A year ago, when my daughter was in Year 11, she got caught using her phone during an English lesson. The teacher, who also happened to be her tutor asked her who she was messaging. I’m afraid she lied and said she was checking if I felt better. I had not been ill and she was actually chatting to her boyfriend! The teacher fell for it and said something along the lines that she had forgotten my daughter had a disabled mother and what a responsibility it must be for her.
Long before we started a family, I thought about how my disability might affect any children we might have. I did not want them to be stigmatised by it but, truth be told, I did not have to think about it for very long. Being disabled isn’t something you spend your life pondering about – it can be a pain in the arse – but it is not a tragedy and you should try and embrace who you are. There have, of course, been plenty of embarrassing Mum moments but on the whole I don’t think either of my children give it too much thought.
The health professionals I met during my pregnancies were nothing but encouraging and I had two very easy labours. My first home visit from the midwife after my son was born was hysterical in terms of the assumptions people make. My mother had come to stay for a week or so – just as she had done with all my siblings – to help settle me in. My husband had just broken up for the Christmas holidays (he’s a teacher) so was also at home. The midwife immediately assumed that my husband – who admittedly went grey at a young age – was my father and married to my mother!! She was mortified when she realised her mistake and couldn’t apologise enough.
On the whole though, having children is a huge equaliser, and few people have been openly judgmental. That is, until my children attended secondary school. I cannot be sure why it happened then – possibly because in a large comprehensive you don’t get to build the personal relationships with teachers that you do in a small primary. Whatever the explanation, there was a change. At Parent’s Teacher’s Evenings many teachers would just address my husband, then the following day ask the children intrusive questions about me or our family set up. Assumptions were made – that I did not work, that I was completely dependent, that my husband and I did not actually live together, that my children were Young Carers. I have to say this pissed us all off.
More recently, my daughter has started college and is doing a BTEC in Outdoor Education (climbing, cycling, kayaking). Last month she bruised her ribs and I emailed the college to say we thought it was best if she didn’t go kayaking that week. She is a gutsy young woman and was ready for action after a few days. I updated the college but they refused to take my word for it and asked for a Doctor’s note to prove that she was fit. They were perfectly happy to accept my word that she was below par – so why not that she was better? What kind of world is it where you have to prove you are well – but not sick?
Call me paranoid, but I couldn’t help wondering whether it was because the college doubted my ability as a parent. My daughter is frequently quizzed about me and whether she needs any support. I have come to the conclusion that this is because we, as a ‘disabled family’ don’t fit the stereotypical perception of disability. Seventy-five per cent of the population see disabled people as needing to be cared for at some time and nearly four out of ten people see disabled people as less productive than non-disabled people. The fact that my daughter is a highly motivated, independent and capable individual and that she strongly resists being pigeon-holed as a young carer is possibly unsettling to them.
Having said that, perhaps they would be rather perturbed if they knew she was using me to avoid getting her mobile phone confiscated…………!