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 Sam.

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 Sam, are just (small) people. There is much to value.

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Different kids, different kinds of walking

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

Stella 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.

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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 Stella love-in.

I started to feel a bit uncomfortable about it. How does Sam feel about Stella learning to walk on her own? Is he sad that she is doing something he can’t? When we congratulate Stella 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 Stella’s walking. Acting as if it was no big deal. Then Eli 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 Sam’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. Eli and Stella 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 Sam can’t walk along walls like Eli 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 Eli’s constant questions comparing me to James, James to Superman, Superman to Spiderman, etc etc). Sam won’t walk unaided, but his school annual review lists ‘walking’ (with a supportive frame) under the list of What Sam 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 Sam what he actually thought. So I sat down with him and his eyegaze computer, and modelled what I thought:

‘Stella – walk – great’

I asked him what he thought. He chose:

‘I don’t want to do it’ … ‘Good’

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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…

Where kids go to school

Eli started school in September. It has made me think a lot about how we educate kids with disabilities.

Eli’s school is a short walk away from home. It is a typical inner city state primary. Unremarkable for being similar to lots of other schools in London. Remarkable for being like many other schools which are also educating loads of kids with different needs, languages and backgrounds. I have been consistently impressed by how they have calmly settled thirty new kids into school and appear to be totally in control, while I struggle to keep three kids in any kind of order at home. Eli has been learning at a furious pace – generally uncommunicative about his day, he’ll then slip in some comment about how to spell a word, or write something, or tell us about numbers in a way that shows he is really soaking up the things he is being taught.

One of the reasons I liked the school when we originally looked round was because it seemed to accommodate difference well – it has specialist provision for pupils with autism, it has a dyslexia centre. It has the kind of diversity of kids you would expect of an inner London school. I believe these things are important.

(Sidenote: a teaching assistant who we loved at Sam’s old school once told me she chose her non-disabled daughter’s school based on it having a lot of kids with special educational needs and being well known for inclusion. People like that make the world a bit brighter.)

Out of the classroom, and purely by chance, it turns out we live on the same road as two other kids in Eli’s year and as we all troop up and down the hill every morning we have got to know each other. So within weeks of starting school Eli was being invited over, and James and I were getting to know other parents. We bump into parents from the school in other local places and stop for a chat. Apart from this being really fun for Eli, it has meant us being able to ask for favours; when Sam was ill, another mum collected Eli for me and brought him home. This is new to us and it’s brilliantly straightforward.

I was worried about Eli starting at a school where no-one knew Sam. Of course I was wrong to be concerned – within the first few weeks he had described his family with accompanying photos: ‘Me and Sam are lying in bed. Sam’s disabled and my bed isn’t that big so he sleeps downstairs’. Within the first half term the whole class had watched videos of Paralympic athletes and discussed overcoming adversity. As the teachers said at the time, the kids were too busy being impressed with Jonny Peacock’s speed to notice his lack of leg. Eli has the confidence to explain Sam’s disability when he needs or wants to and he knows it isn’t negative or something to be self-conscious about, it just is.

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So far Eli’s school is everything we hoped it would be. It is enabling the small ordinary interactions of living in a community. And in that respect, it is really – and unavoidably – different to Sam’s school experience.

Sam goes to school five miles away. It’s a really good school, and he’s there because we think it’s the best school for him right now. It takes about an hour each way for him to travel there and back every day. That is not that unusual – kids at Sam’s school come from all over London, in every direction.

James, a carer or I take and collect Sam two days a week. We chose to do that, so we see his classroom and his classmates, and have chats with his teachers and assistants. The other days he gets a school bus, like almost every other child in the school since. We rarely bump into other parents at the school.

Years ago, we looked at Eli’s current school as a school for Sam. They were willing to consider it, but he would have been the only physically disabled child in the school and they had no track record of teaching a child like him. We decided it was better for Sam to go to school further away that had proven expertise in teaching children like Sam, in helping them to communicate and in maximising their potential.

We think this was the right decision for Sam, but it means we removed him from his local community. It is only through our efforts to engage him in local activities outside school (and my reliably local family) that he will have any sense of belonging in our little bit of south London. As I have written about before, life is all about human connections and this is more important, not less, for children with disability for whom interacting is challenging.

In some ways this is where Eli comes in, as an unwitting but ever reliable social conduit. He invites his friends over, and then Sam is surrounded by boys playing with helicopters. Those boys, and their mums, dads, sisters and brothers,meet Sam and then recognise him in the street. They ask questions and get to know him. We take Sam to the Christmas Fair at Eli’s school, where he meets Eli’s teachers, other parents and kids, and really enjoys the Salvation Army brass band (obviously).

As ever, the path of inclusion never runs smooth, and Sam couldn’t meet Santa at the fair because the grotto was up two small flights of steps. But never mind – Eli told Santa he needed a present for his brother, who is disabled, and wasn’t there, and Santa handed it over. They both got books about the Lego movie so we are all now clear about exactly why Vitruvius (not that one) is so amazing.

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There’s an argument to be made that it makes sense to group children who need specialist input together (and no-one appreciates the expertise of really specialist teachers, speech and language therapists and technologists more than me). That it makes sense to have a critical mass of similar-ish kids in a school together. It’s kind of obvious, and I have sympathy with this point of view, not least because kids like to be with their peers and for some children, perhaps being the sole physically disabled kid in a school is not necessarily that bolstering an environment. I think it works well for Sam to be somewhere with kids that communicate like him, and professionals experienced in teaching kids like him.

It’s not good enough that at 8am every morning hundreds of children with special educational needs are being bussed around the city, sitting in traffic jams while they try to get an education, driving past the local kids who could have been their friends. It’s not good enough that the families of the kids on the buses don’t get to know local parents. How otherwise are they supposed to forge the kind of friendships that are based on mutual understanding of how you feel at 9am having used the cross voice at least five times to ask your child to put on their shoes/not get run over by a motorbike/stop walking on that bit of wall, when you have run to school as you tried to keep up with your child scooting too fast down a hill, and are now wondering if someone is going to give you a medal for remembering the bookbag?

Obviously, calmly loading your older child on to a bus arriving at your house at 8.15am can sound attractive in comparison to the 9am chaos, but is it right? Is it really the right way to organise an education system? Is it fair for disabled kids? And are we really doing right by our non-disabled children?

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(Unconnected, cheerful picture)

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.

 

 

 

Having a break – the guilt of ‘respite’

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For any parent of a disabled child, the subject of respite is a bit fraught. Often because accessing any is difficult, and will have involved tricky conversations/numerous phone calls with various professionals. Partly because the logistics of organising it and physically getting the child there with everything they require are onerous.

But mainly because it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand we would really like a break. On the other hand we feel guilty for wanting a break. We are on the knife-edge of knowing that the respite place we have carefully considered is able to take care of our child, but also thinking that no-one is going to be able to take care of them properly.

Almost two years after we were first referred for respite provision, Sam has just had his first overnight stay without us. The somewhat casual timescale allowed us time to get used to the idea, due mainly to the first hospice refusing to feed Sam pureed food so us (and yes, I mean us, social services having still not managed to assess Sam) having to find a different place. We agreed to the new referral, then went for a visit, then spent a couple of hours going through aspects of Sam’s care plan, and then stayed there with him for a weekend, then the time came for him to stay there himself.

It’s a nice place. It’s run by nurses, so feels quite medical, but that means they are totally on top of medication and not at all intimidated by disability. It’s purpose-built building with lots of space, bedrooms opening on to gardens, a huge room for craft, fun and reading. Loads of books and friendly people floating around doing interesting things. There are other kids and their siblings, volunteers making bugs and Gruffalos.

To give some context, I am generally quite relaxed about being separated from my children. We are lucky enough to have lots of family in London who are willing to look after our kids. For the first three years or so of Sam’s life he spent one night a week with my mum, he’s spent loads of weekend with his other grandparents. Eli has had ‘sleepovers’ of up to five days with grandparents and my sister and her partner. Stella is somewhat testing the model by being more dedicated to breastfeeding than I would ideally like, but at some point we’ll manage to offload her too. But of course, these people are all in our family. And as Sam has got longer and heavier, and the kit he needs has got larger, it’s got trickier for him to stay anywhere that isn’t our home.

We have therefore shifted the model so James and I (perhaps with a child or two) can go away, leaving Sam in our house with various permutations of carers and family. We realise how fortunate we are to be able to do this.

What the respite hospice offers is an opportunity for us to stay at home and for Sam to stay elsewhere, allowing us to be one child down (which with three of them is a welcome release of intensity), spend more time with the other two, and perhaps get some of the stuff done that we have been planning to do for months but never have time to (e.g. unpack boxes from our house move 2.5 months ago, or actually tidy up our tip of a house). I am keen on this idea.

Except that it also involves Sam staying somewhere else without us or any other family, which makes me feel guilty and nervous.

On the morning of Sam’s solo stay we packed up everything he needed (a full car of stuff) and James and a carer set off. I used Stella as a convenient excuse to not be the one to do the drop off. I called the hospice to say they were on the way, and it transpired that there had been some administrative confusion that meant they weren’t expecting Sam until that afternoon. The idea that Sam was about to arrive for his first stay without us, and they weren’t expecting him, that they weren’t all standing around anticipating the arrival of Sam, made me feel so sad and unsure. Should I call James and get them to turn back? The journey can take up to an hour so that would mean spending most of the day faffing around which would be the exact opposite of respite. As I burst into tears, the nurse said no, they would make it work.

When James got there it was actually okay, and Sam seemed alright, and by the time James and our carer left he was happily entertained and content. We spent the weekend with Eli and Stella, and realised that looking after two kids is much easier that looking after three but still pretty relentless which was quite a helpful distraction. Eli burst into tears on three separate occasions because Sam wasn’t there.

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Then we went out for supper to celebrate our 11th wedding anniversary, and appreciated that organising babysitting for two non-disabled kids is really straightforward. We ate delicious food, drank too many drinks, faded far too early, and came home to Stella screaming in the babysitters’ face. We had called the hospice and they said Sam was okay.

The following day we woke up to a house that only had our kids in it and us. Sam sleeps badly, and we’re lucky to have nightcarers who get up with him during the night and help us in the morning. We also have day carers almost every day which makes our family life possible. But the flipside of having a lot of help is that there is almost always someone in our house. It is a luxury to wake up and potter around in a dressing gown with only Weetabix for kids to think about.

We went for lunch, where we were just about able to have actual conversations with other adults, at tables with benches that wouldn’t accommodate wheelchairs easily. I had fun. But we were with family, and I felt bad that Sam wasn’t there. Even though we probably wouldn’t have gone for the lunch at all if Sam had been, partly because of the wheelchair, partly because trying to go for lunch with all three of our kids and actually expecting to talk to anyone is an absolutely ridiculous idea. We called again and Sam was apparently happy.

When James went to collect Sam that afternoon everything was okay. He seemed relaxed. There hadn’t been any disasters. When Sam got back home and saw me, Eli and Stella he was totally thrilled. Eli was so happy to have Sam back, equilibrium had been restored. Eli was even content to not be able to watch his TV programmes because Sam doesn’t like them.

It was, by all measures, a success. Sam did fun stuff that he wouldn’t have done at home. Eli and Stella got more of our attention, James and I had a bit of a break (it’s all relative).

So why do I feel so guilty about it? It reminds me a bit of Sam’s first week at nursery, when he was almost one. I dropped him off and called James on the way out in tears, saying I would never be able to go back to work because we couldn’t possibly leave Sam at nursery… Am I just further along the continuum of internal conflict that starts at angsting about whether kids should go to nursery or have a nanny (or any childcare at all), and ends at going away for a week with no kids? Or am I just trying to justify something that’s not fair on Sam?

I don’t think there’s a right answer, but for now I’m shattered and have a to-do list that stretches over two A4 pages and Sam was happy during this last stay, so we’ll crack on (as Eli would say) and hope we’re doing the right thing.

Or at least not doing the wrong thing.

 

 

 

 

Playing for laughs (via eyegaze)

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I’ve got three kids! I don’t have much time to write blogs! And we have moved house, again, so things are as relaxed as usual round here.

In amongst the chaos and many, many boxes, Sam has been continuing to use his eyegaze computer. It travels to school with him every day and then he uses it at home for a mixture of entertainment and communication. Sam is building skills in using his eyes and navigating around software on a computer, and much of this is by playing games or other activities that he finds motivating. Like everything to do with kids learning something, anything, it’s best done through play as far as I can see.

We have various activities that he enjoys on his computer; his favourites are, unsurprisingly, stories. Some of which are ‘multiple choice’ where he has to pick the right word to continue the pre-programmed story. Others are computer equivalents of audiobooks where the entire text of a novel is on the computer and Sam can choose the story he wants, select the chapter, and then it is read out to him (in stilted computer voice, but he doesn’t seem to mind). Crucially, he has to keep selecting ‘Speak Paragraph’ in order for the story to continue, meaning that he has to engage consistently.

Sam’s current favourite book to read like this is Mr Stink by David Walliams. We have the actual book and read it to him frequently (actually I don’t, generally because I’m often preoccupied with a smaller child, but others do including my dad who assures me it is great and totes emosh). Other times Sam sits at the table reading it to himself via computer. It’s brilliant.

We hadn’t foreseen quite how fantastic the computer is for Sam and Eli to use together. The laptop is touchscreen and so they can play games like, for example, Splat the Clown where Sam can splat using his eyes and Eli using his finger. There aren’t many activities that they can do together like that, with total parity.

The current hit, however, is the most simple of all. By navigating through various screens within the PODD communication software Sam can get to a page which just has Yes, No and Don’t Know buttons.

Through trying to gauge Sam’s reliability of answering yes or no to questions (Sam doesn’t have a totally reliable yes or no, which is a work in progress for him and something about which I could – and may at some point – write an essay…), James invented a game of asking him sets of related yes/no questions, some of which are totally ridiculous. It is a good way of him practising giving us a clear yes or no when we know he knows the answer. He is definitely making progress on this. The thing we didn’t expect, and which is in danger of slightly undermining our carefully constructed strategy, is that Sam is now giving us the ‘wrong’ answer because it’s funny.

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Oh the laughs! The advent of this game has also coincided with Eli hitting the zenith of his life so far where he can successfully make every member of our family laugh. Let me assure you that watching one of your kids make the other laugh is one of life’s pure joys. Watching Eli make BOTH of the other kids laugh is very, very lovely and makes my heart sing. All the feelings.

So it isn’t just James and me asking the yes/no questions, but Eli too, and Sam bloody loves it.

In this clip I’m asking the questions, and modelling the answer. I think you get a real feeling for how much respect my children have for me.

In this (longer) clip, Eli’s asking the questions and no doubt because I’m videoing, Sam is not answering. Sods law. Then while I’m waiting for him to answer, he navigates out of that page which is autonomy in action, and is the physically disabled equivalent of a child wandering off because they have lost interest. He actually then went to a different yes/no page, through a different pathway in the software (which I didn’t know you could do), and then we continued. His ability to do this, without us mediating, is as pleasing to me as all the chuckling.

In the interests of equity between my kids, I leave you with a video of Eli making Stella laugh. I defy you not to feel cheered by a small child talking nonsense and a baby thinking this is the height of wit.

 

‘Looking his best’: attitudes towards wheelchairs

I have been thinking a lot recently about we approach Sam’s wheelchair. I have written before about the differing perceptions of wheelchairs – particularly, how once you are over the psychological hurdle of not walking, wheelchairs are freeing, wonderful things that can compensate for legs that won’t support a moving body. It’s a very simple and elegant solution to a problem. I think the outsider perspective that wheelchairs are constrictive and negative is largely based on someone’s fear that their own legs might stop working. Restrictions placed on wheelchair users are largely a result of the environment around them being inaccessible rather than the inherent disadvantage of using a wheelchair. Perceiving wheelchairs as negative isn’t inevitable – Eli loves having a turn in Sam’s chairs and sometimes wonders whether he’ll have one when he grows up.

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When Sam was small we were fearful of him not walking (though it became clear pretty early that this was likely). When he was young he was in a buggy, which was age-appropriate and no big deal. As he got older he moved into a specialist buggy, and then into a paediatric wheelchair. We needed time to get used to each stage; they were harsh physical reminders to us of his disability. But we accepted and adapted, and actually his inability to walk was towards the end of our list of worries. Sam’s difficulty with eating and communicating were (and are) harder for him day-to-day and have more impact on his quality of life than his inability to walk.

I still don’t love his wheelchair – I don’t think it’s designed that well, or looks that nice. It was given to us by wheelchair services. Considering how much time we spend looking at and interacting with it, I’d quite like to be more involved in the choice. I sometimes resent the difficulty of manoeuvring it around, the fact it means we can’t go in some buildings or use lots of public transport. It’s hard to clean and occasionally bits fall off. But Sam using a wheelchair, and us therefore being able to go to ice rinks, museums and parks, is infinitely preferable to us being stuck at home. He is perfectly happy in it.

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I recently read a blog by Tonia Christle, a disabled woman, about her experience for growing up with a cerebral palsy. She writes about the early years:

‘I am five. 

My family likes taking pictures of my sister and me.  We like being the same.  Our clothes match, but not our bodies, because I have a walker and my sister doesn’t.  When we get our pictures taken, our family likes us to be the same, too.

They like me to stand without my walker.  They say it’s better that way.  They are grown-ups, so I listen.  I stand leaning against a wall, or hanging onto a chair or a cabinet, or my sister.  Just as long as my walker is not in the picture.  My walker makes me worse, so I stand far away from it.

I want to look my very best for the picture so I smile, hanging on very tight so I don’t fall.

My family never came right out and said they wanted “normal” kids.  However, as a young child, I listened to the way my family spoke about me and my adaptive equipment (which is very much a part of me.)  And, though I am now in my thirties, pictures of me with my walker, crutches or wheelchair are rare finds.  Many pictures are portrait-style and don’t even include my legs.’

I am definitely guilty of this to some extent. We have plenty of photos of Sam in his wheelchair (or home chair, or standing frame, or walker). But we also have photos where we have taken him out of his wheelchair so that the chair isn’t in the photo, so he ‘looks his best’. I have taken photos of his face (not his body) because I think this is most photogenic (which is partly because, of course, his face is VERY photogenic in my entirely unbiased opinion!).

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(I’m not pregnant again – old photo to illustrate our normally unsuccessful attempts at group family photos)

We presume competence with Sam (we assume he can understand everything we say), and I try not to let anyone talk in front of him negatively, but I hadn’t really thought about the impact of talking about his equipment.

‘Your child is unique and special because they use adaptive equipment.  It is something to celebrate, because this equipment allows your child the freedom to live the life they want to live.’ Tonia Christle. (emphasis added by me)

This idea of embracing the equipment is crucial if you are the parent of a disabled child, and involves a bit of a mindshift. It takes time, and we are getting better (I hope) as Sam gets older. Being a good mother, and ally, depends on accepting Sam as he is. That means embracing all of him and his aids. His wheelchair makes him better, not worse.

We must accept this not just in words and intention, but in the everyday: in our photos of this time in his life, in how we talk about his equipment. Don’t talk about how annoying his wheelchair is, how cumbersome, or how ugly. Don’t deny how intrinsic it is to him. Don’t let anyone else talk this way in front of him either.

This is obvious. We are careful to talk to our kids about what they can do rather than what they can’t. We talk positively about disability, equality, difference. We need to remember to include Sam’s equipment in our acceptance of his difference.

I was reminded of this revelation by a recent exhibition in London of paintings by Lucy Jones  . Jones is a talented, successful artist who happens to also have cerebral palsy. She has painted self-portraits throughout her career and this exhibition includes a self-portrait with her walker.

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An essay about her work describes the context of her self-portraits (which includes feminism in the 1970s), the effect of prolonged study of her own body, the depiction of her disability:

‘In Lucy in the sky 2005 she wanted to say something about being happy, about feeling safe. She is out walking, with her wheelie; she can’t fall over and is free to go anywhere. The painting started with her face, then she added the black and red top, after that the pale blue trousers. Then she had to decide on the background.’ Sue Hubbard, ‘Becoming Lucy Jones’

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Jones’s disability is represented in her paintings and is part of their creation. She talks about how as her confidence grew through her career, she began to paint more of her body, to paint the ‘awkwardness’ of how she looked with CP. These paintings are about how she sees herself, how others see her, and what others project on to her. The paintings describe her coming to accept her walker as being part of who she is, and having the self-confidence to represent it.

The reality of disability is that much is projected on to disabled people and often the problem is with other people’s perceptions rather than the disability itself. The aids and equipment are helping, they’re not a hindrance, and we should treat them as such.

We mustn’t make Sam think he is less because he uses a wheelchair, but rather try to help him have the self-confidence to use it proudly.

 

References:

Tonia Christle blog: http://www.ellenstumbo.com/growing-up-with-a-disability-the-preschool-years/

Sue Hubbard’s essay ‘Becoming Lucy Jones’ in Lucy Jones: Looking at Self, Momentum Publishing, 2006

Exhibition: Lucy Jones –The Cycle of Life, Flowers Gallery until 21 May http://www.flowersgallery.com/exhibitions/view/lucy-jones

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.

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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.

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

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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, Stella was hungry as soon as we arrived so I unpacked Sam’s trike to the sound of her bawling in the car. As the helpful man was fitting Sam’s hands into the mittens, I was breastfeeding Stella under my jumper while walking around and making sure Eli 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 Eli 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 Sam to see a friend from school. A velodrome! Awesome!

I would love for Sam 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 Sam, 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 Sam 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 Sam that was with other kids and not initiated by us. We can find fun things for Sam 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 Sam 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 Sam’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 Sam’s condition.

I had heard of an adventure playground in a neighbouring borough that runs weekend activity sessions for kids like Sam, 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 Sam, only then can Sam 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 Sam 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 Sam 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.

A space rocket for Sam

In December Eli and I went to Sam’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 Sam’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 Eli’s favourite songs and he was outraged, ‘It’s All About That BASS, not SPACE!’

Then, as we watched the kids Eli 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 Eli was distracted and I didn’t have to deal with the inclusion-disability-space conundrum immediately. But it stayed with me.

Eli 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 Eli that he might not meet the stringent selection criteria for space travel, we also don’t tell Sam that he can’t be an astronaut because he’s disabled. In light of Eli’s comments at the play, we spend quite a lot of time talking about how Eli AND Sam can be astronauts. And Stella, 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 Sam to get in in his chair and still have room for his brother. Eli 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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IMG_0547James, Eli and Sam have between them created an elaborate bedtime routine which involves turning all the lights off, Eli climbing in to Sam’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 Sam 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!’

Filling the summer holiday

It feels like an age ago, but in July and August Sam 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 Sam 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 Sam’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 Sam. 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 Sam 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 Sam to attend. 10 days before it started our local borough agreed to fund Sam’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 Sam has gone to something like this and I was nervous about leaving him with people he didn’t know!

So, following some communication about Sam’s needs and a phone call with the head of the service, Sam 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 Sam. He loved it. It was a warm fuzz of inclusion, fun and variety. *

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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. Sam 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.

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(Photo above from Facebook)

Sam 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.

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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 Sam 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 Sam’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 Sam 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 Sam’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 Sam 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.