Downright Joy

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


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Songbird

bird in cage

I know why the caged bird sings is a book that profoundly moved me when I first read it years ago. The author, Maya Angelou, vividly recounts her childhood against a backdrop of racism, discrimination and poverty.  A book filled with moments of joyous discovery weaved into and through a history lesson on brutality.

I’ve been re-reading it again recently.  I say recently, but it’s taken me over a year and I still haven’t finished. Not for want of trying – I’ve quite an impressive stack of literature next to my bed; but for the fact that the moment my head hits the pillow I’m gone.

As a parent and carer to two children with a range of both complex medical needs and disabilities between them; Autism, Down’s syndrome, Dyspraxia (let’s just say the list of conditions at the top of our hospital letters takes up most of the page) – reading for leisure, in fact most kinds of leisure tend to take a back seat. Sleep is more of a priority as it can often be in short supply. Tube feeding my child every night tends to cut across most socially acceptable leisure pursuits at the best of times.

(She’s worth it of course, of that I have no doubts. They both are).

Therefore, a trip to the hairdressers every eight or nine weeks or so is something I guard jealously. A self-indulgent hour and a half that serves also as an opportunity to read.

Maya Angelou comes with me. She sits beside me in the salon. She laughs in the mirror and tells me her tales. That laugh. From her belly. Gets me every time.

My hairdresser is too polite to mention that I am still reading the same book as last time, and the time before and the time before that.

Last week, chapter twenty five was waiting for me. Three quarters of the way through. I looked forward to Friday and my appointment.

Chapter twenty five is still waiting for me. Like everyone else in the nation, no, the world pretty much….a haircut now has to wait. Appointment cancelled. Salon closed. It’s on hold.

Everything is on hold. In some way and to some degree.

And, for families like mine, it’s vital support systems that have been put on hold. Systems we have fought for, prayed for, cried for, pleaded for. Systems we have celebrated gaining access to: education, healthcare, social activities for the disabled, respite for carers and much more. Support systems gifted to us by the kindness and dedication of numerous volunteers. Families, like mine, suddenly find themselves without these vital networks. More than that, they watch in disbelief as people panic buy medical supplies such as gloves and clinical wipes – items we rely on for daily life, regardless of a pandemic, are now in short supply. Respite centres close, lifelines are cut off. And though the world moves online; excellent programmes and meetings are created and made available to those who now have lots of time on their hands, these are much less accessible to families like mine. These families wonder how on earth they will cope. I wonder that too.

Then I remember Maya.

I remember thankfulness. I remember beauty in hard places. I remember to live one day at a time. I remember to not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will have enough worries of its own.

I look at my daughter who has Down’s syndrome. She is non-verbal,  yet she tells me all I need to hear, loud and clear.

She tells me that there is joy to be found in the waiting, in the confusion and in the uncertainty. In the now.

She loves her life. Her school, the farm she visits, the lambs she strokes, her home, the park, the shops, her beads and ribbons, Granny & Grandad’s house….

She has no idea why she cannot go much beyond her back garden at the moment. She is confused. Sometimes she is upset. Yet she searches out joy and brings it to me in some small, gigantic way every day. Today it was in a belly laugh. A bit like Maya’s. From deep within yet at what? I have no idea.

Hardship is, well, hard, yet it does not have to be devoid of joy.

Our lives are not really on hold, even on the hardest of days when there is no respite to be found. Even then, I have found there are always reasons to be thankful, always opportunities for joy.  My daughter with Down’s syndrome eloquently tells me so.

And I remember Maya. And I think I might know, a least a little bit, why the caged bird sings.

 

And Still I Rise – Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

 

 


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Show me your face

Hiding face

Show me your face and I will show you mine.

Confession time.

When my daughter was born with Down’s syndrome, I am ashamed to admit that, at first, I wanted to hide her away. I tried to dress her in a way that people wouldn’t notice certain features pertaining to her condition; her slightly thickened neck for instance. A well placed chunky knit cardigan dealt with that! As we struggled to come to terms with her diagnosis, though we loved her with every fibre of our beings, my husband and I spoke privately of a hope that she would have some sort of ‘Down’s syndrome light’ variety. A not too noticeable version of the condition that would be acceptable to others and also, it has to be said, to us. As for thinking about other people, especially older people with the condition, this was not something we wanted to contemplate. In our eyes, they were to be avoided. Feared even. In fact, looking at anyone else with the condition was hard to do back then, though I did try to notice the ones I deemed acceptable – just about. All in the hope that my child would be like them.  Not too bad.

Our eyes were focused, not on our child, but on our prejudice.

Eight years later and laser surgery has removed that prejudice and cleared our vision. Thankfully. Or was it heart surgery? Either way it is gone.

This week, a film made about a man with Down’s syndrome, Jamie and his brother and family, appeared on social media. Radio 4 even did a feature on it. You can watch it here if you like. There was quite a reaction to it in our community. Some, like me, loved it, others including people whose lives I hugely respect, didn’t. Among other important things, they worried about how Down’s syndrome was portrayed in the film, especially to new parents or parents to be who might see it. It was absolutely not their experience and it appeared outdated, a backward step even. Some found it sad.

As the dust has settled I can see why they felt like that. I just don’t agree.

A wise person said to me that the film was like a mirror. Reflecting back so much of our own fears and, I think, our hopes too. Well I’ve been reflecting in that mirror since I saw the film and my wise friend is correct.

I’ve spent the last seven or eight years telling people, sometimes through my blog but in other ways too, that there’s nothing to be afraid of in having a child with Down’s syndrome. I’ve told them about all the things children and adults with Down’s syndrome can do now, achieve, be, aspire to; compared to in the past. And this remains all true and valid. I love how our community celebrates this change in all kinds of ways as more and more is understood about the capabilities and learning potential of people with Down’s syndrome. I hope we never stop making this known where it needs to be known. But it is not the whole picture.

So here’s my next confession…

Through my writing, I’ve told people these things, which I wholeheartedly believe and support, against the backdrop of knowing that my daughter is not like most children with Down’s syndrome. At least not most of the ones I know. She is more like Jamie. She sits how Jamie sits. She sounds how Jamie sounds. She has fewer words than Jamie has, yet she was not born forty years ago in some dark, uneducated era where early intervention for people with Down’s syndrome was largely unheard of.

No. She was born just over eight years ago in 2011.  She’s had far more support and intervention in her young life than Jamie would have had in his – at least outside of his loving family – oh I loved them in the film too! Their faults, their failings but mostly their love for Jamie and each other shone through.

Could we be doing more to help her development? Always. Is she still failed by healthcare systems and Government policies towards disabled people? Yes, frequently so. But that’s not the point here.

What’s true is that she is more like Jamie than most other children I have so far met who have Down’s syndrome. That is not to diminish them or their families in any way; I hope I no-one feels that’s the case for it’s not my intention. It is simply that our experience is one that is far closer to that of Jamie’s family. His face, his life, his behaviours and reactions we recognise in our own daughter. His family in ours. Even in the words they used to speak to or about him. And our lives are not some tragedy to be hidden from view.

Unconventional? Certainly. Challenging? Definitely. More so than I have ever admitted in my writing and that, with hindsight, has perhaps not always been helpful.  Even as I write, we should be elsewhere, joining in with an event that most people have no problem attending, even most of those with a child with Down’s syndrome. We are not most people.

Neither are we always looking for lots of inclusive activities to take her to. Though it’s sad there are not more. Because more often than not, even the inclusive ones are unsuitable for her. That will only change when her ‘face’ becomes an acceptable ‘face’, a face that is accepted as it is now, with all its funny ways and behaviours, noises and responses. It will change when her way of communication, as it is now, not as it might or could be, is accepted and welcomed, if not always understood, by everyone, not just a few people. Some call it her level of communication but that, to me implies critique. What I want most is for her always to be accepted, welcomed and wanted as she is. Not because of any intervention or achievement that might somehow make her a more positive advert for her community, however helpful it may be to her or anyone else. I think most parents want that too.

Hazel brings something different to our family. I saw it in Jamie’s family too. She brings people together, to surround her and each other. She brings a kind of healing, she brings mystery. She brings dependency.

Ah, but we need our children to grow up to be independent don’t we? That is, after all, one of the aims of most parents – to help their child grow up to be fully independent and make their own way in the world.

And yet Hazel has taught me to prefer the idea of a society where we grow more dependent on each other, not less.

The reality is far from that though and I think it’s one of the reasons people reacted with concern to the film. I get that.

I don’t think it’s wrong to hope and strive for a society where dependence on each other is highly valued. If our society was like that, then many of the fears that keep parents of children/adults with Down’s syndrome or other disabilities awake at night would not exist. We could be confident that our loved ones are going to be valued, cared and wanted for who they are, regardless of their level of dependency and regardless of whether we are here to care for them or not.

A mirror should always reflect the truth and perhaps I am guilty of distorting the image of our lives in order to gain the acceptance of parents who might be considering terminating the life of their unborn baby, following a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome. Yet the truth still is that all people with Down’s syndrome, whether they are like Hazel, Jamie or whoever, have beautiful faces and can live beautiful lives, whatever their challenges. Their stories, our stories, all deserve to be told and it is a privilege to be part of a community that is dependent on each other.

Let’s not hide any one of us away.

Adam Pearson A British Actor and Campaigner and who is also diagnosed with a genetic condition said recently “The way to eliminate any kind of misconception or prejudice is to increase the exposure”

Show me your face and I will show you mine.

“Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.” Shirley Maclaine

H in Mirror WM

 


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Cheers

Cheers TV titles Screen shot

I have a nostalgia for certain 80s & 90s American TV sitcoms. The moment I hear the opening few bars to, say, Cheers, for example, my mood lifts, however I’m feeling at the time.

Set in a bar in a Boston, the regulars and the workers all share their lives and experiences with each other. The highs, the lows; the trials, the triumphs. If, like me, you stayed the course of 11 years and 275 episodes, you got to know and love each character. The bar, the decor, the stories, the romances, the heartaches, the people. That theme song:

Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name

And they’re always glad you came…..

I felt sad the day Cheers ended. Of course it had to end. Everyone was getting older for one thing. Nothing stays the same. Life moves on. Still, I was sad.

This week, my daughter, Hazel, moves on from the only school she’s ever known. She’s been there nearly eight years; since she was two months old.

It’s her school but to us it’s so much more. It’s a place that has not only nurtured, cared for and educated her but us too. A family centred school.

It’s the place that scooped us up and surrounded us with support in those early, traumatic days when she was a poorly baby. The days when we struggled to come to terms with her diagnosis of Down’s syndrome and of what we mistakenly thought that meant for her future, for our future. I was very focused on that diagnosis back then. Unhealthily so. Hazel’s school is the place where I learnt that her diagnosis was not nearly as important as I first thought. It’s the place that helped us find, adjust to and embrace a new ‘normal’ in the midst of all the uncertainty and upheaval that we were facing. It’s the place where I found hope for a new kind of future; a joy-filled one.

A practitioner from the school came to visit us when Hazel was around nine weeks old – barely just home from the hospital NICU – to invite us to join their baby group. At that point I was still in a state of shock and unprepared to be thrust into a world of disability and special needs, let alone special schools. I remember asking her about the other children in the group. What were their diagnoses? What did they have? What was wrong with them? And though I may not have used those exact words, it’s what I was thinking. I’m so ashamed of those questions now.

Her upbeat answer surprised me: Oh, I don’t know!

Actually, I’m sure she did know, but the children’s conditions were not foremost in her mind. Their names, however, were. She knew them by their names. Harry, Ruby, Jacob, Louise*……children. Each with a name, not a diagnosis.

This school is a place where everybody knows your name.

And they’re always glad you came.

Mainstream education, or indeed society,  has much to learn from a school like this. There should really be no need for a policy on ‘inclusion’ when your starting point is the child’s name and not their disability.

This school is a place that has grown so familiar to us. It is our safe place. Our refuge in the tougher times when we’ve needed a shoulder to cry on. Our happy place when there has been so much to celebrate. A place where many new friends have been made.

So many joy-filled days.

Treasured memories.

Hazel’s happy place.

And as we now must say goodbye to this beautiful, caring, extraordinary, award winning school, we are sad; though we know it is time for Hazel to move on.  We are filled with gratitude for Hazel’s teachers, therapists and support staff; past and present. Whenever I see the word excellence I think of them. People who continually go above and beyond their official duties and who are, without doubt, the reason my tube fed, disabled daughter can now walk a few steps or even eat some actual food. People who have crafted and shaped a hope-filled future for Hazel. People who care deeply about all the children in their school and who constantly look for ways to bring out their full potential.

I love how Stephen Kelly, writing about Cheers in the Guardian in 2018 puts it,

 “Cheers, after all, always knew how to recover from setbacks. It was sturdy, consistent, familiar – a place where everybody knows your name.”

Thank you to every single person at Hazel’s exceptionally special school.

We’re so very glad we came.

“Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.” 
― Jean Vanier, Becoming Human

*Names changed for privacy.