s life were going to be hard for Ben so we had to adjust our expectations and targets accordingly, but success rewards the patient and if you look in the right places there are wonderful things to be found.

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In the year between his fourth and fifth birthdays Ben has done a lot, including:

  • left nursery, started school full-time (settling in brilliantly)
  • learnt to enjoy the affections of his brother and realised Max can be funny
  • used an eye-gaze computer regularly, playing lots of games
  • learnt to look at Yes and No symbols regularly
  • stopped having any formula milk, eating only home-made food
  • adapted brilliantly to having a night carer
  • discovered his love of the hot tub
  • started getting the bus to school
  • learnt loads of letters
  • reliably recognised the numbers 1-10
  • starting riding his trike
  • met Michael Rosen!

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Ben has really thrived over the last year – he has been healthier than ever and had a lot of fun. We were looking forward to celebrating him turning five with a tea party and a family video of the past year’s best bits…

… and then he really pulled it out the bag!

We have known for a while that Ben recognises most letters and Granny has been diligently teaching him to read. His school has also been working on phonics with him and recently he has been using the eyegaze computer in his classroom to do some work with letters. The day before his fifth birthday, Ben came home with this message from his teacher:

‘Ben used his eye gaze [computer] to independently word build. I asked him to spell out bat and several other ‘-at’ words at the end and he did so no problem!’

If that isn’t a bloody milestone, I don’t know what is. Love that clever boy.

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