We are the 57%

A few days ago, in a fit of frustration, I churned out a quick post about parking. Exciting, huh? But to my surprise it’s received over 11,000 views and generated a whole lot more Twitter traffic than I’ve ever had before.

So, what gives? Even posts I’ve sponsored on Facebook rarely get more than a few hundred views. Of all the posts I’ve written – on the difficulties of being undiagnosed, on the amazing work of children’s hospices, on the sanctity of human life, even on the importance of properly accessible toilets (which are certainly more scarce and arguably more important than parking bays), it’s the one on parking that’s sparked the most interest. I’m not bragging; I’m gutted.

So, what gives? Sure, in the UK we love our cars. We talk about the traffic almost as much as we talk about the weather. Victoria Coren Mitchell, presenter of Radio 4’s Women Talking About Cars, said the other day that for women, especially, cars represent a very special combination of both freedom and safety. For people with disabilities, cars probably mean even more in both those respects. Having only had one for six months, I love my Benjamin’s car, although I wish we didn’t have to use it so much. But I certainly don’t love parking – once I’ve got within a yard or two of the kerb I just want to shut the door and forget about it.

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If this was a disabled parking bay I guess I’d be tempted to park in it too…

So, what gives? Sure, in the UK we hate being told what to do – whether by a traffic warden, or Brussels, or a yellow line on the road and a blue badge in the window. But does that fully explain why I struck such a chord (or hit such a nerve, depending on your side of the debate) with a post about parking?

My theory is, it’s because parking is one of the few everyday battle lines between the disabled and the able. In fact, it’s one of the few situations in which disabled people are actually visible in our society. Yes, the able can complain about those of us ‘scrounging’ benefits. They can complain about us giving birth to children who will be nothing but a drain on society. They can complain about the effect inclusion has on the educational achievement of their mainstream children (hint: bugger all, apart from possibly making them less judgemental than their parents). But unless you actually know a person with a disability, you are unlikely to come up against these issues every day. Yet even if you don’t know a person with a disability, you probably park in a supermarket, school or public car park on a fairly regular basis.

And that’s the root of the problem really, isn’t it. Many people simply don’t know a person with a disability – or don’t realise they do. The Disabled Children’s Partnership, a coalition of charities campaigning to improve support for disabled children, young people and families, last week launched a new campaign called The Secret Life of Us. The aim of the campaign is to change the fact that an amazing 43% of the British public don’t know anyone who is disabled.

In parking, the 57% of us who have a disability, care for someone with a disability, or know someone with a disability, come directly up against the 43% who, through no fault of their own, don’t think they know anyone with a disability. The former know all too well the need for disabled bays, and cannot understand why anyone else would park in such spaces when they are so clearly needed. The latter cannot see the need for disabled bays, consider them an unearned privilege – particularly if we are not in a wheelchair, do not look disabled, or have children that are small enough to lift – and don’t see why they shouldn’t use them when it suits them.

So maybe this is where we should start. At the battle line. At one of the few places where the 57% become visible to the 43%. Disabled parking spaces are all about accessibility. Without accessibility it is very hard to have inclusion. Without inclusion it’s impossible to have integration. Without integration, it is extremely difficult to foster understanding. And without understanding, well why the hell shouldn’t I use that disabled parking space to save me a couple of minutes of my valuable time as a contributing member of society popping into the shop to get a pint of milk? It’s a vicious circle.

The Secret Life of Us campaign aims to break that circle, to help us – the 43% and the 57% – get to know one another. Now, the 43% can’t do anything about this – they don’t know we exist, remember. Their hands are tied. It’s up to us, the 57%, to start building awareness, to be brave and not shy away from sharing our stories and showing our lives in all their flaws and their beauty. Because everyone’s life – disabled or not – has flaws and it has beauty.

If you read my blog (thank you!) you’ll have a glimpse of that: stressful, sometimes traumatic, hard work, rewarding, ever-changing and featuring rather a lot of bodily fluids… But there’s a lot more I can do. Everyone in my community knows Benjamin, but not everyone in my community knows that I had anorexia in my twenties. I’m in awe of friends who are becoming more open about their mental health – in person and on social media. Social media certainly has a role to play here: the ease with which we can share The Secret Lives of Us – anonymously if we wish to – makes now an ideal time to bridge the gap between the 57% and the 43%.

I’m not saying we all need to go around shouting about our bowel movements and breakdowns and whether we’ve had breakfast all day long… but if the 57% can share a little more and the 43% can listen a little more, maybe we can all judge a little less. Because parking shouldn’t be a battle line. There shouldn’t be any everyday battle lines. ‘The disabled population is the world’s largest minority of which anyone can become a part at any time.’ We are the 57% – and one day you might be too.

If you would like to be involved in the Disabled Children’s Partnership, you can sign up at http://e-activist.com/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=78&ea.campaign.id=71897, follow it on Facebook and on Twitter. Share your stories, and read others, using the hashtag #SecretLifeofUs

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I’ll let you into a secret: sometimes our life is a bit dull #SecretLifeofUs

This is a disabled parking bay…

This is a disabled parking bay. There are four of them at my son’s school. They are close to the school entrance and they are wider than normal bays. Doesn’t it look inviting?

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This is my son Benjamin’s blue badge. I had to apply for it, and pay for it. Many disabled people have to fight for it. It entitles me to park in the disabled bays at my son’s school (and anywhere else) when I have him with me and he will be getting out of the vehicle, or when I will be picking him up and putting him into the vehicle.

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These are four of the cars that were parked in the disabled spaces at my son’s school today. None of them is displaying a blue badge.

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Maybe their drivers aren’t aware that although this isn’t a public road the school still enforces the blue badge scheme? Maybe they thought they had a good reason to park in the disabled bays – all four of them? Maybe they were short of time? Maybe they’re just lazy? Well, in case any of them are reading this…

Here are some of the reasons I need to park in these bays:

  • Benjamin comes with a lot of equipment: not just a wheelchair, but a feeding pump, suction pump, medications, syringes, nappies. More equipment than I can fit on his wheelchair, which means I have to push it with one hand. The further I have to push it with one hand, the less safe that journey is for him. If I have my other children with me, well, they just have to take their chances.
  • If I have to park in a normal parking space (if I can get one), it is too narrow to get Benjamin’s wheelchair alongside the car. This means I have to park it (and him in it) behind the car, in the path of other vehicles looking for their own parking spaces.
  • If I have to park in a normal parking space (if I can get one), it is too narrow to get Benjamin’s wheelchair alongside the car. This means I have to carry him (all 18 kilos of him) round to the back of the car. I don’t mind the damage to my back. What I do mind is the risk of pulling out his feeding tube, which won’t stretch from his seat to behind the car. If his feeding tube is pulled out, he has to undergo an operation under general anaesthetic to replace it. When Benjamin undergoes an operation under general anaesthetic, he usually comes back ventilated and in intensive care.
  • If I have to park on the road (which I usually do, because if the disabled bays are full you can bet it’s because all the non-disabled bays are full), all of the above apply, plus I have to carry Benjamin out into the path of oncoming traffic.
  • If I have to park on the road, the likelihood is someone else will park so close up to the back of my car that I won’t be able to open the boot, let alone get Benjamin’s wheelchair into it.
  • One of Benjamin’s problems is that he cannot control his own temperature. In the extra time it takes me to get him out of a warm car into his buggy and under a blanket if the buggy is at the back of the car and not beside the door, he can become hypothermic. In the extra time it takes me to push the buggy from the main road to the school, he can become hypothermic. An extra couple of minutes in the cold can mean several hours of struggling to get his temperature and heart rate stabilized at a normal level.
  • If Benjamin becomes suddenly ill, which he does, often, without warning, and dangerously, I need to be able to pick him up and get him into the car and off to hospital, pronto. I may not have time to wait for an ambulance. I may not have time to drive around looking for a parking space, walk round the corner from that parking space to the school, and push Benjamin back round that corner to the car. Minutes count.

Here are some of the reasons you may not need to park in these bays:

  • You are not disabled
  • You don’t have a blue badge
  • You don’t have a disabled child
  • You don’t have a pile of medical equipment to transport
  • You can walk 100 yards without getting hypothermic (no, that’s not an exaggeration)
  • You can self-transfer to your car seat
  • You don’t need to get a wheelchair into your boot (God forbid need enough space to use a ramp or hoist…)

Now, you may think ‘I’m only parking there for a minute.’ But if that minute is the minute when Benjamin and I arrive at school, you’ve put us in an unsafe situation for the whole day.

You may think this is a small, petty issue. But this issue puts my son, and many others like him (after all, this is a school with a special unit attached that caters for children with severe and complex needs from across the county) at risk.

Please, think again. Thank you.

Our Inclusive Home

To those who make our lives difficult … and those who make them better

It has not been a great week. Friday night I finally worked out (with the help of a head-torch and strong stomach) what had been keeping my five-year-old (and therefore the rest of the family) awake for large proportions of the last couple of nights: threadworms. Cue a weekend of swallowing foul-tasting medicine (okay, banana-tasting, but I don’t like bananas so it tasted pretty foul to me), nail-cutting, disinfecting, hoovering, and washing every damn sheet, towel, and pair of pants in the house.

About six loads into the approximately twenty loads of washing that needed doing (why my husband needs to keep six pairs of jeans on the go at the same time is beyond me), the trusty washing machine gave its last gasp and went to Hotpoint heaven. Well, you have to laugh don’t you? Off to the shopping centre for a new washing machine and some more pants.

If we huddle together maybe she won’t wash us? (I did)

The day the new washing machine was delivered, which also happened to be the day the temperature went down to -1 degrees outside and it snowed a blizzard, and the day Benjamin was back home from respite, our central heating thermostat decided the washing machine was having far too much fun up there and headed off to join her. Cue another sleepless night waiting up for the British Gas man and making sure Benjamin was not alternately freezing to death or catching fire due to the slightly rickety electric heater we set up in his room.

Perhaps surprisingly to those who know me, I actually did manage to stay positive through these tribulations, despite a niggling sinus infection and a baby who still decides to feed for five hours a night, because I know they were really nobody’s fault and I could make a plan to resolve them. I always feel better if I have a plan.

What does upset me are the things that I have no control over but somebody else does. The things that just aren’t fair. The things where people just don’t think. The things that make our life – already stressful, exhausting and expensive – just that little bit more difficult. The things that, on a good day, I can shrug off, but on a bad day tip me over the edge.

The neighbour who consistently parks her car overlapping our disabled space, sometimes so close that I can’t even open the boot, let alone open it wide enough to get a wheelchair in.

The parents without blue badges who fill the disabled parking spaces next to my daughter’s nursery, and those who do the same at my son’s even though it has an SN nursery attached so clearly they are going to be needed.

The parents who think it’s okay to leave their towels and clothes ‘bagging’ the only disabled changing cubicle at our local swimming pool while they shower, so I have to wait with a dripping, freezing five-year-old, or leave Benjamin outside the cubicle blocking the gangway, or confront them and risk their (sometimes vitriolic and frankly foul-mouthed) wrath on their return from the shower.

The medical secretaries who repeatedly ignore and refuse to return my worried calls.

The paper-pushers who drip-feed us form after form over week after week, while they mark Benjamin up against their secret criteria to decide whether he is entitled to medical support to enable him even to attend the nursery placement to which he is legally entitled.

The last straw…

But these are minor niggles, really, compared to the worms, ohmygod the worms those that many SN parents (and carers) face. Parents who feel compelled to take horribly drastic measures because they see no other way to get their child the support that he needs. Parents who have to go to court to get the right school, the right house, or the right care for their child. Parents who need physical protection from their own children. Parents who risk losing their homes because they cannot work to pay the mortgage. Parents who aren’t believed that their child has needs because they behave perfectly at school but let all their emotions out at home. Parents who have been allocated respite but have no one to provide it; parents who desperately need respite but have been refused it. Parents who have to fight every step of the way just to ensure their child is healthy, happy and included and their family stays together and has the energy to fight another day. And these parents still put a brave face on it and support each other because that’s what we do.

And they are minor niggles because, for every one of the people who make our lives difficult, there is always at least one who makes it easier.

The washing-machine man who fitted our new machine with a cheery smile and a knowing nod. The boiler-man who came out in the middle of the night and returned the next day with a brand new, all-singing all-dancing internet-enabled thermostat. The friends who volunteer to hold (and jiggle) Caitlin while I get Jackie changed after her swimming lesson, so that I have one less child to keep an eye on. The neighbours who look out for us and invite us over for coffee. The agency carers who come in on their day off and spend time encouraging Caitlin to walk and listening to Jackie chatter as they take care of Benjamin’s needs. The lady at the council who actually listened to our problems, understood, and promised to do something about them. The hospice staff who arranged a photographer to take some family photos for us, and the photographer who refused to charge for them.

New washing machine (and expert washing machine selector)

So we’ve got through this week with our humour (if not our wallets) intact. With a few more grey hairs and bigger bags under the eyes. There is still enough in our lives to smile at and plenty to laugh at. Often it’s not about money and limited resources, it’s just about thoughtfulness, consideration and an inclusive attitude. Just don’t mention the worms.

Acceptance, accessibility and attitude

I am fortunate to have an incredibly understanding, flexible, patient employer. They have allowed me to cut my hours down to almost nil; I am secure in the knowledge that I can increase those hours again when my caring commitments allow; I am kept abreast of developments in the workplace; and I am welcomed with open arms every time I – and one or more of my offspring – deign to make an appearance in the office.

So when I was asked – I’m not sure if it was ironically or strategically – to take part in a committee focusing on gender equality in the work place, I was very happy to contribute. The first test of equality I proposed was that the only way I could make committee meetings was to bring Benjamin with me…

So, we toddled off into work. People held doors open for us and offered to carry the buggy up stairs. I parked Benjamin in his buggy in one corner of the board room. We received just the right amount of cooing to make me feel special but not enough to disrupt the meeting. Everyone politely ignored Benjamin as he snorted, coughed and grunted his way through the hour (fortunately he didn’t cry). I was enabled to contribute to the meeting and to care for my child.

Afterwards I popped in for a quick chat with my line manager. Benjamin threw up banana milk all over her office: she didn’t bat an eyelid and even asked if she could give him a cuddle afterwards.

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There are three rail companies running on the line between my home and my office. I was unfortunate enough to catch a train home on the least accessible one. I struggled up the high step into the train with the buggy. I parked it in the wheelchair space because – although it’s an ordinary buggy not a wheelchair or an official special-needs buggy – it has been specially adapted for Benjamin by a wonderful engineer called Derek at Wheelchair Services. He (Benjamin, not Derek) is safer and more comfortable in it than on a rail seat or on my lap, and it is the only place I can safely sit him if I need my hands free to tube-feed him.

So, I argued with the guard who insisted that my “buggy” should be folded and moved to a different coach. I blushed in front of the other passengers witnessing this argument but probably not hearing the ins and outs of it and thinking I was just an obstinate mother. And then I stood, wedged against the back of the seat in front, to administer his tube feed, because train-designers clearly do not think that disabled people deserve to sit next to or talk to anyone else while on a train, but position them on their own, with only the luggage rack for company.