When the personal isn’t political

I don’t often write about overtly political topics. I worry that I’m not sufficiently informed and haven’t done enough research to have an opinion that I want to make public. But in the current political climate, where it seems the people who really should know what they are doing don’t, I’m going to weigh in on something.

David Cameron’s memoir, For The Record, is about to be published and of course the main story is about Brexit. I definitely do not know enough to put pen to paper about that.

He has also written about his son Ivan in the book and an excerpt was serialised in the Sunday Times last weekend (behind a paywall here). My son is different to his, but they both have cerebral palsy and having a disabled child is something I do know about.

Cameron writes movingly about Ivan’s birth and the difficulty of managing his health needs. He describes the difficulty of your child being anaesthetised for operations, having a feeding tube inserted and becoming expert in managing tubes and syringes. All of this rings true to me, including the new normality of feeding your child via their tube on trains and planes.

This is the reality of many parents of disabled children and he and his wife, Samantha, clearly loved Ivan and like all of us did what they could to give their son what he needed. They learnt fast and stretched themselves. They didn’t anticipate being parents of a child like Ivan but got on with it with grace and determination. Ivan’s death in 2009 was a tragedy and I can’t imagine how sad they must have been. The grief must have changed them in ways I can’t possibly realise and will never go away.

The way he has described the reality of his experience means I find it really hard to read his account of Ivan’s life without wondering how he has avoided making the personal political. 

Cameron writes about how difficult they were finding it to cope when Ivan was young: ‘I found the phone number of Kensington and Chelsea council’s social workers, and soon, to my great relief, one of them was sitting in our kitchen, notepad in hand, talking about the help that was available.’ He describes how grateful they were for the help they received from children’s hospices. He recounts how he had visited a constituent, before Ivan was born in 2002, who had a severely disabled child and wanted his help with the lack of care her daughter was receiving and that he couldn’t have known that he would find himself with a similar child. 

It is rare for anyone to have sufficient power to effect real change but surely the Prime Minister is one of them. After coming to power in 2010 Cameron began a programme of austerity which saw the steady reduction of all services for disabled children. The government attempted to distance itself from the effects of its policies by claiming that it was up to local authorities to fund services, whilst reducing the money local authorities received so drastically that it was impossible for there not to be cuts. I am talking about services like social services, children’s hospices, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and specialist equipment amongst others. 

IMG_3947

My son was born in 2009. Our experience of parenting him has aligned almost exactly with the reality of austerity, and for us it has meant less of everything. All of the services we access have reduced. Our experience is not unique. 

My son, Ben, does not have epilepsy like Ivan, but he does have a feeding tube and is entirely dependent on us for all of his needs, night and day. I have never had a social worker come round and talk to me about the help that is available. My most recent experiences have been being unable to get hold of a social worker at all. We have been assessed and we are eligible for the following over a year: funding for two hours of help a week (at a rate that is less than market rates) and ten days of playscheme a year (9am-3pm). We used to get transport to and from the playscheme which is in another borough, but that has now been cut. We used to get occasional nights when Ben could stay at a children’s hospice but since the hospice receives no statutory funding and our local authority will not contribute, that has been removed.

The occupational therapy team that oversees equipment in our home is so overstretched that it is at least four months before someone can come and check the fit of Ben’s bathseat when it is uncomfortable for him. When we need new slings, so Ben can be safely hoisted from his wheelchair to his bed, our local physiotherapist tries to help order them on the NHS system, which is not her job, because otherwise he will spend months being hoisted in slings that are too small.

When Ben grows too big for his wheelchair we will wait up to three months for an appointment to get the wheelchair adjusted because there aren’t enough wheelchair therapists. When Ben needs a new walker, which everyone agrees is useful to help him bear weight and reduce the risk of hip surgery in future, we will need to fund it ourselves. Same with the positioning system he needs to sleep. There is not enough money for these vital aids.

The NHS and local authority therapy teams are full of talented, kind people working really hard in difficult circumstances with reduced budgets. Our local social services team cannot prioritise families like ours because they don’t have enough money to go round.

This is nothing to do with Cameron’s grief, which is personal and painful and not my business, but everything to do with his experience of looking after a disabled child. I find it hard to understand how he can recognise the importance of the care and support his son and his family received without acknowledging that those resources are no longer available. There are now children who don’t have specialist chairs to sit in at nursery because they are no longer funded, families that get no respite and need to fundraise for physiotherapy. Very few families are being proactively offered help from social services. For most people, the personal is political and few things alter your politics more than having a disabled child. Cameron appears to have separated the two things entirely.

Don’t feel sorry for me. We are privileged to have the resources to mostly get Ben what he needs and this isn’t about an individual. But please, feel really bloody angry on behalf of all the disabled children who were born after David Cameron’s son. Cameron was in a position of power and he ensured that all of the families with disabled children that came after his got less.

Playscheme

We survived the summer holidays! Nothing brings home the fact you have three children like having them all at home for six weeks . It is inevitably chaotic and puts all other meaningful activity on the backburner, but it’s also fun. We don’t all have to be up and out first thing in the morning, remembering school forms and PE kits. We can go to new places and hang around in the garden.

IMG_5878

The secret to communal happiness for us (me) is to have some structured activities, ideally not involving me, lined up between the museum outings and home-based craft projects. We are fortunate that Ben’s school runs a two week playscheme in the summer, and even more fortunate that we have funding for him to attend for one of those weeks. We pay for him to go for a second week.

Running a playscheme for kids like Ben is not straightforward – you need a suitable building, loads of staff with the right expertise. They are expensive because the ratio of staff to children is high, which means either schools or councils have to subsidise them or they are prohibitively expensive for parents. As a parent, it is difficult to find any holiday activities for our disabled child where we feel confident leaving him in a new place with unfamiliar people. I will only send Ben to this playscheme because it is at his school, staffed by people who work there so know him well – these are people who are used to feeding him through his tube and can communicate with him. It’s not the closest holiday scheme but it is the most appropriate.

So for the last few school holidays Ben has spent a week at this playscheme, which is exactly the kind of age appropriate, fun holiday activity I’m into. What I’m even more keen on is the typical experience of two brothers who are a couple of years apart in age being able to do the same holiday things, at the same time, and that is exactly what this playscheme offers. They welcome non-disabled siblings so this year Max went with Ben for four days.

Hurrah, we all shout! Except (and isn’t there always an ‘except’) we need to work out how to get them to and from a playscheme that is five miles from our house each day. Ben is theoretically provided with transport to do the morning journey for one week, but all of my emails to confirm this have gone unanswered and in the week before the playscheme, I still have no confirmation whether the bus is coming and if Max will be allowed on it. There are some mutterings about insurance (or lack of it) for Max. As always, I eventually call my contact, Ms A, at the private transport provider who are sub-contracted by our local council to take Ben to and from school during the term. She works her magic, and calls me back the following day to say she has confirmed the crew that usually take Ben to school will be there on Monday morning, ready to take Max and Ben.

IMG_5612

I cannot overplay the value of Ms A. After weeks of me emailing and calling social services and the school transport service (as I do in the weeks leading up to every playscheme) and getting precisely nowhere, she smooths the path and makes it work with a driver and escort who are familiar to Ben, and with enthusiasm for Max joining them. People like Ms A are the ones who brighten my days.

And so off they went! Ben went on his own some days, and Max joined him on others. They swam in the hydrotherapy pool and did some DJing. They made spiderman masks and puzzles.

IMG_5628

One day I collected them and a young woman was accompanying the boys down the corridor towards me. I could see they were relaxed and happy. She introduced herself and then, in a low voice so Max couldn’t clearly hear, said what a great brother he was. That he’d been friendly to everyone and helpful to Ben, that he’d made some funny jokes. She said her sister had gone to the school and that was how she had got into helping at playscheme. She seemed like exactly the kind of person I want my kids to hang out with.

This is unusual – it is not standard to have access to a playscheme where you feel really confident people understand and can care for your child, where they will be happy and safe. It is rare for non-disabled siblings to be allowed to join in with these kinds of activities. It is unusual to get funding for a week which includes help with transport to get them there. In fact, in a stunning display of bureaucratic madness, a classmate and friend of Ben’s went to the same playscheme each day but for some unfathomable reason was not allowed to travel on the bus with him. Ben’s bus went past the end of his road each morning without being allowed to pick him up, despite there being room. It was the same bus and crew that normally picks him up for school every morning. I despair.

After two weeks of Max and Ben spending time doing all of the fun the playscheme had to offer, we were ready to spend more time at home. I geared up to organise trips. We did loads of interesting things, but I worked hard. It takes thought and planning to find activities that work for a disabled eight year old, a six and a two year old. Holidays are fun but intense, which is exactly why a playscheme like ours is so valuable.

IMG_5895

There is a temptation to see such playschemes as a luxury but there is literally no other holiday scheme, club or session that Ben can go to without me or a carer. It is entirely appropriate for an eight year old to spend parts of his holiday without his mum, and to have the opportunity to do different things. It’s a crucial part of growing up.

From my perspective it’s brilliant. Ben said that he enjoyed it, and Max asked if he can go every day with Ben next year. I hope so, my boy, I hope so.

 

 

Making our own fun

It is the Easter holidays and like thousands of parents around the country, we are in the midst of filling the time with fun, Last week I thought we would try a cycling session at a velodrome.

IMG_1209

Wheels for Wellbeing run sessions at the Herne Hill Velodrome where they have a variety of adapted bikes and trikes for people to try, though we actually took our own wheels. The velodrome has a professional track with junior cyclists zooming round at high speed, and a flatter track in the centre where children and adults, with various disabilities or none, were cycling around on adapted bikes or trikes – some hand-powered, some with platforms for wheelchairs, some with two seats.

IMG_1206

There were very friendly, helpful people around. One of whom suggested we try some mittens to help Ben keep his hands on the handlebars. He went and found and gently fitted Ben’s hands into them, and they worked so well that I have since bought some. Then we bumped into a boy from Ben’s school, and Max, Ben and he did some races round the track. We were there for an hour and it was fun.

IMG_1192

I don’t want to paint too romantic a picture of this outing: because it is actually impossible to co-ordinate the feeding and sleeping routines of three children, Molly was hungry as soon as we arrived so I unpacked Ben’s trike to the sound of her bawling in the car. As the helpful man was fitting Ben’s hands into the mittens, I was breastfeeding Molly under my jumper while walking around and making sure Max wasn’t crashing into anyone. Elegant it was not.

It was raining for a lot of our visit, luckily not too heavily (not least because I’d accidentally left the car sunroof open) but I refused to let it put us off. If I have managed to get all of us to a velodrome with everything we require and no major meltdowns, we are NOT going home just because we’re getting a bit wet! Even if I have negligently put Max in a sleeveless coat.

When I mentioned the idea for this trip to James that morning as he headed off for work he said it was a brilliant idea but noted that it was also so ambitious that I might be nuts to attempt it. He’s right, it’s easier to stay at home where everything is familiar, but more fun to go out. Especially to new places, with welcoming people. And lovely for Ben to see a friend from school. A velodrome! Awesome!

I would love for Ben to do more things like this, where he could meet other local kids and make friends. Maybe even without us. But that appears to be near impossible.

A social worker phoned me in September last year and asked if she could come and visit us. I didn’t know what had brought us to to her attention, but she soon came round one day after school. Since she didn’t seem to need to interact with Ben, he stayed upstairs with a carer and I sat with the social worker in our kitchen for an hour while she asked questions and I answered them.

I had never met her before so I described our day-to-day lives. She agreed that Ben needs were complex. She said she could see our lives were difficult, with the tilted head and sympathetic voice that is so irritating. She asked how we were coping, but offered no practical help because I said we were doing okay.

When she asked what help we needed I said I would like some holiday activities, or weekend clubs, or any kind of extra-curricular activity for Ben that was with other kids and not initiated by us. We can find fun things for Ben to do and fill his days, but we can’t create a peer group for him to do it with, and this is what we need help with.

I said that, as far as I know, there are no holidays clubs in our borough for children like Ben and she agreed. I found one last summer in another borough and she said I should keep looking for things like this, and that when I found them I should contact her team in plenty of time and they would see if they could fund Ben’s place. Which was nice of her, because I definitely have lots of time to be tracking down holiday playschemes, liaising with local authority bureaucracies and checking they understand Ben’s condition.

I had heard of an adventure playground in a neighbouring borough that runs weekend activity sessions for kids like Ben, and asked the social worker if he could be referred to this. She agreed that it might be suitable, but warned me that there was a very long waiting list. That is not surprising, because multiple boroughs like ours don’t provide anything like this. Fine, I said. As far as I was concerned, this was obviously the start of the referral process. She had asked what I wanted, so I had told her. She was taking this forward. Right?

Six months later I hadn’t heard anything. Wow, this is taking a while, I thought. But when I called to check, the social worker denied any recollection of this discussion. She said I hadn’t asked for any referral and so she had not done it. She was more interested in telling me that I was wrong than in actually starting the referral. It turns out we need to be assessed, and the assessment needs to go to a panel, and if they approve funding Ben, only then can Ben be put on the very long waiting list for the playground.

I have since had conversations with other members of the team, and am still waiting for an assessment. So we haven’t even got to step one. Meanwhile, each of these conversations has made me feel really uncomfortable – the only way to get anyone to even think about starting this referral is to ask, repeatedly, for help, something I find hard to do. It seems like I am really putting social services out by asking for assistance and I appear not to have the language to make myself understood or to have a conversation without getting upset. I know we are not in dire need, and plenty of people are worse off, but why is it so difficult to access support which other boroughs (and most reasonable people) recognise is important?

I am asked exactly what I want, which I’m not certain of because I don’t know all or any of the options. The whole thing has to be framed in terms of us ‘needing respite’, because presumably trying to help a six year old boy make friends isn’t sufficiently urgent. We probably do need some respite, but even saying that makes me feel like I’m letting Ben down.

So we will carry on organising our own fun, and lots of fun there is to be had. We’ll go cycling again and try to find other welcoming activity groups. Luckily Ben has an enthusiastic brother, carers with energy and initiative, and an easygoing personality, but it would be really lovely, and a huge relief, if our borough showed some interest in helping disabled kids be children rather than ignoring them.

Filling the summer holiday

It feels like an age ago, but in July and August Ben had a month with no school, less structure, and a mother nervous about how to fill all the time. My perceived ideal for school holidays is a mixture of laziness, constructive activities and some degree of chaos, but without school there are a lot of hours to fill in a month and finding a variety of things to do that Ben is interested in can be tricky.

In our borough there is no holiday provision for disabled children. Nothing at all. There are occasional misty-eyed mentions of a playscheme that used to operate at Ben’s old school but that got shut down. There is much talk about the Local Offer website; as part of new legislation in 2014 every council has to publish details of what is available locally for children with special educational needs and disabilities– schools, clubs, facilities. This is a brilliant idea – much of the good stuff in terms of provision for disabled kids is discovered through chats with other parents or serendipitous connections. The Local Offer should make clear what clubs and places there are in your local area, and which of them might suit your particular child.

I went to some consultation events about the Local Offer – our local authority were trying to work out what information parents, carers and young people actually wanted. The question I kept asking then, and continue to ask now, is what happens if all the Local Offer shows for people like me is that, in terms of leisure and holiday activities, there is NOTHING suitable for my child? And lo, here we find ourselves.

One way parents may fill a month of school holidays (or indeed weekends) is to take their kids to holidays schemes, football camps or drama groups. I hadn’t been able to find anything like this for Ben. I tried asking our local social services team (the team that helps Children with Disabilities) and they sent me a brochure which confirmed there wasn’t much on offer.

Through parents of kids similar to Ben I heard about a holiday scheme in a neighbouring borough that might be suitable. I got in touch with them directly, and they said they would be happy for Ben to attend. 10 days before it started our local borough agreed to fund Ben’s place. We decided he would go with his usual carer – partly because it wasn’t clear until quite late whether there would be funding for him to be looked after by their staff, partly because it’s the first time Ben has gone to something like this and I was nervous about leaving him with people he didn’t know!

So, following some communication about Ben’s needs and a phone call with the head of the service, Ben spent four days at a Whippersnappers playscheme. It was based in a special needs school, with lots of disabled kids, children with various special needs and some with no disability at all, and staff used to kids like Ben. He loved it. It was a warm fuzz of inclusion, fun and variety. *

IMG_0079

The amount of stuff they packed in to each day was astonishing – singing, drumming, massage, stories, craft. They went to the theatre and to Kew Gardens. Ben came home with stuff he’d made, including a cookie as big as his own head which he was particularly pleased with. The staff at Whippersnappers knew what they were doing and had put huge thought in to how to fill days with fun stuff.

plaster cast

(Photo above from Facebook)

Ben finds unfamiliar places difficult but he was quickly comfortable at Whippersnappers. He was more relaxed than we expected (so I’m told) – to the extent that he fell asleep mid-massage – and really happy when he got home.

A couple of weeks later he got a package through the post. He was excited. We opened it up to find a t-shirt printed as part of the playscheme that has his name on it.

IMG_1439

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 12.14.28 copy

This has been a brilliant discovery. Just two days a week at a playscheme like this made a huge difference to the first couple of weeks of the holidays. If Ben has had a busy, stimulating, fun day out with other kids I can feel less guilty about the next day involving more TV watching that is ideal, or that Ben’s day is largely spent discussing new wheelchairs and hoists.

It’s good for him to go off and do fun stuff without me and come home smeared in paint, so that when we spend most of the other days together we aren’t bored of each other. I love our house filling up with the fruits of these labours – collages and pictures and a wheelchair covered in glitter on the floor.

Why it came down to a chance conversation with a friend for us to find something so perfectly suited to Ben continues to be a mystery, and it is still unclear whether our borough intends to do anything to provide for the kids in their borough who otherwise have no holiday activities to go to, or whether the social work team can do anything except to wait for me to send emails asking for funding for activities that I have found myself.

I feel like I’m constantly hoping for a level of proactivity and communication which never appears. It would be lovely if someone came to us offering something helpful for once, rather than waiting for me to do all the legwork. All of the needs so carefully discussed and worked on by Ben’s school during term-time do not disappear for the six weeks of the summer holiday, and Whippersnappers have proven that it’s possible to fill that gap with fun stuff.

It’s not good enough to build websites to list what’s not suitable, not accessible and not welcoming to disabled kids and ignore them for six weeks. The kids, and their families, deserve better.

* Yes, in the photo of Ben and James with the massive cookie it says ‘willy’ and ‘bum’ on the wall behind. This is what happens if you ask a 3 year old to help you label body parts.