The legacy of the Paralympics

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Occasionally we get a glimpse into how the world could be. A world where the environment is not disabling. It’s like the social model of disability come to life. Do you know what the social model of disability is? If not, you should. It’s one of those sleights of hand, or thought, where you are told something which you immediately know to be true and you can’t believe you didn’t realise it before. The social model sets out the idea that disability itself isn’t the problem, and often isn’t itself a problem at all, but it is our society and environment which disables people; that sees disabled people as in need of fixing, and of their physical requirements as some kind of inconvenience.

Once you have your head around it, you realise disability is as much a social and environmental construct as a personal physical issue. Places are inaccessible so disabled people can’t visit them, or at least not without loads of planning and fuss. It isn’t their disability that means they can’t go to the theatre, get on the train or visit the stadium, it’s the physical environment. See?

As much as I like to go around lecturing people on the social model of disability, the reality is that day-to-day, we are forced to accept that Sam can’t go everywhere. Then occasionally we go somewhere and we realise what a total pain in the arse most big trips are for wheelchair users, and how incredibly easy and convenient these things could be once someone has given it some thought. If you too would like to spend some time in this utopian dream then get yourselves to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the stadium therein.

The Olympics and Paralympics in 2012 were a seminal moment for me. I love the Olympics at the best of times, but to have it in my home city was so exciting. Eli was two months old and I was able to spend hours feeding him, sitting on the sofa, watching athletics. Sam and I went to watch kayaking. After all the predictions of doom, the Olympics were brilliant and incredibly popular. When it was then time for the Paralympics, the huge wave of enthusiasm continued and loads of parathletes became household names. There were people with various disabilities everywhere you looked, on TV and billboards. It felt like the Paralympics were an actual thing, with parity to the Olympics, rather than something tacked on the end.

So for me, as the mother of disabled two-year-old in 2012, this was hugely significant. It fed my soul: disability can be part of the main conversation, can be a thing of pride and success, rather than pitying looks and awkwardness. It was a glimpse into a world of inclusion.

And I wasn’t the only one. The legacy lives on. Eli’s favourite athlete is Jonny Peacock, after his teachers showed them films of him running at school (nothing to do with us). Jonny Peacock first came to national prominence at London 2012.

The legacy of London 2012 is the Olympic Park, including the main stadium. In July it was the World Paraathletic Championships, and because my brother-in-law is way more organised than we are, we had tickets for all of us (except Stella, let’s not waste this on a one-year-old).

It was reminiscent of 2012 with hoards of cheerful volunteers everywhere around the park, offering high fives to everyone who walked past. One guy offered Sam a high five and then patiently waited while Sam slowly but surely lifted up his hand. The park is all subtle landscaping and shallow gradients, ramps down to canal paths and bridges across water.

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We enjoyed wheeling around, getting some free ice cream, and then going into the stadium where Sam’s ‘seat’ was just there, with a seat next to him for one of us (our other seats were in the row in front) and a great view. There was a Changing Places inside the stadium for us to use. We had parked nearby after being emailed a special pass by an incredibly cheerful person, and offered a lift in a wheelchair-accessible bus, but chose to walk.

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While we were watching the many sports in front of us, various other wheelchair users were sat around us with their families and friends. We all watched various paraathletes compete at the top of their field. Everyone cheered the winners, and the losers. Sam found the cheering a bit much – there’s a fine line for him between being really excited and it being too much. It was almost a bit too much for me, to be honest (weep alert). But that’s fine – we didn’t really expect him to watch three straight hours of athletics, but the stadium allowed him to give it a try. And the more we take him, the more he’ll be able to cope with the sensory explosion that is a stadium full of people cheering a British high jumper.

It was a good day for Sam (at least the bit before it got too much), but it was also a really good day for me, James and Eli. It’s as important for us to see this kind of utopia where disability is not remarkable, and certainly not negative. Where it becomes clear that disability is an extremely broad spectrum, and to assume anything about someone’s level of disability, and therefore what they can achieve, is ridiculous. Where the particulars of someone’s disability are only relevant to what classification they compete in, not what needs to be fixed.

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We loved it all. It is unusual for us to go on an outing like this and not at some point discover some kind of problem with steps, or space for the wheelchair, or a lack of changing facilities. It was amazing for it all to be so easy, with so many enthusiastic volunteers, and such a feeling of inclusivity. Obviously on an average day, you might not have friendly people pointing you towards free ice cream, but you would still have the thoughtfully designed park and the stadium with easy wheelchair access. It can be done. It should be done.

 

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)