Downright Joy

Discovering joy in unexpected places – a journey into Down's syndrome, Dyspraxia & Autism


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Tango

I read a remarkable story recently that a friend shared with me, about a group of dancers in Buenos Aires who were learning to dance the tango. Nothing unusual there; the tango being synonymous with Argentina of course. These dancers, however, took far longer than most to learn such an exotic and complicated dance; up to ten years as opposed to a more usual single year. These dancers had Down’s syndrome.  A remarkable story of determination, patience and perseverance that led some of those dancers (or artists as their instructor rightly prefers to call them) performing to audiences across Argentina and literally moving them to tears.

Yet it was not their achievements that stood out for me, remarkable though they were. No. It seems there was another reason why it took so much longer for the group to learn the intricacies of the dance compared to most. A reason that had nothing to do with any physical limitation or impairment.

Simply, whenever the music stopped the dancers would seize the opportunity to move around each other, chatting, hugging and generally socialising with one another. So much so their instructors had quite a job refocusing them on the task in hand!

And that got me thinking.

How wonderful. How utterly refreshing and uplifting.

A group of people who love to communicate. With each other.

Learning the dance was important, very much so. But the friendships, the connections that were there to be made more so I imagine.

It is said that people with Down’s syndrome have difficulty communicating. Their speech maybe impaired or delayed or even non-existent perhaps.

Parents, educators, medical professionals all agree that Speech and Language provision is vital for a person with Down’s syndrome. And of course, it is. I don’t deny that for a moment.

And yet.

The more people I meet with Down’s syndrome, the more I am convinced that they are better communicators than the rest of us put together. They are not often constrained by convention or etiquette or old fashioned British stiff upper lip. They rarely look at the clock and feel pressured by time. They are free to be themselves. So they are.

I just don’t have the time is a phrase you will rarely hear from a person with Down’s syndrome. Yet it’s a phrase that many of us can be heard saying on a daily basis.

I need some ‘me time’ is another; in a world where we fight to carve out time for relaxation. So many of us under stress to breaking point.

Is it ‘me time’ that we really need? Is it more time even? Or is it that we no longer make time for one another.

Perhaps we would do well to look at the lives of the very people society has so often shunned; people with Down’s syndrome. To look at people deemed to have communication difficulties and learn from them. Allow them to teach us, not the other way round. Allow them to show us how to come together in the midst of what we strive for and listen to each other, talk with each other, make time for each other.  Show us how to truly communicate with each other through whatever means we have.

However long it takes.

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Truth be told…

Words people said when my first baby was born:

Congratulations!

She’s beautiful

She’s got your eyes

So cute

Adorable

Aaaahhhh

So happy for you

So many wonderful adventures ahead of you

Welcome to the world little one

So many words, so many cliches. So many ways to express joy. 

Sshhh! Not too loud, you’ll wake the baby!

Precisely what I needed to hear, truth be told.

Just what the doctor ordered.

 

Words people said when my second baby was born:

I’m so sorry

 

So few words. Eyes averted. Hushed conversations. So many ways to express sorrow. Shhh! Careful what you say, you might upset the mother. 

Just what the doctor ordered.

But his prescription is long since out of date.

No one said congratulations when I had a baby with Down’s syndrome. 

I blame no one; I carried my own prejudices, I reflected the mood around me, to an extent I permitted it.

Yet ‘Congratulations, she is beautiful’ was precisely what I needed to hear.

 

So to any mother who today cradles a new born baby in their arms, or sits anxiously next to their incubator in a NICU; a baby that has been born with an extra chromosome…..I pray someone will hold your hand, stare with wonder into the eyes of your precious child and tell you the truth of it:

Congratulations! Your baby is beautiful! Welcome to the world little one.

Today, on World Down Syndrome Day,  I will celebrate every single glorious life, born and unborn, with an extra chromosome.

Each one profoundly beautiful.

Truth be told.


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Poetry in Motion

Butterfly poem

I’ve discovered a love for poetry in recent years. A passion awakened by hearing the late, extraordinary Mary Oliver read her poem Wild Geese’. An experience that had a profound effect on me at the time. Now, her words, hand painted, hang from my living room wall. Words that made me gasp and caused my heart to sing. Words that still do. The power of the spoken word, especially spoken by the one who crafted it,  is immense.

I’ve always imagined sharing these treasures with my children. And I’ve started to, with my eldest. I shared another poem, by the same author I worried’, with her recently. Her anxious face lit up as I read. Someone else knew how she felt. It gave her confidence. It affirmed her. She was not alone. She loves words too and is beginning to discover the sheer joy of poetry. Of words used well.

My youngest child, who has Down’s syndrome, is largely non verbal. She has very few, if any words. She may not yet have the words to say to us but our words matter hugely to her. And poetry is, it seems, a powerful form of expression for her too. The spoken word. Only the other day, I found her looking at the Ipad over her sister’s shoulder, as they watched Michael Rosen perform a poem he had written. She could not repeat a single word but was utterly captivated by his expression, his story telling and his passion for the subject – Chocolate Cake. He brought words to life and enabled her to share in his delight. Unlocking a subject she knew little about in a glorious way. There’s nothing quite like the joy of hearing a non verbal child laughing like a drain!

Words, or more importantly, how we use them have the power to unlock or close down.  As we approach another World Down Syndrome Day I see many people online spreading a message through their words and pictures of what life is really like to live with Down’s syndrome. Telling a story of hope, fulfillment and community. They do so for good reason.

All too often, the words offered to pregnant women and their partners when the subject of screening for Down’s syndrome comes up, are words that close down. Words that shut out possibilities. Words that paint a bleak picture. Words that may offer sympathy but that do not offer hope. There is no power in pity.

It’s time this changed. We know the reality. You see we have a passion for the subject. And we can tell these parents a different story. We can use words that can unlock their dreams and their hopes and their plans again. We have the words that can dispel the myths, whilst being able to acknowledge their fears; we were in their shoes once too. We have the words to give them confidence. The words to affirm them as parents who will be able to love and cherish their child regardless of an extra chromosome. We have the words to show them that their child is not going to be defined by a list of medical issues or learning disabilities. We can bring words to life. Real life. Their lives.

We want these parents to be given the opportunity to talk with or learn from families who are living lives that include Down’s syndrome. Living lives not of medical reference but of poetry that reflect the highs and the lows of bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome. We want to be able to unlock a subject they may know little about and invite them to discover for themselves the joy that is to be found in the life of a person with Down’s syndrome.

Poetry in motion. Lives well lived. 

Sadly, here in the U.K. there are no second chances for the 90 percent of babies who are detected as having Down’s syndrome in the womb. Their prospect of life is brought to an end. Discriminated against before they even draw breath.

We need to get this right. Words need to change and the voices of those who know must be heard – especially at that most critical time of screening and diagnosis in pregnancy.

Mary Oliver is famous for many words, but perhaps, most poignantly, she asked the question,

“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

It’s not the only question that deserves a careful answer.

 

For more information on Down’s syndrome from people who really know please check out these great resources:

Positive About Down Syndrome

Down’s Syndrome Research Foundation

Wouldn’t Change a Thing

Down’s Syndrome Association

Lose the Label

 


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Epiphany

I am a treasure seeker.

I love to be surrounded by beautiful things. Not necessarily expensive things – though I like them too. Just beautiful things. Recent treasures I’ve acquired are hanging in my redecorated living room; a picture of a woman gazing out of a window, a bird cage on the table behind her. Anything with a bird cage in it is beautiful to me, there’s something deeply enchanting about them. Then there’s my framed Frida Kahlo staring strikingly out from the chimney breast. These are my latest beautiful things.

My children love treasure seeking too. Over the years my eldest has kept an assortment of valued bits and pieces she has found or been given. A diverse and eclectic mix of fascinations. Conkers happily collected on the way home from school one day, actual fairy dust in a tiny bottle, confetti from a family wedding, bits of paper from friends with “bff” scrawled on them in childish form, usually under a hand drawn princess or something fluffy and adorable.

I remember the time, as a toddler, she literally held onto one particular treasure for days. Ignoring the vast array of toys she had successfully acquired my daughter chose, as her most favoured possession, an empty margarine tub. She carried the margarine tub with her wherever she went and at all times. Her limited language skills at that point meant I never found out why the tub found such favour in her eyes. Its worth was not apparent to me, to begin with, but her love for it was. The margarine tub became important to us all.

Her younger sister also finds treasures of her own. A discarded ribbon from an unwrapped gift will please her often more than the gift itself. A chiffon scarf that can be floated in the air will delight her if she discovers one lying around. And as for autumn leaves cascading down around her on a windy day; well that’s her idea of heaven. Heart singing moments for her and for those who care for her.

Treasure for the soul. Like balm.

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also….a biblical truth which, whether you have a faith or not is hard to deny.

Most recently, my eldest acquired a new and precious treasure which she now keeps in a glass jar.  A fragment of Myrrh, another kind of balm, given to her as an Epiphany reminder by a man who has spent his life treasure hunting in the Middle East. Canon Andrew White, often referred to as the Vicar of Baghdad; a man who continually seeks out the good in those often vehemently opposed to each other, to bring reconciliation and facilitate peace where only conflict exists. A man who knows where real treasure is to be found. Found among people the world often dismisses, often fears, and often shuns.

My wealth has increased beyond measure since my daughter was born with an extra chromosome seven years ago. My Epiphany.

Hazel has Down’s syndrome. A condition, a group of people, so easily disregarded, yet who, before they are even born, are sought out more aggressively than ever through modern screening methods. Feared and shunned by a society that cannot see the treasure that is within.

Society…they are the ones whose pockets are empty. They have not found this treasure.

My pockets are full and so is my heart.

hazel with grass

#dontscreenusout


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The Gift

My Gift did not come wrapped in shiny paper, nor tied with a velvet bow.

My Gift was unexpected, it caught me completely off guard.

I struggled to see that this Gift was for me;

Gifts are not meant to be hard.

 

My Gift came with a label or two; one said “extra chromosome”,

The other read “handle with care”.

The second; I tore off and tied to my wrist.

The first, I hid, too afraid others would stare.

 

All around me other Gifts were being delivered,

Amongst fanfares, banners, balloons and flowers.

My Gift came amid hushed tones and frowns, with questions, fears and tears.

Concerns that had not crossed anyone’s mind at earlier baby showers.

 

How could I look after this Gift? There must be a mistake.

Surely this Gift was not intended for me; it was never in the plan.

And yet, in my Gift I saw a reflection of me so clearly staring back;

Azure blue almond shaped eyes, oh those beautiful almond shaped eyes!

 

My Gift. My Gift is, without question,

The best present I’ve ever been given.

Granted, it took me a while to appreciate; I wish I’d realised before.

My Gift has a beauty beyond understanding, my Gift is easy to adore.

 

My Gift keeps on giving and giving.

Occasionally it might be in sorrow; far more likely I find, it’s in joy!

My Gift is priceless, its worth cannot be measured.

If your Gift is labelled the same as mine, it’s a Gift you will learn to treasure.

Hazel Morley (Neonatal Intensive Care, Bristol) 300911 016

For more real life experiences from families of people with Down’s syndrome check out

www.positiveaboutdownsyndrome.co.uk

Find out more about Down’s syndrome from

Down’s Syndrome Research Foundation UK

 


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This Enabled Life

Pony

If you’d told thirty something me that, in ten years’ time, I would be immersed in the language and experience of the disabled (from a carer’s perspective), I would have been horrified. Certainly fearful. The language surrounding disability so often negative, conjured up outdated and prejudiced ideas in my mind as to what it really meant to be disabled. ‘Stick man’ in wheelchair symbols segregating an entire group of people, robbing them, to some extent, of their individuality.

The disabled. It was a word I was distant from.

Ten years on and, for me, the word has changed from something to fear into someone to love.

Two someones actually.

Both my children find themselves labelled, to a degree, with this word. Down’s syndrome and, more recently, Dyspraxia have propelled them and me into a world of disability.

One corner of this world is Riding for the Disabled. An iconic name. RDA. Falls easily off the tongue. And though I wouldn’t want to change the name, in some ways, it’s a misnomer. Let me tell you why. Hint…it’s magic!

You see, the moment a person steps inside an RDA arena, or is wheeled inside, they actually cease to be disabled. Yes really, they do. Honestly. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

Time and again their disability, whether it’s an obvious one or a hidden one, appears to disappear! Like magic. At least, that’s what’s happened to both my children whenever they’ve gone there.

Feet that could not walk given an opportunity to run on borrowed legs, four not two. Instead of staring up from the confines of a wheelchair, eye contact tricky when level only with an elbow; they now look down from a great height and are masters of all they survey.

Arms and hands that struggle with the simplest of everyday tasks take hold of the reins and quickly learn to control the gentlest of giants.

Voices that are mostly silent now dare to be heard. A whisper or a shout, for the first time perhaps. Sensing their non-verbal rider has an untold story to tell, the pony lends a listening ear, without comment or expectation, without judgement or prejudice.

Self-esteem, buried deep by exclusion or failure, emerges into warm sunshine. Bursting out in a smile that wasn’t there before. High fives and fist pumps were made for moments like these.

No longer disabled but enabled.

Enabled to do something physical, something challenging, something motivating, something rewarding. For some, it’s life changing.

Riding for the Enabled.

I know it’s never going to be a strapline, nor does it need to be. The real magic has nothing to do with the name, or even the ponies, precious and vital as they are. It’s the people. The volunteers. The enablers. Those individuals who sacrifice time and money to enable others. They are the ones who make the magic happen. Without them, each and every one of them, the disabled, would stay as they are. RDA – in our case Cotswold RDA, has a fantastic team of enablers. They deserve to be recognised far and wide for their selfless work. Work that changes lives, quite literally.

In the last 10 years I have come to know lots of enablers. People who go out of their way to enable our children, our family. Some are professionals. A Paediatrician who has given us unequivocal support. An Occupational Therapist who has pulled out all the stops to bring about positive change. A SENDCO who consistently validates our concerns and works with us to help our child. Teachers & TAs who go the extra mile to create the very best learning experiences for both our children. Nurses who have given us respite and support. GPs and their staff who make difficult times easier to bear. Charities and therapeutic services, speech & language therapists, physiotherapists, music therapists. People who work hard to enable others. This list is endless.

This is not to sugar coat living with disability. There are many tough times. Next to my laptop is a letter I received this week from our Paediatrician, summarising 18 months of assessments, hospital visits and other appointments. It’s a letter that those who have been on the road to a diagnosis will be familiar with. One that lists, in its heading, far more issues for our eldest child than we had perhaps realised. But the sharp in-take of breath that is needed on first reading a letter like this has been quickly replaced with relief and, most importantly, hope. Why? Because of the enablers we will now meet as a result. People who will help our daughter to succeed not fail.

Sometimes we look for them and can’t find them, this is true. Sometimes they are there but we are prevented from meeting them due to tightly held budgets or politics and red tape. Sometimes the fight to meet them is extremely frustrating, overwhelming.

But they are there.

And so we go into this post-diagnosis stage of our lives looking forward to meeting more enablers.

People who make a disabled life an enabled one.

M & H at RDA

Find out more about the amazing work done by Cotswold RDA

 


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Abracadabra

 

Magic photo (2)

Abracadabra

This afternoon, my 9 year old daughter rediscovered her Magic Set, a gift for her birthday some years ago. A happy hour or so followed this discovery as she relearned and performed some old tricks. Tricks made trickier by her dyspraxic brain, we none the less cheered and applauded her with “wow” and “amazing” and “how did you do that?” Ignoring a dropped card here and there or the not so slight of hand that kept revealing its secrets, we allowed ourselves to be thoroughly entertained by her enthusiasm and joy.

Magic.

We smiled as we recalled her much younger self with the same magic wand. Sent to her room for some misdemeanour or other, she slammed the door, waving her wand as she did so, shouting those magic words “abracadabra, make everything MY WAY!” Her foot stamping in time with the last two words.

In a year when she has discovered that Santa isn’t real and the tooth fairy is not to be trusted, you’d be forgiven for thinking that our house is now devoid of magic.

In the words of CS Lewis, there is a magic deeper still…..

It has nothing to do with fairies or elves, magicians or illusionists.

Before I was a mum I would imagine magical moments like this: happy parents swinging their toddler on the count of three as they walked along a path to a park. A familiar scene, but one that, in reality, never happened. Neither of our children could walk when they were toddlers. The shout it from the roof tops moment when my first born took her first steps as a 3 year old was soon eclipsed by another. The deeply personal moment she stood up at home, later that day, and whispered proudly to herself “I can walk”.

Magic. Deep Magic.

The magic happens when we least expect it. Like it did yesterday.

Yesterday, Hazel walked hand in hand with us, her parents, very slowly along a path for the first time in her life.

Nothing remarkable or magical to the untrained eye. To the non believer, there is nothing to see.

Hazel is my almost 7 year old daughter who has Down’s syndrome and cannot walk by herself. Hazel is wheelchair dependent.

Deeper magic.

And, just a few days earlier, this same magic had appeared at bath-time. Her favourite toy that blows bubbles and plays a tune had stopped working. The bubbles had run out. A regular occurrence. Usually Hazel would simply turn away and look for something else to play with. Not this time.

Magic was in the air.

She turned and looked up at me. Directly. Urgently.

Mum you need to fix this for me she said.

Except she didn’t say a word. She can’t. She does not yet have the words to tell me when something is wrong or when she wants something.

But she looked at me. For the first time in 7 years she told me what she wanted by looking at me.

Magic. Deeper magic.

I’ve been taking a break from blogging and some social media recently. Not because I don’t like it, the opposite is true. But having my head in a screen as often as I was meant I was in danger of missing the magic. I want to be fully present in these moments. They are a long time in coming and all the more magical because of that.

When a child reaches a milestone it’s always a magical moment.

When a child or person with a disability reaches a milestone, or does something they have never done before it is beyond magic.

Deeper magic.

 

“There is a magic deeper still that the witch did not know”

CS Lewis, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.