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.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when I post a new blog, you can subscribe by putting your email address into the box on the right of the screen. You’ll be sent an email each time I post.

Lucky

IMG_9945I’m trying to institute a new tradition in our house: on each of the children’s birthdays we will all get up and do birthday breakfast, open presents and be generally celebratory, and then I will go back to bed for at least an hour. I think it is a good idea for all of us to remember that this is the anniversary of these kids coming out of my body and that body could do with a little lie down.

Molly’s birthday a few weeks ago was the first time I implemented this brilliant new tradition, and as I was lying down remembering her birth two years ago, I read an article by Chitra Ramaswarmy about her tendency to catastrophise. It was poignant to be reading about how incubating and then having children affects your outlook on life, particularly if one of your children is diagnosed with a disability.

Ramaswarmy experienced a very tough year in which numerous difficult things happened. By its end she had – after a complicated pregnancy – given birth to a healthy baby, her partner and mother had been seriously ill and recovered, and her son had been diagnosed with autism. Was it a year of disaster or, actually, was her family lucky?

Ramaswarmy describes how she is naturally a catastrophist, and inclined to be anxious about the potential for the worst case scenario to occur. She makes the case that the parenting is an antidote to catastrophising:

‘The hard graft and small, pure joys of looking after a baby and a little boy with autism anchor me to the present. The baby keeps me healthy, makes me feel lucky and gives me a constant dose of perspective. She is also exhausting: I am too tired and busy to catastrophise with as much fervour as the habit demands.’

This rings true for me. I am not a catastrophist. My natural tendency is towards slightly anxious optimism. But there is no doubt that I thrive when I am rooted in the present, and nothing keeps you in the present like having a small child, and then another, and then another. It’s not all rose-tinted snuggles – Ben’s early months were difficult for us all and he was frequently made miserable by reflux and feeding difficulties. But my focus on looking after him meant that by the time I looked up and around we had largely weathered the storm.

I went on to have two more babies and, luckily for all of us (and I mean luck, because these things are just a roll of the dice), Max and Molly were babies that were easy to please. I have been largely too busy caring for all of them over the last eight years to spend much time thinking about what might have been, or what might go wrong.

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What really resonated with me was Ramaswarmy’s reaction to her son’s autism diagnosis:

Then there is my brilliantly singular, loving and brave son. Before he was diagnosed with autism (that happened this year, too) I feared this moment: how will we manage? What will we do about school? How will he develop? Is everything going to be OK? The mystery and idiosyncrasy of autism can be frustrating, but it is also a visceral reminder that none of us knows what lies ahead and that compassion is the most powerful weapon against anxiety. So, here I am, living and thriving in the future over which I once catastrophised. And you know what? It is not so scary after all.’

We have had Ben’s birth described as a catastrophe, and in purely medical terms that may be true. But it has not been a catastrophe for our family. Sure there are difficult times, and complications, and we are sometimes sad and frustrated, but there is no catastrophe here. Something that was unfamiliar and therefore terrifying has become normal to us, and with familiarity comes an ease (hugely helped by the privilege of having carers to help and living in an adapted house).

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Over Christmas, all the kids were largely at home every day for two weeks, something that is rare, which meant they spent more time together than usual. Molly can now talk and asked about, or talked about, Ben at least every hour. Ben happily tolerated her climbing on his wheelchair, wiping his face, pressing her cheek into his. Max is currently obsessed with gags about bodily functions and Ben encouraged him by laughing at his poo jokes. Ben let Max play with all of his Christmas presents. Molly clambered on Max and ruined his games and he only snapped after such goading that any jury would be on his side. Ben and Max watched Star Wars for the first time and were scared and excited by the same bits. We went ice skating, for walks, swimming and to the cinema.

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The ‘mystery and idiosyncrasy’ of cerebral palsy can be difficult, but it is also a prompt to live this life that is happening right now, even if it is one that would have counted as a bad outcome at some point. We have three healthy kids, and it’s not so scary after all. Are our family the survivors of a disaster, or are we lucky? Perhaps ask me again when they’re all teenagers, but on the basis of this Christmas we’re extraordinarily lucky.

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The privilege of touch

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One of the main things about having kids is how much they touch you – from months of carrying around a baby, possibly breastfeeding them, to years of having a child on your lap and a snotty nose wiped on your arm. It can feel like near constant touching. Of smooth baby skin smelling of milk, of small fingers squeezing you, of hands whacking you in the face.

The physical relationship between a parent and a kid is so unselfconscious and incredibly lovely. Molly is just learning how to kiss and when she hasn’t seen me for a while she will come to give me a cuddle and then repeatedly touch her cheek and mouth to my lips. It is delightful. As Max has got older there are less frequent but more prized requests for a cuddle, and I will never say no.

When you raise a small child, you get to know their body so well that not only do you know what it feels like, but you also know how it moves. If I see Max walking down the road, I know if he is happy or sad. If James sends me a photo of one of the kids where you can’t see their face clearly, I’ll probably be able to tell what kind of mood they were in.

In some ways I know Ben’s body better than my other kids. Max and Molly can choose to walk away from me, or to move their body in almost any way they like. If Ben is sitting on my lap, he will be there for as long as I choose (though of course he can make clear whether he is enjoying it or not). While he is sitting on me, I will be supporting him. Both James and I have been doing this for so long we couldn’t now describe what we are doing, but we use our arms, legs, torso and head to mimic a seat, to find a comfortable way for us both to be within the whirl of Ben’s ever moving body. Sometimes it’s not easy, but in this we join a long list of parents prioritising providing comfort to their child over backache.

When Ben was little, we would spend hours holding him and rocking him in a figure-of-eight pattern, to ease the pain of reflux or to calm him sufficiently for him to sleep. These days he’s way too big for that and he spends more time sitting in a specialist chair, with us nearby. It is a less intimate physical connection but still one within which I know his body. The nature of Ben’s disability means he moves a lot, and has limited volitional control over the movements, but within the apparent flurry of limbs there is meaning.

Ben’s often communicates his emotions by making noises – there are different kinds of sounds for happy, sad, interested, annoyed. But even without the noises, just from the way he is moving his body I could tell you whether he’s in pain or just bored. I could tell you whether Ben’s excited or frustrated. Not always, but often.

Sometimes Ben’s body needs to be moved in ways that it does not do easily. I know how to play his limbs, how to bend his knee and turn his foot in just the right way to get his shoe on properly without hurting his toes. I know what kinds of movement he likes, and what he will find irritating (and therefore which TV programme will distract him, if it needs to be done).

His is a body that can frustrate him and be difficult for others to manage. His is a body about which there are meetings held and training delivered to consider ‘health and safety’. But this body of his, which some people may see as inferior or less desirable, is actually something of real value. In the absence of being able to talk, his body can tell the story. In the same way that I can sometimes tell from the particular sound of his cough whether he needs to see a GP, I will be able to tell a therapist whether he is in pain or not from the particular way he moves his pelvis.

I treasure this knowledge I have. That even when my relationship with him, with all my kids as they grow up, is becoming less physical in the every day, that I still know these bodies. They are not mine – I am just nurturing them until they can look after themselves. But as the days of holding newborns recede, there is no absence of the raw physicality of touch, and the accumulated knowledge of knowing how these bodies work. It is an absolute privilege.

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Choosing what kind of mother to be

Note: This is more about me than Ben – low on anecdotes about a seven year old, high on analysis of my life choices.

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(Marginally deranged photo of us at Legoland)

I’ve never been someone who planned my life. I never really thought about my wedding day until I got engaged, I never had a particular career plan beyond qualifying as an architect, I sort of knew I wanted kids but didn’t give much thought to what kind of mother I would be. Then I married someone who also isn’t particularly a planner, and so we pottered along planning what we would do next but not much beyond that.

The one thing we did plan was that we would live abroad. And through James’s job, in 2006 we were planning to move to Damascus. At some point during the preparations I was talking to a good friend who, encouraged by it being late and us both being a bit drunk, said he was really surprised that I was following my husband to another country, that of all the people to do that he didn’t think it would be me.

It really pulled me up short. Was he right? I thought of myself as a slightly bolshy feminist – had I succumbed to being a Good Wife? No, as I explained inarticulately. We had discussed James’s job applications and I had agreed to all of the destinations. I would qualify as an architect while we were in Syria, and anyway we were going to get to live in Damascus which was the opportunity of a lifetime. So no, I hadn’t compromised anything, I was choosing to do this with my eyes wide open.

I am currently a stay-at-home mother to three kids. What’s good about my approach to life is that having had no real plan for who I would be means I can’t compare expectations with reality. But I’m pretty sure I thought I would be working. And I definitely thought we would be living abroad with kids. And travelling a lot.

Some of those things I feel a bit sad about – it is tricky to travel with Ben and he hasn’t seen nearly as much of the world as I would have liked him to. Others make me feel a bit uncomfortable, and I recall the drunken 2006 conversation – have I drifted into being a Good Mother? Have I abandoned bolshy-feminist Jess for a life of wiping and school runs?

I have been thinking about this lately because it’s been a while since I did any paid work. Sometimes I wonder to myself why I’m not working – surely it would be possible to organise enough help to make that happen, surely someone would employ me? Maybe I’m being a bit pathetic and all of my reasons for being at home are actually excuses…

And then I do my annual lecture to some MSc students where I am asked to set out what being a parent of a severely disabled child is like. And amidst the descriptions of a typical day and complaints about social services, I count up all of the appointments Ben has had in the previous year to produce our very own stats which show that in 2016 Ben had 116 appointments. This is down from over 150 in 2015.

Cue: small gasp! The majority of those are therapy appointments (physio, OT, speech and language) and most of those are at home. At least sixteen appointments were to see doctors, dentists or hospital-based clinics. Others were to do with Ben’s wheelchair, or about equipment, or xrays, or community nurses, or school meetings. These aren’t unnecessary appointments – they are useful, constructive discussions with doctors, or crucial tests, or important reviews. We weed out and cancel the very few things that we think are superfluous, to avoid Ben missing school unnecessarily.

Some of these appointments, particularly home-based physio, can be done with a carer rather than me but only if we have a carer here after school which we haven’t for the last two months. Others need to be with James or me.

And that’s why I’m not at work. Because if you work part-time and your son has on average two appointments every week, your working week is going to be massively disrupted. Because the care of your son can only be delegated if you can find the right carer, a carer who will inevitably be challenging to replace when they leave. Because while the 22 different professionals Ben sees are in theory talking to each other, the reality is that Ben gets more out of all of them if I am talking to them all and making sure they are coordinated.

Add to all of this a large construction project while we adapt our house, three house moves within two years, and two other kids keeping me busy and I realise why I don’t feel like I spend as much time sitting around, or writing blogs, as I would like. I do, however, have time to take Max to the adventure playground after school sometimes.

It’s an individual choice – I know mothers of disabled children who work and their children are no worse off for it. But for us, the juggle of doing all that these three kids require plus us both working would be too much. I have decided that will be me for now (there’s no inherent reason it couldn’t be James) and we are in a position for it to be possible. So I am choosing to work (and I mean work, anyone who thinks a paid job is harder than being at home with my three kids has not spent a week with said kids) at home. I shall not feel bad about it, I will feel proud (and less anxious than if I was trying to do a responsible job in addition to the other demands on my time). This is the right thing for me and my kids right now.

Right, better go, Ben’s got another appointment to get to…

Looking for Alice

I love art and have, for a long time, spent as much of my time as possible visiting galleries, looking at sculpture, paintings, photographs. These days I am as likely to use my Tate membership to take a small child to the members café as I am to appreciate an exhibition, but recently I discovered a new (to me) photographer. I had that thrill of connecting with her pictures in a way that made me feel like today had been a good day, that the time I had spent looking at those pictures had improved the quality of my life.

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That photographer is Sian Davey and the book I discovered is ‘Looking for Alice’, a collection of photographs of her daughter. Alice was born with Down’s Syndrome and Davey’s project has been to photograph her daughter as she accommodated the shock of a baby who was different to her other children, and fell in love. Alice is the same age as Ben.

These photographs are beautiful. If you knew nothing of the intent of the photographer, did not know that a mother was holding the camera and that the girl was her daughter, you would find them to be stunning images. They are part of a photographic tradition of focussing on the domestic, of examining what is in front of you.

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If, like me, you read Davey’s essay accompanying the photographs, you would hear her voice:

‘This is a story about love and what gets in the way. This concerns all of us, my daughter’s diagnosis is only one aspect of it. The rest is about yours and mine and indeed society’s relationship with ‘difference’ of all kinds – this is what Alice is inviting us to reflect on.’

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I can’t help but believe the personal to be political. I don’t think you can be the mother (or indeed parent) of a child who is ‘different’ and not politicise the way you see the world around you – from the way people are treated, included or not, to the effects of social policy, education and healthcare. I have come to realise that much of the prejudice and problems experienced by disabled children and adults come from fear and ignorance of individuals, society and the state. It is easy to think of some people as different if they look different (or behave differently) to how you perceive a child or adult should look and be. This inevitably leads to thinking it is okay to treat them differently.

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Davey is explicit about the fear and uncertainty she felt after Alice was born, and how these feelings dissipated as her love grew. I can’t believe that anyone could look at the photographs of Alice and not see that she is a girl who, as her mother describes, has the same needs and feelings as any other child. It is also blindingly clear that she is a loved member of her family, not least because one cannot ignore the fond gaze of the camera.

Sometimes I feel like a member of an invisible club – one of parents diligently and quietly learning from their ‘different’, often disabled, children and using their children to try and change the world in ways big and small. It is an unashamedly domestic beginning for a political movement, and I am only one of the latest in a long line of mothers and fathers trying to make the world a better place for their children. Because surely our society is only as good as the way we treat those without advantage and privilege.

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Families are messy, imperfect things, constantly shifting and adapting yet consistent and supportive. For us, and many others, our family is where disability is the norm rather than the exception and is just part of the mix. How wonderful it would be if we felt that was the case beyond our front door.

As Davey writes

‘(Alice) is now in the middle of everything that we do as a family, and is loved unconditionally, as it should be. I can’t help but wonder how it might be for Alice to be always valued everywhere, without distinction, without exception, without a second glance.’

There’s nothing to be afraid of. Alice, and Ben, are just (small) people. There is much to value.

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…

Ben is 7!

Ben is seven! We celebrated with, amongst other things, an egg-free chocolate cake that I whizzed up in our blender and gave to Ben through his feeding tube.

 

With every passing year I sound a bit more like my mum: “I can’t believe you’re seven years old! I remember when you were just a baby!” But it’s true – I am genuinely surprised that we have been parents for seven years and that Ben is so big and tall.

As with all recent birthdays, James made a Ben-themed video of the past year and we watched it with our family, projected on to the wall. I would recommend this as a way not so much of celebrating the child’s birthday, though Ben and Max enjoy seeing themselves, but more as a way of congratulating oneself on another year of parenting. It is heartening to see how much children have changed and grown over the year, how much you have done with them, and ultimately how justified you are in feeling so tired.

The other thing that we realise when we (James) make these videos is that there is always way too much material. We have done too much fun stuff and taken too many photos and videos to fit into one short film. It makes obvious that Ben is living a full life, with variety and fun, surrounded by loving family.

 

 

Just after Ben’s birthday he had an appointment at our local rehabilitation centre where wheelchair services, assistive technology and other helpful services are based. There are always all sorts of disabled people coming in and out for appointments. I was sitting in reception with Ben and Molly, waiting to be called. Molly was a bit grumpy because she hadn’t yet had her morning bottle of milk, Ben was happy watching a screen showing footage from four security cameras. A lady in a wheelchair was pushed close to us (and I have written that in the passive deliberately, because the person pushing didn’t ask her where she wanted to wait). She was an older lady, I would guess in her seventies, immaculately dressed and made up. She smiled at us and after a few moments said (as is common):

“You’ve got your hands full!”

I smiled and we had a brief chat about how old the kids were, how cute Molly was, how much she liked milk. Then the lady asked, as she looked at Ben:

“Is he able to go to school?”

“Of course,” I said. “He goes to a brilliant school which he loves, don’t you Ben. We’re just here for an appointment.”

I could see the pity-look appearing so I was even more positive than normal about both Ben and his school. But as she was leaving she said:

“It’s so hard for these handicapped children. So hard for their families. I feel so sorry for them.”

It was one of those times when I felt like I didn’t have the words to be able to explain to her what our world is like, what Ben’s life is like, how we (try to) treat him. I have no idea how or why she uses a wheelchair, or how old she was when she first used it, but clearly she has lived a different experience.

It’s impossible in passing conversations like this to say all I want to, but later I felt so sad that she assumed Ben didn’t go to school, that his life is somehow unbearably hard, that it’s okay to talk about him like that right in front of him. Clearly being disabled in some way doesn’t automatically educate you in how to treat disabled kids in 2016 (or 2017).

I don’t want to minimise Ben’s challenges – loads of things are tough for him, almost nothing comes easily, and much is really unfair. And as a family we sometimes struggle when Ben’s disability makes things more complicated for all of us. But right now, as a seven year old boy, Ben is having a good life most of the time (and really, which child is having a good life all of the time? I mean every kid has to tidy up or eat Brussels sprouts or go home some of the time). He has loads of fun. He laughs most days. He is loved. He is learning. He is thriving.

By way of illustration, between his sixth and seventh birthdays Ben:

  • Had a baby sister: tolerated Molly’s wailing, put up with a third of our attention rather than half, learnt to deal with her grabbing onto his legs and pulling his hair. And then got a new baby cousin, Ralph, who also sometimes likes a bit of a wail.

 

  • Learnt to cycle his trike on his own: whizzed round in circles, racing Max and being unbelievably pleased with himself. He is still working on learning how to steer.
  • Made really noticeable progress with communication: starting to eyepoint using his communication book to tell us things, more reliably telling us yes and no.
  • Made huge progress on using his eyegaze computer: using it almost every day, knowing exactly what he wants to do, reliably choosing stories and then navigating through them like a pro, using communication software to create messages that were totally appropriate to the moment.
  • Went on holiday to Cornwall and France: first flight for three years, loads of swimming and beach time, hanging out with family and friends, getting tanned (and on one unfortunate occasion burned), getting a new passport.

 

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  • So many jokes with Max. So many lovely moments between these two boys.

 

 

  • Started staying at a children’s hospice for the occasional night, didn’t seem to be traumatised.
  • Moved house, again. Visited the building site to review progress and try out his new lift. Before he is eight he should have managed yet another move, his sixth since he was born.

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  • Began to be hoisted (rather than manually lifted) for most transfers between chairs and beds: coped much better with this than his mum.
  • Listened to lots and lots of audiobooks: his bluetooth speaker and ipod have become essentials wherever Ben goes, and there’s therefore been less screen time, developed a love for the books of David Walliams (except the highly emotional ending of Gangsta Granny) and late in the year Harry Potter.
  • Finished his first year at a new school: totally smashed it, participated in a whole school play in his walker, another year of loving learning, fascinated by the Great Fire of London.

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  • Was increasingly contented: Ben has spent the last year less fractious and generally happier. We spend less time flicking though films to find the one he is happy to watch, less energy trying to entertain him in public places so we can finish our lunch. This is probably connected to us having more (paid) help, and Ben getting older and more mature, helped – we think – by his surgery in 2015. As long as we explain what’s what is going on or is about to happen, Ben is noticeably more able to deal with unfamiliar or demanding environments. Long may it continue.

As we celebrate another year of Ben being our son, I am so very proud of this boy (and still so very sad that seven years ago he was still in hospital). He is such a joy to us all, so filled with patience and humour and determination. Happy New Year everyone – let’s all hope we come across more Bens, less pity and more positivity in 2017.

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A space rocket for Ben

In December Max and I went to Ben’s Christmas play at school. It wasn’t what you would call a traditional nativity play – each class did a segment around a theme and Ben’s bit was mainly based on the story of the three pigs and the big bad wolf! This is the second school Christmas play I have been to and they are always a triumph of logistics and imagination.

One of the older classes did a performance based on space, and were dressed as astronauts while singing ‘All About that Space’ to the tune of the Meghan Trainor song. This happens to be one of Max’s favourite songs and he was outraged, ‘It’s All About That BASS, not SPACE!’

Then, as we watched the kids Max said loudly, ‘Astronauts are not disabled.’

‘Um, right, don’t they look great?’ I said.

‘Astronauts cannot be in wheelchairs’, he said.

Luckily for me the next stage of the play involved chocolate coins being tossed in to the audience, so Max was distracted and I didn’t have to deal with the inclusion-disability-space conundrum immediately. But it stayed with me.

Max is as accepting of difference as you could hope a three year old to be. He’s a kid and they deal mainly in black and white and are hugely influenced by what they see around them. So in the same way that they might think women can’t be sea adventurers because there’s only one poxy female Octonaut on the TV programme, they think astronauts can’t be disabled because they haven’t seen one.

And of course they’re sort of right. It’s unlikely there will be a wheelchair-user visiting the International Space Station any time soon. But it’s also pretty unlikely that any of the children we know will grow up to be astronauts despite their aspirations but we don’t therefore tell them it’s impossible. Right now, they can pretend to be whoever they want to be.

The whole point of childhood is to have dreams and imagination, and the role of parents is to make the landscape of their aspirations as wide and ambitious as possible. That’s why we read fictional books. So in the same way that I don’t tell Max that he might not meet the stringent selection criteria for space travel, we also don’t tell Ben that he can’t be an astronaut because he’s disabled. In light of Max’s comments at the play, we spend quite a lot of time talking about how Max AND Ben can be astronauts. And Molly, come to that (depressingly lack of female astronaut portrayal also).

Part of this issue is about representation – kids needs to see disabled people (and girls, and women, and non-white people, etc etc) in their books and on TV, doing the same things that the able-bodied, white boy characters get to do. That’s what the Toy Like Me campaign is all about – calling on the toy industry to better represent disabled kids. There’s a lovely story about their campaign here

While we wait for the rest of the world to catch up with inclusion, I seized the opportunity for action provided by a massive pile of cardboard following delivery of a new sofa from Ikea and…

I now present to you: THE WHEELCHAIR-ACCESSIBLE ROCKET!

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My eight years of architectural education have not been wasted. It’s big enough for Ben to get in in his chair and still have room for his brother. Max has decorated it with stars and planets, it has a door to shut out the adults, and interior lighting courtesy of the pound shop. It’s a bit crude, not photogenic and an apostrophe has dropped off but the kids love it.

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James, Max and Ben have between them created an elaborate bedtime routine which involves turning all the lights off, Max climbing in to Ben’s bed, and then them playing with various light toys. For slightly obscure reasons, this is called a disco (though it involves no music). Therapists would call it Sensory Play.

We recently bought Ben a Buzz Lightyear toy to reward him for all his incredibly hard work using the eyegaze computer and along with the glow-in-the-dark stars and planets and watching clips of Tim Peake in space, the whole thing has become a bit space-themed. Now, the disco often starts with a little trip in to the rocket and a pretend voyage to the moon before the boys get in to bed.

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If the world won’t provide the imaginative horizons my kids need, we’ll have to create them ourselves.

‘To infinity, and beyond!’

Brothers and sisters

All kids look up to those older than them, and Max is no different. Ben is almost 6, Max is 3 and Max wants to do all of the things Ben does: go to school, go swimming, watch Dennis the Menace.

Max knows Ben is disabled and because chronology is tricky when you are 3, Max wonders whether he will become disabled when he is older. He doesn’t see this as a particularly negative potential development. He wants to know whether he’ll get a wheelchair like Ben’s, or go to the same school when he’s disabled.

There is something bittersweet about our able-bodied son climbing in to Ben’s wheelchair when Ben isn’t using it, about demanding to sit in Ben’s specialist supportive chair to have his snack. I hope it continues like this – Max’s relaxed attitude to disability is how we would all be if we came across more disabled people at school and work.

Over the summer we went to the Liberty Festival at the Olympic Park . It was on one of those British summer days when the rain was relentless and so I can’t say we stayed that long, but they had curated a selection of cultural and sporting events which deserved sunshine and crowds.

One of the activities was a racing track, and a basketball court, with loads of sports wheelchairs for people to use. What an incredibly simple idea, but have you come across it before? Giving people the opportunity to just sit in a wheelchair? There were loads of kids trying to play wheelchair basketball and race along the track. Max was super keen even though the chairs were way too big for him, and off he and Ben went to race (with James pushing Ben). He still talks about it – remembering the time that he got to go in a cool wheelchair and raced against his brother.

I am mindful of this whole business of how you raise siblings of your disabled child. I am pregnant and we expect (fingers crossed, which didn’t go that well with Ben’s birth) another, female, mini-Jess in December. We have thought carefully about this. There are disadvantages to Ben of his parents being spread between other kids, just in terms of time and attention if nothing else – there is less time to model a PODD communication book if another child needs a wee or is in the midst of a meltdown. And there are ever present risks of a sibling feeling like Ben gets the lions share of our attention, of everyone’s attention. Ben’s needs dictate our holidays, mean there are constantly carers in our house, that our lives are disrupted by hospital stays.

Max is also seeing various things I wish he wouldn’t. He recently asked me to teach him how to click with his fingers. When I asked where he’d seen clicking, he recounted in painfully accurate detail an incident a few weeks ago when a lady (who was in a position of responsibility and should have known better) was clicking in Ben’s face as an apparent attempt to distract or entertain him. When James asked her not to, and suggested she speak to Ben rather than click her fingers directly in front of his nose, she got very defensive and we all ended up having an argument. Max was with us and was confused by it all, ‘You and Daddy were very cross, and the lady was shouting, and Ben is in our family’. He thinks people shouldn’t click in Ben’s face, but he likes the general idea of clicking.

We hope all of these potential stresses and strains are convincingly outweighed by the massive advantages of there being more people in our gang. Max loves his brother. He wishes Ben didn’t go to school so that he was at home with us every day. He makes us buy Ben toys so he isn’t left out .

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Meanwhile a chatty 3 year old is a marvellous lubricant in social situations and forces all of us, not least Ben, to engage when it would be easier not to. We do all sorts of things as a family that we wouldn’t do if it were just me, James and Ben. And we all laugh more. We now have to charge the stimulator in Ben’s tummy daily so Max has been comparing Ben to an iPad. Ben thinks this is funny as do we all. (Yes, we overuse screens in our house and Max spends too much time with an iPad – another consequence of being Ben’s brother).

So let’s hope we can produce another one like Max. I mean, of course we won’t. Kids have a habit of being their own people as the two we’ve got have shown. But if the next one is even a bit as accepting then it will be okay.

New School

We are coming out of the post-surgery haze. Having come out of hospital one week after the operation, Ben started at a new school exactly two weeks after surgery. We had feared that he wouldn’t be well enough and might miss the beginning of term, so it felt like a huge win to get him there in one (slightly bruised, stitched together) piece.

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James has taken a significant chunk of time off work so we have had the luxury of introducing Ben to school slowly, calmly, with both of us around to make it work. We have been able to take him in together, learning how to drive into central London without killing a cyclist or getting embedded in a stationary traffic jam, and pick him up early. Max has come in with us and got to know the new school. We have all been able to meet the staff and see where Ben spends his day. It’s all been significantly less stressful than I anticipated.

It’s not all been plain sailing. Until earlier this week Ben had periods of profound unhappiness which couldn’t be resolved with paracetamol, or ibuprofen, or TV, or books, or lying in bed. There are few things more sapping than spending four hours with a child who is really unhappy and being apparently incapable of making things better. Maybe he had a headache (there is, after all, stuff in there that wasn’t there before), or a tummy ache (ditto), or the wounds are uncomfortable, or he’s just really bored of being with us at home. Not fun. But if someone told me pre-surgery that Ben would start at school two weeks later and be largely cheerful (or at least not miserable), I would have taken it.

He’s now done two weeks and he isn’t just putting up with school, he is really happy. As we walked in on the first day, Ben was all smiles. He has loved school thus far and he knew he would enjoy it, and he was right. That is partly because he likes learning and the variety of a school day, and partly because it’s an excellent school. James and I were far more nervous than Ben, but the staff are so obviously capable, receptive and skilled that we have had no choice but to happily leave Ben there and go for lunch in Clerkenwell or take Max to the Museum of London, again.

I’ve described before the importance, and marvelousness, of one’s disabled child going to a really good school. We have been fortunate enough to find two. Ben has moved schools because we, and the professionals working with him, felt he would benefit from more specific and specialist input so he has moved from a school for children with a range of special educational needs to a school for physically disabled children. He, and we, loved his previous school and were sad to leave. We all made very good friends there and Ben was lucky to be taught and supported by lovely, skilled people for two years. Saying goodbye to them all involved a lot of weeping, for once not just by me.

As part of leaving, Ben got his last school report. We spend a lot of time reading expert reports about Ben that are, necessarily, factual and focus on problems. Ben’s report was the exact opposite of this – hundreds of words of enthusiasm and celebration. It was a joy to read and was written evidence of the can-do attitude of his lovely teacher. Forgive me as I quote some of my favourite bits – comments that could only be made by people who have taken time to really get to know Ben and see past the immediate obstacles to communication and learning:

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‘Children and adults are drawn to Ben’s fun friendly nature and positive attitude.’

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 ‘One of Ben’s many lovely qualities is his empathy. If another pupil receives praise or is celebrated for an achievement Ben will start to beam and become very excited.’

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 ‘Ben can communicate with adults using his communication board, his PODD book, symbols or just by gesture.’

 ‘Ben has really flourished with phonics activities this year, and with the continued support he receives from his family he has excelled in this area.’

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We are incredibly proud of him, so pleased he’s had such a brilliant experience of school so far and so thankful for such talented teachers and assistants. What a geek! Like mother (and father), like son.