I’ve been spending a few days in a relaxing and isolated place, booked pre-pandemic, overlooking some fishing lakes. As I write I can see three, sometimes four, herons gliding gracefully over head. Such extraordinary looking creatures in flight. And, once on the bank they adopt sentry status, scanning the lake for fish whilst giving a masterclass in superiority. Until they call out that is. A sound akin to finger nails on a blackboard. Beautifully harsh. Something about it grates and leaves the listener uncomfortable. It jars. Profound beauty and harshness held in tension. The herons take flight and with them my breath.
My daughter’s life, her whole existence, is profoundly beautiful yet also harsh. We live, she lives, with the tension of these truths. And, as a consequence, she takes my breath away daily.
Many, even sometimes those in our own community, see the disabled life as something to be avoided. I know I did when Hazel was born. I’ve written about it before..how I hoped she would have some kind of Down syndrome light version of the condition. Not too bad, manageable, successful even. There are no limits on people with Down syndrome is how the new mantra goes. They can learn to read and write, go to school, get a job, play sports, live independently, be models, actors, politicians, get married and so on.. All true and all good, I don’t deny it for a moment. They often do.
So don’t worry, we tell new and expectant parents; It’s only an extra chromosome. Keep calm.
It is not only an extra chromosome.
It is a profoundly beautiful life.
Not because of any achievement or indeed any similarity to a life without an extra chromosome. It’s beauty is in its existence. It should not need to be championed or given a reason to be accepted. It is already beautiful, profoundly so.
My attempts, early on in Hazel’s life, to disguise her ‘disabledness’ (which probably isn’t even a word) thankfully and spectacularly failed. Hazel comes with an array of visual reminders of it; a feeding tube for starters, then there’s the equipment, hoists, stairlift, adaptive chair, a hospital style bed, not forgetting bifocals for very poor sight and also soon to have hearing aids. Hazel is non verbal and makes all kinds of noises that loudly announce her presence to the world wherever we are. There is no disguising Hazel! Oh, and she laughs. A lot.
Hazel has also been learning to walk. At almost 9 years old she can now walk around the house or familiar places with gusto. Stomping and lurching as she explores familiar spaces now revealing previously hidden vistas and treasures. Her achievements are tremendous and we celebrate them daily.
And yet. Remove her plastic clunky orthotic devices and her world shrinks once more, her weakened frail ankles collapse and she falls to her knees in a single step. Those unattractive plastic devices are, to me, of profound beauty and huge importance. They are enabling her to discover new and exciting things for herself, though her wheelchair is never far away.
Wheelchairs. Feared and avoided by many parents of children with Down’s syndrome, particularly in the early years. I know this..I was one of them. So much so I opted for a buggy that looked somehow more er, um… acceptable. I thought that having a wheelchair made her look more disabled. Well. Yes I suppose it does. But that is only a negative if you also hold the view that being disabled is something to be shunned. It depends on your assumptions about disability. My assumptions were so very wrong. I mean, it’s fine if you don’t need one, but it’s also fine if you do.
Is Hazel worse off because she uses a wheelchair? Is she worse off because she wears orthotics? Or is she discovering joy every single day in new places because she has them? Is she to be pitied because she is shortly to be wearing hearing aids or will people share her joy as the sounds we take for granted enter her world for the first time? And if they don’t work, if she doesn’t take to them for whatever reason, will that be seen as failure or will she be allowed to live her life in the way she feels most comfortable?
To me, these so called disabilities just make me more determined to travel further into her world and see it though her eyes and ears. I desire to make her pathways less fraught with obstacles and trip hazards. Where those obstacles cannot be removed I want to help her find another way over the terrain. This is what Hazel needs from our community, from those who care for her, from medical professionals, teachers, and especially Governments. Policies, medical research, social and educational opportunities that will enable her to really live her best life; whatever support systems she needs or we may need as parents to help her. What she does not need are assumptions that her life is not worth living. That she is failing or in need of pity because she looks more disabled than another. That her life is less. Neither do we need assumptions that, as her parents, we can do it all, that we don’t need a helping hand from time to time. Caring is a very precious and undervalued thing indeed. Assumptions can be devastating, checking them and challenging them can bring change to entire communities.
A friend of mine often says to diminish one of us is to diminish us all.
Just this week I was reminded of the heart-rending story of a disabled community in Japan- the Sagimahara Institute – where, on 26 July 2016, a man attacked and killed nineteen residents and injured twenty six; thirteen of them severely. His intention was to ‘obliterate’ hundreds of people who he deemed unworthy of life. A drain on their carers. He believed he was doing society a service. The tragedy became Japan’s worst mass killing since the Second World War.
An extraordinary video called Sachiko’s Story Nineteen Paper Cranes tells the story so movingly and asks the question,
“Why does the world assume that a disabled life is not profoundly beautiful?”
I will not spoil the story – do watch, you’ll be glad you did – but what followed in response to the killings was truly beautiful.
Landscapes can be harsh environments to live in and journey through but at the same time profoundly beautiful. We need to adapt to their contours, their peaks and their valleys. Not circumvent them or leave them off the map. Or, worse still, destroy them altogether.
This is my daughter’s disabled life and it will always be profoundly beautiful.