What to expect from grown-ups

I recently took Sam to a new place, for a new thing, which involved us swimming in a pool. It was a brilliant morning – the kind of pinch-me event that makes me so grateful that Sam has these opportunities, that I get to do this stuff with him.

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But accompanying the #blessed vibe, there was the cold, hard reality of needing to get Sam and me into our swimming costumes. We were at an unfamiliar school and there was a teaching assistant on hand to help get Sam and another child ready. As I got Sam onto the changing plinth, she said she would get Sam undressed while I got changed. This seemed sensible since I couldn’t really get naked in room full of strangers, so I left her to take Sam’s jumper and tshirt off while I popped next door. When I came back, I took over and continued to undress Sam. As I was putting some of his clothing in our bag, she started to undress Sam’s bottom half. I said I would do it but as I did, she continued to help. I repeated that I could do it.

She was being helpful. But it felt uncomfortable. I was there and happy to do all of it. We didn’t need help. Sam didn’t know her, and there is an intimacy to undressing which feels odd with someone who he has just met, who he had been cursorily introduced to, and who he is now expected to be on intimate, but unequal, terms.

Sam will always require assistance, he will need people (mostly able-bodied) to help him access the world. There is likely to be an imbalance in power and a dynamic in these relationships where Sam is more dependent, and this be interpreted as weakness. The solution isn’t for me or James to do everything for him, and for us to reduce his dependence on other people by increasing his dependence on us as parents. I am thinking about how to frame these interactions in an age-appropriate way – all children are dependent on adults in some way, but for Sam that means help to be changed and fed as well as taught and entertained.

Some of this is basic – it’s reasonable for Sam to expect people to introduce themselves and explain or ask him about what’s going to happen next before they start to undress him. Some of it is more nuanced. There are people whom Sam immediately likes and trusts, but we can’t expect that this magical energy will materialise in every interaction. Maybe sometimes Sam’s immediate need to be changed, fed, moved or assisted overrides his lack of immediate warmth to the person doing the changing, feeding or moving. Children don’t get to choose all of the adults who they interact with, but I think they should have a sense of what is okay and what is not, and should always feel safe and respected.

Last year we had a carer at home who was mainly assisting and entertaining Sam with us at the weekend. We weren’t convinced she was hugely enriching Sam’s life but with a full family life including two other kids, she helped ensure Sam had what he needed and was read some books. I felt guilty that he was spending time with her (albeit only a few hours), but that’s the bread and butter of being a mother to three kids.

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One afternoon I went upstairs to see how Sam was getting on and as I walked into his room she was hoisting him out of his chair in a way that was wrong, despite having been shown how we do this to make sure Sam is safe and comfortable. I then realised that she hadn’t moved him all afternoon and he was wet and uncomfortable from being in the same chair for hours. I was shocked and explained to her why all of this was unacceptable in front of Sam before asking her to leave the room and having a further chat with her on our landing. I felt protective, like a lioness who needed to corral her cubs and keep them close forever, and I asked her to leave. I bathed Sam carefully and put him in dry, clean clothes and we all watched TV together.

I had reacted in the moment. We generally try to have conversations with Sam’s carers away from the children as we don’t want our house to be a constant management exercise witnessed by them, and they need to have relationships with the carers we employ independently of us. But as I calmed down, I thought it was totally fine for Sam to have witnessed my shock and to know that I thought it was unacceptable.

It is not right for Sam to feel unsafe in his own house. It is not okay for him to be dependent on others for his personal care and for those people to not give it the thought and attention that they should. He shouldn’t have to put up with mediocre communication and monosyllabic conversation. He needs to be able to trust people with intimate moments of access.

I think it’s appropriate for him to see us calling out moments where people do this wrong. We need to make explicit what our expectations are, and to hopefully build in him a sense of what he can expect from adults, how much he has to put up with and when he’s allowed to protest. Later that night Stella, then age two, asked what the carer had done that was ‘naughty’ because she had heard my conversation with her on the landing and had (correctly) interpreted it as a telling off. I told her that the carer had done something wrong to Sam and she had gone home.

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As I put Sam to bed, I explained that it wasn’t okay for the carer to have moved him in a way that was risky, to have left him in his wheelchair for so long, and that she would not be coming back. I don’t know for sure how much of this he understood, but I hope Sam – and Eli and Stella – know that he has a right to feel safe and comfortable, and grown-ups aren’t always right.

 

 

 

 

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Having a laugh in Trafalgar Square

We have recently been printing photos – mainly for a wall in our house where we have an ever expanding, slightly chaotic collection of family photos. There is currently not a single photo of Stella on the wall. She is almost two years old. We need to rectify this quickly, before she’s tall enough to see the photos and old enough to mind.

As I go through the photos on our computer, I get distracted by loads that will never make the cut for the wall. I like to think I am a decent photographer, but almost all our recent pictures are badly composed phone photos of non-compliant kids. So I force myself to focus more on the memory and emotion of when the photo was taken, than on the quality of the composition. Kids don’t care if the background is full of mugs and syringes, they just love a photo of them with their dad.

But this photo, I love:

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It is technically flawed, badly composed. But look how happy Sam is! And look at all the tourists wandering around behind him, oblivious!

This was taken during the summer holidays, just off Trafalgar Square. James, Sam, Eli and I had just been to the theatre to see Horrible Histories at the Garrick Theatre. We had brilliant seats. Sam’s space was just off the foyer, at the back of the circle, so quite a long way from the stage but with a brilliant view. This is everything we look for in a theatre seat for Sam: wheelchair spaces in theatres are often right by the stage which he finds a bit much. There have been numerous times when we have had to leave a theatre early because Sam isn’t enjoying the performance. (His other pet hate is unexpected, roaming musicians in theatrical performances. He likes people to stay on the stage, not appear behind him playing a trumpet.)

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The rest of us had seats either side of Sam, and we all enjoyed the brilliant performance. The boys have watched almost every episode of the TV programme so we knew what to expect. It was genuinely amusing for all of us, with poo jokes interspersed with historical facts, and loads of songs. Who doesn’t like a rap about Henry VIII?

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After the performance we went to a café just off Trafalgar Square for lunch. We sat outside, with the pigeons, and put Sam’s ipod on while we were eating. Understandably, Sam gets bored if he’s just sitting around while being fed, and it’s not possible to talk to him or read him a book while eating a sandwich, so we always have a bluetooth speaker attached to his wheelchair (the pink circle by his head) which is connected to an ipod full of audiobooks. I think he’s listening to a David Walliams story in this picture.

I love the photo because how could you not love a kid laughing this much? But also in this photo I see all of the other ways in which I have changed over the seven years I have been his mother. At the beginning going on a trip like this to central London could be a bit daunting – how would we get there? Could we get Sam’s wheelchair in? Had we packed everything? Would Sam enjoy it? When Sam was very small I sometimes felt self-conscious about feeding him in public. I was really aware of how much noise we were making, and would have felt a bit anxious about playing an audiobook in a public place. I might have noticed whether people were looking at Sam, not because I was ashamed of him but because I was worried about him noticing them looking. Sometimes it felt like the logistics involved in getting us somewhere weren’t worth the risk that Sam wouldn’t enjoy it.

This trip was lovely. We packed what we needed (takes time, but we’ve done it hundreds of times) and drove in to the West End. We were a bit early so we had a coffee in Leicester Square. Went to the theatre, had lunch at Pret. Admittedly we had left Stella at home, as she would have added an unnecessary level of unpredictability to the whole outing.

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Not only do we now not care if people see Sam being fed through his gastrostomy tube, we don’t even notice if people are looking. If he laughs hysterically, loudly, we are chuckling with him rather than being self-conscious about other people noticing. If Sam needs to listen to an audiobook in order to not get bored, that’s more important than whether someone doesn’t want to listen to David Walliams in their lunchbreak.

And what this photo shows is that Sam has a brilliant time on these kinds of trips. We all do. He hugely enjoyed Horrible Histories, and now knows more about the naming of Saxon villages than he did previously. He is able to take advantage of us living in London.

And the general public in Trafalgar Square are largely too busy going about their business, admiring Nelson’s Column or grabbing a turmeric latte, to notice whether our son is disabled, or tube-fed, or listening to The World’s Worst Children.

This is the kind of photo I wish I’d had in a crystal ball when Sam was little and not enjoying life. I might laminate it and show it to anyone who gives us the pity-look and talks about how sorry they feel for him. Don’t feel sorry for him or us, he’s having the time of his life!

A House for Sam

We are adapting our house to make sure it works for Sam. We have moved out and have so far paid builders thousands of pounds to rip things apart and make a perfectly good house look like it’s been hit by a natural disaster.

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(Photo – what will be the lift, lift lobby and therapy/play room)

It’s a big, disruptive, expensive construction project of the kind we (hopefully) will only do once. We plan to move back in to the house next year and then never move again. Or at least not until the house doesn’t suit Sam any more, which we hope won’t be for an extremely long time.

This kind of project throws up a host of issues on every level from extremely detailed (what kind of sockets?) to big questions about the way we want to live our lives. Decisions about designing your family house go to the core of who you are and how you live (or want to live). I’m an architect and these are the issues that first drew me to architecture: how do buildings reflect who we are as people, what we care about and what we do day-to-day. This stuff is deeply personal and others in the same situation would make different decisions. We are extremely privileged to be in a position to be able to craft our house so carefully.

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(Photo – hole for the lift in what was the kitchen)

Most buildings in the world are inaccessible to Sam but we can create a little island of utopian level access, where he can go (almost) everywhere and everything is designed to make all of our lives as easy as possible.

But how do you adapt a house for a disabled person who is currently six years old but will hopefully still be living there when they are twenty six?

How to you make a house perfect for the disabled child, whilst not compromising the personality of the property and making it a house for our whole family?

Should we compromise on the kind of house we want to live in to make it disability-friendly? Is it possible to have have a house that works perfectly for a wheelchair user but that isn’t the first thing you notice?

There are two principles that we have had from the beginning: the house needs to feel like a family house, specifically OUR family house with all of the characteristics it would have had if Sam wasn’t disabled; and the house needs to work perfectly for Sam and enable social connections for him – between family and with visitors. We are currently hyper-aware of some of the downsides of being in a house that hasn’t been specifically adapted. It’s getting harder to give Sam a bath, and even small changes in level get harder to get his wheelchair over as he gets heavier. Because it’s less easy to carry him, Sam rarely comes upstairs to our bedroom or to Eli’s room.

If you go to as many adapted or accessible properties as I do, you’ll realise that ‘experts’ are often expert in how to make a house work for a wheelchair user and that isn’t the same thing as making a home for all of the members of the family in it. The cheapest and easiest way to adapt houses is often to tack an extension on to the back. This makes lots of sense, except it often involves siblings and parents sleeping upstairs and the disabled child never going to their bedrooms. If, like Sam, the child has carers then you can end up with unofficial zones within the house where the disabled person and carers spend most time in particular parts of the house and there’s not enough crossover with other members of the family.

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(Photo – widened doorway)

Sam will be at the centre of our house, literally. There are three floors, and his bedroom will remain on the first floor. We will all pop in and out, or wander past, his room all the time. It also means we, as parents, remain totally involved in every aspect of his life. Even if there are days when carers are spending most time with him, we are there in the background interfering and suggesting, as is the prerogative of a parent. This will be facilitated by a through-floor lift that will take Sam up to his bedroom, but also further up to our bedroom and Eli and Stella’s.

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(Photo – Sam’s bedroom)

Downstairs we will have normal reception rooms (one for family-only since we so often have carers in our house now) with wide doorways, a lift lobby big enough to turn a massive wheelchair and level (or near level) floor finishes. Not a single step on the ground floor. One should not underestimate what a feat this will be involving much chat about thresholds, demolishing a conservatory and building a new dining room. We will have a patio on the same level as the kitchen and dining room, which will ramp down to the garden. Sam will use the same doors as all of us and it should be a mere matter of pushing him where he wants to go, without bumping over ledges and going through alternative doors. The rooms are big enough that when Sam is in even bigger wheelchairs we will still be able to get round him. There will be enough room around the dining table that he should be able to sit anywhere, not just in the one spot that means we can still walk past.

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(Photos – demolished conservatory, building new dining room)

The house will have pieces of specialist equipment, at vast expense, though actually these aren’t as numerous as I anticipated. You don’t need that much stuff if the whole design of the house is built around the idea of a wheelchair being able to get everywhere. The lift is a massive thing (physically and in expense) but a simple idea. There will be track hoists mounted on the ceilings of four rooms (which will mean Sam can be lifted in a sling between wheelchair and bed, for example, rather than being lifted by us). There will be changing facilities on two floors. And there will be a bath.

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(Photo – what will be Sam’s bathroom)

The bath has the subject of much conversation. It is, apparently, easier to shower people in wheelchairs. Easier for carers that is. But we generally operate on the basis of what Sam likes and needs, rather than what suits others. The boy loves baths, so we need a bath. And if that’s a whacking great big thing that goes up and down, needs the floor to be strengthened and a new heating system to produce sufficient hot water, so be it. It will be in a bathroom with two doors – one straight in to Sam’s room so he can go bath-to-bed in one carer-friendly straight line, and one on to the landing that leads to his brothers and sisters bedroom. Because the bath is essentially just a really expensive bath and so it will be the bathroom for all the kids.

We are lucky to be able to ask ourselves how we want our family to work, and therefore how we want our house to facilitate that, and to have the opportunity to alter the fabric of the building accordingly. It is all very exciting but it feels like a huge responsibility – like all construction projects, we’ll only get to do this once and we need to get it right.

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(Photo – looking up three stories of the house through the hole made for the lift)

A friend of mine joked that once we have adapted our houses our kids will be able to visit each other, if not anywhere else. It’s not really a joke – as Sam gets bigger and his wheelchair gets heavier it is becoming harder for us to go to other people’s houses with him and we can’t visit places that don’t have disabled access. So the political becomes personal – we want to compensate for the world remaining inaccessible by making our house a truly welcoming place for Sam and his friends.