‘More disabled’

You should all listen to a podcast called Distraction Pieces with Scroobius Pip where he interviews Jess Thom (link here). They are two thoughtful, interesting, amusing people talking about Jess’s work and life. This is in itself fascinating, but the podcast is also a glorious auditory celebration of difference, as Thom has Tourette Syndrome and Scoobius Pip has a stammer.

I found that when I first started listening I was really aware of their particular styles of speech but by the end (and it’s over an hour long) I hardly noticed. Thom talks about how her family and best friends barely notice her verbal tics – they are so familiar with them and her that they unconsciously screen them out as they listen to what she’s saying. I could feel myself doing this as I listened.

Isn’t that the way… Something new and unfamiliar draws your attention but given enough exposure and time your brain will accommodate it. One’s perception of another persons characteristics is going to depend on your familiarity with them (or with disabled people in general), and on your own preconceptions. I notice this with Sam. People meeting him for the first time can be struck by his disability, by his wheelchair, and sometimes can’t quite get past that to see a boy. We are so familiar with his body now.

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Apart from good discussions about the intersection of creativity and inclusivity, Thom also talks about the social model of disability (the idea people are disabled by society and their environment rather than their own impairments – I talk a bit about it here), making the point that she feels more or less disabled depending on the context. In an environment where she faces steps (she uses a wheelchair) or where her verbal and physical tics are not welcome, she will feel more disabled than somewhere where these needs are well accommodated.

This isn’t the first time I have heard these concepts, but each time I hear them explained eloquently I have an ‘Aha!’ moment and I hope everyone else does too. It requires a flip of mind to realise that the step is the problem, not the wheelchair. And it requires a degree of nuance to perceive disability as a constantly shifting scale that depends on the day, the activity, the environment, the level of support rather than an incontrovertible fact.

I find myself more aware of Sam’s disability when we are somewhere where he is the exception, particularly somewhere where the doors are a bit small, the spaces between the tables narrow, and we have to make an almighty fuss just to get him inside. Or in a theatre where it’s not clear that people are happy with Sam’s noises and his creaking wheelchair. In these contexts we, and the people we are squeezing past, become hyperaware of his disability.

At the other end of the spectrum, our house is where Sam is least disabled. I am so familiar with his body I largely don’t notice unpredictable movements when I look at him and will often only really notice noises that are communicative. At home he can, with help, go everywhere and do what he needs and wants to do. He can move around with his siblings, visit his parents in bed, be part of the action or somewhere quiet. He can have a bath every night. We can care for him easily and facilitate the things he enjoys doing. The house works with us, it encourages family life and visitors.

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It is possible to appreciate all of these advantages, and the privilege of having been able to make this house ours, because we have lived in many houses, visited many pools and cafes and houses that worked against us in small and big ways.

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The scale from ‘less disabled’ to ‘more disabled’ is not linear, and does not correlate with ‘better’ to ‘worse’. When I say Sam is ‘least disabled’ in our house, I do not mean that to be ‘more disabled’ is negative – because I do not believe that to be disabled is bad. “Disabled” is not a value judgement, it’s a description or an identity. When I describe Sam as least disabled in our house I mean that this is the environment in which there are least barriers to him doing what he wants to do, being who he wants to be, going where he wants to go (or where I think he should go, since I am his mother). This is thinking based on the ‘social model’ which Jess Thom refers to in the podcast.

So go and listen to the podcast. Maybe it will challenge your preconceptions about what people on podcasts should sound like. Maybe you will be inspired by Jess Thom’s creative work. Maybe it will expand your understanding of disability a little. I guarantee you’ll learn something, and laugh.

 

 

 

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‘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

Cosmic Christmas!

It was Sam’s school nativity play last week. His first ever. Called ‘Cosmic Christmas’, it wasn’t the typical nativity story (each class were aliens from a different planet, I don’t recall that detail from my school plays) but it was great. Each class did different things according to the childrens’ disabilities or talents.

As part of the performance, the school had pre-recorded videos with some of the children. We watched Sam and another boy smiling as the sun rose on Red planet, news had spread that Mary and Joseph were going to Bethlehem. They then had a subtitled ‘conversation’:

‘Have you heard?!’

no what

‘The star said that Mary is having a baby!’

a baby really

‘They’re crossing the desert to Bethlehem’

thats great news

Having heard that Mary and Joseph were going to have a baby, the aliens then celebrated with a dance, to African music obviously. Most of the kids in Sam’s class are in wheelchairs, which had all been decorated in the red theme.

There was loads of emotive music and a little tear in my eye. It can’t be assumed that Sam will enjoy events involving kids, noise, or lights, however carefully planned. But Sam was happy and engaged, even if a bit tense at times (the boundary between exciting and overwhelming being very narrow at times like this).

At the end, everyone sang the school song ‘Something Inside So Strong‘ with all of the staff doing makaton signing. It was a glorious mix of total chaos (these are not a group of kids who naturally keep still or quiet), festive fun and emotion.

A crew from the BBC was filming the play and this week they put this video online. The school phoned to ask whether James or I would talk to BBC Radio 5 live about watching the play. I might have said no, but as James passed on the message he said ‘Do you want to go on 5 live at 10.30am? You should do it’. It then seemed a bit pathetic to say no.

James has done 5 live before, and it’s never a bad thing to equal one’s partner’s achievements (yes, he was talking on a satellite phone in the midst of a revolution, but let’s not be pernickety).

So that is how I found myself sitting on the floor of my sitting room waiting for a call at 10.30am on Thursday morning. When James bought the cheapest house phone in the shop last month I don’t think he anticipated it being used for live radio. When it rang (tinnily) I was put through to the studio, which meant I could hear the live radio program down the phone. I sat through a lot of news about ankle injuries and wingers, then a very sad breaking news story, before the presenter said hello and we were off.

You can listen here (from about 44 minutes in). I did what I always do in any public speaking situation, which is to instantaneously forget what I have said. When James asked me afterwards how it had gone, I had no idea (yes, he wasn’t listening, some excuse about a meeting). The school were happy, which was the most important thing – they called to say Sam had been listening in his classroom and had smiled at my voice. When I went to collect him that afternoon I felt like a minor celebrity.

I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to talk about Sam (this blog being an obvious manifestation of my enthusiasm in this regard) and to celebrate Sam’s school, which I love. The staff had worked very hard on the play and the kids and parents enjoyed it – and that is something worth publicising. People love a feel-good story about kids, and the video was ‘most watched’ on the BBC website for a good few hours. It is beautifully filmed and it celebrates kids who deserve to be celebrated so all to the good.

It is, however, a fascinating insight into the perception of disability by media, or at least what you have to call a news story to get people to click on it. The headline of the BBC News video, The parents who never expected to see their child in a nativity play, is awful and misrepresentative of the piece as a whole. The whole ethos of the school is positive and optimistic and to involve the parents, so it would be a failure if parents thought there would never be a nativity play and had no idea what their children were capable of, only to turn up to a Christmas play and have their minds blown!

When the 5 live producer had called me to discuss the piece, he had asked, hopefully, whether I had ever thought this would happen? Had watching the play had been the highlight of my year? I said it was fun, and I enjoyed it, but loads of good things have happened this year. As much as I like to tug people’s heartstrings when possible, let’s not get carried away.

I told the producer enthusiastically about Sam’s recent spelling triumph using an eye gaze computer, and the presenter then brought that up at the end of the segment. An opportunity to advertise a brilliant school and broadcast Sam’s skills on national radio? Yes please.