What is disabling our daughter?

It is a powerful word, ‘disabling’. By its own definition, it would mean that someone who is ‘disabled’ lacks the ability to do anything. That is quite a frightening prospect for anyone.

But it is the process of ‘disabling’ which really interests me. Someone or something must have been the source of the disability. Is it the condition itself that forces the person in a wheelchair, or the rampless bus which the person can’t board, or is it the people who stare at the limbless man, the almond eyes, the slurred speech? What or who is disabling?

Our daughter, Trudy, had low muscle tone when she was younger, a condition associated with that extra chromosome which keeps rearing its ugly head. She couldn’t sit in standard wooden high chairs (popular in restaurants and pubs) without sliding through it like jelly and there was no chance we were going to feed her safely. So, we had to phone ahead to make sure that they had a plastic high chair with a cushioned insert and a bar between the legs. These were specific requests but, if they didn’t have one, we couldn’t go.

Trudy wanted to start gymnastics but we had to get a letter from her paediatrician to say that it was safe for her (appointments with paediatricians are not easy to get). She wanted to do dance classes but she had to wear tap shoes. Has anyone tried to get a hypotonic ankle into a tap shoe?! We started swimming lessons but the instructor said that we couldn’t go in with her because she was in the higher age group. I stated quite politely that she would drown if we didn’t go in with her. Needless to say, he let me in then. And then there’s childcare. We can’t just send Trudy to a holiday camp or a babysitter without having an in-depth conversation first in which we dissect and analyse Trudy’s needs.

Some of these things have to be in place to make sure our daughter is safe, like the paediatrician’s letter and the pre-activity chats. But the smart-looking high chair that doesn’t support the baby or indeed the backless swing at the park lead us to a swift conclusion: We can’t go out.

We can’t go to the playground because our child will just have to sit there watching the other children play, and that’s not fair. Have you ever wondered why there are few disabled people in parks? Lack of accessible equipment is a major factor.

We can’t go to the cafe because they don’t have the right equipment to feed our child safely.

We can’t go to that concert because our children can’t queue or stand the noise.

Or very sadly, we can’t go out because they’ll stare.

So, what is disabling our daughter? Well, it’s a combination of things. Her Down’s Syndrome prevents her from understanding, which means basic excursions are a challenge. The wrong equipment or the crowded places are an issue. But for the people who stare, who don’t understand that she is finding it difficult to wait or really doesn’t want to move, well, they’ve really no excuse in my opinion.

A person feels disabled when they can’t access the most basic of places such as the bus or the shops. So the buses have ramps and the shops have wheelchair-friendly trolleys, but not always. Blue badge users can park closer to shops but, who hasn’t been guilty of parking in a disabled spot when in a hurry?

A person feels disabled when there are too many barriers to doing what they want to do, like dance or gymnastics or swimming. Parents give up because there are just too many forms to fill in and nobody seems to read them anyway.

A person feels disabled when normal avenues are not available to them such as mainstream education or employment. Children are turned away from schools because they will be ‘detrimental to other children’*. Adults can’t get jobs because it requires just too much effort to adapt the workplace for a wheelchair user or a person with learning difficulties.

There is some great work out there and some great legislation around disability rights but, perhaps if we started considering the possibility that people are not ‘disabled’ but ‘enabled’, we might not assume what they can’t achieve and start concentrating on what they can.

*Standards in Scottish Schools Act, 2000

Why do I feel like I have to say ‘thank you’?

It’s the same feeling everywhere I go, at the park, at the pool, in cafes or at the supermarket.

If someone is nice to our daughter, doesn’t walk away, lets their children play with her or lets her take everything off the shelves in Tescos, I feel inclined to say ‘thank you’.

Thank you for allowing her to be herself, thank you for making my life easier, thank you for including her in your games.

Trudy is heading for her first year of primary school and I find myself feeling incredibly grateful that her mainstream school will accept her. Despite the reams and reams of legislation and rights-based discourse that I know like the back of my hand, I still want to say ‘thank you’.

Why is that? Is it because I know too much about what has gone before, when people with disabilities were shut away, disabled and disempowered? Is it because there are thousands of cases across the UK where children with learning disabilities are still not accepted into mainstream on the misguided assumption that they will be ‘detrimental to their peers’? Or, if they are accepted, it is with reluctance and lack of understanding. A child with DS was wearing a hi-viz jacket in one mainstream school because he was a flight risk. He may as well have ‘watch out for me’ written all over him, and not in a good way.

We are so eminently glad that Trudy’s rights to an equitable education are being upheld but I wonder when we are going to stop feeling grateful. Grateful for the opportunity to be part of society when her brother just is. Grateful for the chance to learn with and from her peers. Grateful to have peers.

I’ll remember to write again when I no longer need to say ‘thank you’, when her journey to acceptance is not shrouded in worry and doubt. Let’s hope this and so many other stories end well, that our children grow up as integral parts of our diverse and rich communities of people.

Being a parent

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it is like to be a parent of a child with a disability, as I am preparing a talk for the staff at my school about this. It’s a tough one, because most of the time we don’t see our child as having a disability, and it is hard to remember what it was like before we had her. I’m not sure the two different versions of me are even comparable. I’ve changed, Alex has changed and I’m sure to an extent her brother has changed in his 5 years. We have all adapted to life with Trudy and it is hard to be explicit about that.

As I say in my talk, I do not seek to represent the views of other parents as we all look at things in different ways, much like our children! I am also presenting this caveat here, although I would be so pleased if this post goes some way to supporting other parents’ voices. This is because I see myself in many of the parents I work with, in their strength to stay calm when things are not going their way, strength to stand up for their child when they do not have a voice and strength to keep going when the odds are against them. I see their extraordinary capacity to listen and learn when professionals use big words they’ve never heard before, and I see the day they start using those words themselves, forgetting they once never knew what they meant.

I don’t see myself as any different to how I was before but I know I have changed because I see myself in them. I recognise their elation at the slightest progress, and their pain and frustration at having to fight again. I know our story has changed me fundamentally into the person and professional I am today.

So, I will attempt to describe what it is like to be Trudy’s mum. There are crucially two different journeys that we have taken in having Trudy: The first is having a sick baby, and the second is managing and accepting a diagnosis.

Having a sick baby was tough, devastatingly traumatic and has long-lasting effects on how we manage as a family even now. The first and most traumatic event in my experience was not bringing my baby home. It is still difficult for me to hear of parents that get to bring their baby home. Both our children were on the neonatal ward and Trudy needed an ambulance. I won’t let my children make nee-naw noises or spot an ambulance now without acknowledging that there is a sick person inside. Nothing prepares you for blue lights.

There were lots of people involved in her care at the beginning and lots of people always talking around us, sometimes to us but not always. It felt intrusive, chaotic and I felt a huge loss of control.

Then there was the worry, the worry that things weren’t going to turn out well as we saw patient after patient being discharged. Then the day came that we were discharged, but that worry never left us. It became a different worry, a worry that it could happen again. And it did for the first year of Trudy’s life.

Her health has got much better since then as her little body has learned how to fight infections.

The second journey is managing and accepting a diagnosis, and we may not be fully there. I mentioned the poem by Emily Kingsley, ‘Welcome to Holland’ in my last post. This resonated with me.

So, the first part of this journey was accepting that it was difficult to go to ‘normal’ baby groups. There were too many looks and questions that I just wasn’t ready for. I remember one group where we went around the circle and mums spoke about their babies and the issues they were having with sleep. I had just got out of hospital with Trudy. Sleep was the least of my worries. And Trudy couldn’t do what other children could do at the same age. It was too easy to compare Trudy with other children in the beginning. I hadn’t accepted that she was different.

Then professionals would turn up at our door and they had jobs I never knew anything about. This felt intrusive and it took up time, coordinating appointments and making sure Trudy wasn’t too sleepy. We had endless letters in the post. I used to hate seeing ‘Parent of…’. I knew it would be another appointment. I saw roles and not people back then.

As Trudy has grown, it has become more about provision for Trudy and what is available. The crucial thing is whether the provision is right for our child. We had to decide between mainstream or specialist provision from nursery, and this would influence how Trudy progressed through school. We had to decide on extra hours for Trudy and how to use financial benefits to her full advantage. Sometimes it would be about celebrating her strengths and achievements, but sometimes it had to be about explaining her differences so we could access what she was entitled to. It has become about partnerships and not ‘service providers’, and we acknowledge that mainstream provision at the moment is right for Trudy and it is working.

It has also become about people and not roles, so that I no longer see a group of professionals around a table, but I see Isla, Laura, Janice and so on. We have a relationship of trust so that if it doesn’t work for Trudy, I trust the people working with her to be able to resolve it with reason and expertise. We have all grown in confidence and the people working around Trudy have shared a journey with us, just as I, as a professional, share a journey with our pupils and families.

Being a parent of a child with a disability is about opening yourself up to let people in. I have come to the conclusion, as a parent and as a professional, that people and relationships have the greatest impact on the child. If we didn’t have the people, including the support from family and friends, or the relationships we have with the professionals around Trudy, we wouldn’t be where we are today. I am and will forever be eternally grateful.

What it actually means to be an almost 4 year old with a learning disability.

“She’s got a developmental age of a 2 year old” is a common misconception of what it is to be an almost 4 year old with a learning disability.

It is so easy to see our children at an age which explains their delay in language or physical development. Trudy’s language is delayed and she probably has a word-bank that equates to that of an average 2 year old. But, have you ever met an average 2 year old? I certainly haven’t.

This was highlighted to us when we observed her playing with her cousin (who is 2). She might have the language of a 2 year old (in fact, she had far fewer words than him), but she has been on this Earth for almost 4 years. That means that she doesn’t have the tantrums of a 2 year old nor does she have their attention span. She can wait her turn and understand a queue. She can spend a long time at a table colouring in or having lunch because she has experienced these for almost twice as long.

This is something the outside world forgets but, for those of us working in the weird and wonderful world of ASN/SEN, we recognise that a 16 year old cannot be treated like a 2 year old despite their apparent disability. It is what we refer to as a ‘spiky profile’. Where language might be delayed, a child might learn to walk or climb or jump because, at that time, jumping is the most important thing to learn.

All children are motivated by what they desire to learn, and that is no different for children with a learning disability. They might just need more time to focus on each skill. Trudy has just been yelling at ‘Alexa’ to get her to play ‘Row, row, row your boat’. I am in no doubt that she will learn to say ‘Alexa’ very soon.

In education, we are moving away from harmful phrases like this which can perpetuate misunderstandings about disability and ability. With greater research in this area, we understand that it is no longer appropriate to say that a child is less able than another without considering all areas of their development, and what we learn from children with additional support needs can help us understand the differences and quirks in all children.

Some of the books I have read recently have informed my opinion of this:

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan.

Florian, L., Black-Hawkins, K. and Rouse, M. (2nd ed) (2014) Achievement and Inclusion in Schools. London: Routledge.

Hart, S. (2004) Learning Without Limits. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Universal Design for Learning

Including Trudy

It has never been straightforward to just ‘include’ Trudy. Patrick moved seamlessly up to the next class in nursery, or from parent and toddler classes to being on his own. There was never an issue with him, never a debate.

Trudy, however, took a different path. Nursery had this all in hand with initiatives in Scotland such as Getting It Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) and the child’s plan. This meant that we had regular discussions about when it was right for Trudy to move up and what support she would need, if any. We had eight professionals involved in the decision-making process. We got access to 1:1 funding but she hasn’t needed a dedicated member of staff, as she soon got lazy and well aware that the member of staff was solely there for her! In collaboration with the nursery, we used the funding for training all the nursery staff to use Signalong or to have an extra pair of hands when out and about.

We were offered smaller gym classes for children with disabilities or volunteers with tabards but these didn’t seem appropriate for Trudy. The last thing I want to see is my child accompanied by someone in a tabard! Trudy learns better when she is copying her peers who are bigger, faster, more able than she is, when she is given the time and space she needs. The gym coaches soon got to know her and treated her like she was just another kid. It was solely down to their confidence and expertise that Trudy was included in her mainstream gym class. A huge thank you to Edinburgh Leisure for being a shining example of how inclusion can be facilitated through a little discussion and a ‘can-do’ attitude.

So, we then started to observe a different model of inclusion; one which was not based on singling out the child, but one which permeated the entire staff, children and families, enhancing skills and encouraging compassion. Our speech and language therapist worked in small groups of Trudy’s friends, using songs and simple signs that the other children could try. Gradually, Trudy has become her own little wonder with her own skillset. She is surrounded by little friends who want to communicate with her, to support her. Her little friend, Paddy, is very keen to tell me where she is when I go to pick her up!

I have done my own research around inclusion for my professional development and to be able to work with the young people at my school. I have learned that the landscape for inclusion is still changing. The focus is no longer on mainstreaming, but on providing the right support at the right time. Research has informed policy and the guidance is very much in favour of an inclusive society where children with disabilities are accepted and celebrated. Thank goodness we have moved on from the days of the ‘ineducable’ and the ‘sub-normal’! A study done in 1978¹ found that educational opportunities and early intervention might be extending the intelligence levels of children with Down’s Syndrome. Professor Lani Florian², who is a great advocate for inclusive practices in education, suggests moving from labelling so-called ‘normal’ children and children with additional support needs to a focus on individual differences in all children.

I cannot imagine that this is anything but a good thing, for everybody. How lucky we are that we live in a world where our children are accepted! Including Trudy will have its challenges but we must always remember that the world has come a long way in its fight for justice and equality.

But one question will continue to hound me as a parent and a professional: How close are we now to achieving true inclusion of children with disabilities and additional support needs?³

¹Conolly, J.A. (1978) ‘Intelligence levels of Down’s Syndrome Children’

²Florian, L. (2017) ‘Achievement and Inclusion in Schools’

³https://www.tes.com/magazine/article/inclusion-all-laudable-dream-reality-stark