Why do we need special schools?

Why do we need special schools?

It’s a grey, cold morning in November. The sort that really ought to be a mandatory duvet day. It’s hard to get going and the thought of sticking a limb out from the warmth of bed into the cold air is far from inviting.

But Orange is up. Chatting to his toys in his room and ready to start his day.

In this house, we are lucky. Every day Orange goes off to school smiling. He can’t wait to go. Once the uniform is on and the porridge is eaten, he’s looking out the window for his taxi and giggling all the way down in his lift.

For Orange, school is a little different than it is for most children. Unable to talk, walk or hold a pencil, sitting in a conventional classroom would see him lost and isolated. Even with 1-2-1 support, the academic curriculum and bustle of a typical school day would leave him unable to learn, or to join in with the other children.

Beyond pre-school age, mainstream education just wasn’t an option, as much as we hoped it might be.

A school day for Orange doesn’t include grammar, dictation, times tables, French or computer programming like it does for his sister. But it does teach him to access his world, to use his body, to be creative, and to be confident and social, in the very best ways he can.

Instead of learning to read, he is read to. With raucous laughter, his unadulterated joy at a ‘That’s not my…’ book, Supertato or Oh No George shows us that while he may not be able to read the words on the page, the narrative of a story is far from lost on him.

Instead of phonics, he takes part in ‘communication group’, where the children follow Makaton signing or learn to press a button to make a choice between two simple objects.

Instead of running about in the playground, he splashes in the hydrotherapy pool, the only place where he has meaningful independent movement.

Instead of PE, he has rebound therapy, where he is hoisted onto a trampoline to bounce, to feel feedback from movement in his limbs so that he recognises they are there.

Instead of computer programming, he goes to the dark room and uses ‘eye gaze’ technology to learn about cause and effect.

Instead of sitting in a classroom chair, he uses specialist seating and a standing frame to ensure his joints stay healthy, despite his inability to weight bear.

Orange can only do these things because he is in the right special school, with specialist facilities and specialist teachers to make it possible.

They also make it possible for all the children to do normal things that wouldn’t be possible in a mainstream school.

Like school plays. Every child in the school has a part, even if they have to be wheeled onto the stage on a bed because they have extreme medical or physical needs.

Like music and art. Even the children that cannot use their hands independently are helped physically to make music, to paint and do craft.

Like having lunch. Orange goes to the school canteen for his lunch just like any other child. His school provides a specialist allergy free, mashed menu for him that he is spoon fed carefully by an assistant. Some of the children are tube fed, which the onsite nursing team take charge of.

Like school trips. All the children can take part, because there is specialist transport and enough specially trained assistants to take care of the children’s needs. Orange has enjoyed trips to the theatre, to a specialist music studio, and to a sports centre to take part in team sport.

And his personal care and medical needs are catered for in a way that would be impossible in a mainstream school.

Every room is fitted with ceiling track hoists so the children can be lifted.

Every classroom has changing facilities for the children who are unable to use the loo.

Every child has the support of the on-site nurses. For us, we know that he is safe and in experienced hands if he has a seizure at school.

Without a special school like this, Orange would not be able to go to school at all. Which is the increasing reality for growing numbers of children with SEND.

There are simply not enough special school places. And it’s a smoke and mirrors bunfight of assessments, legal letters and negotiations to secure one of the few that are available.

For Orange it took 18 months.

18 months to secure a place at the one school within a 60 mile radius that could cater for his needs.

During that time we were told by various people in the local authority that ‘there were no places at the school’, that ‘they don’t take Cornish children’, that ‘we would never get a place’, and that ‘it would be impossible’.

We were told we were setting out to achieve the impossible by the very people employed to help us.

Were it not for help from the special education charity IPSEA, encouragement and support from wisened parents who have trodden this path ahead of us, legal guidance from a specialist solicitor and sheer bloody minded determination we might never have got there.

The day we got the call to say Orange had a place at the school, the three of us – me, my husband and my mum – fell into each other in tears of sheer relief.

Few families come through the experience of securing a special school place or an Education, Health and Social Care Plan for their child unscathed. There is huge financial and emotional cost.

Many of them never get there. Figures from the BBC this week show there has been a 64% increase in families in England resorting to home education because they feel so badly let down by the system they are trying to do it alone.

That’s why the BBC is running a special feature all week on SEND.

You can follow the coverage on BBC Breakfast, Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live every morning this week to hear about how the system needs to change and what you can do to help, by lobbying your MP and your local authority for change.

Follow #BBCsend on Twitter to join the conversation.

 

 

 

When work and wellbeing didn’t mix

When work and wellbeing didn’t mix

This is the first time I have written anything for the blog since April. It was round about the Spring when I knew something definitely wasn’t right.

Since then, I’ve been right down to the bottom of the ocean and back up again. Not the exotic, pretty parts of the seabed, bursting with rainbow corals and shimmering shoals. Where I went, it was dark. Murky. Where you can’t see your hand in front of your face and you don’t know what’s coming up behind you next. But you know it’s a long way back up to the surface, if you can find it.

There was a time when I thought that negotiating the smoke and mirrors of the education and social care systems for Orange would call time on my sanity. This is the brutal truth for more SEND parents than I wished I knew. So far, for me, it hasn’t. But since I’ve had the weather eye of a hawk on that front, sharing the load with family and my band of SEND sisters, I missed the hurricane as it snuck up from the other side.

When Orange arrived, he changed my outlook on life, and work. I wanted to do something that mattered. Which isn’t always easy when you’ve built your career in public relations in the City and Soho. So getting a senior role at a NHS and social care provider finally felt like I could make a difference. A job where my personal values could come to life through my work. A career coach’s dream, right?

For the first year it felt amazing. I was good at this. Using my skills for something real and important. Engaging my brain in a way that became a wonderful distraction from dealing with the 5,674 ways the local authority was trying to make Orange’s home adaptations and school transport into a sticky quagmire.

When the storm clouds started to gather at work, I thought I could bat them away by listening to audiobooks about ‘how to be brilliant’ and blaring Tim Ferriss podcasts that would show me how to tackle any sort of work crisis that might come my way.

I thought that because I’ve had to tackle challenges so far out of the ordinary, like resuscitating my own child, that I could tolerate pretty much anything and come out of it unscathed.

But I couldn’t.

No amount of inspirational podcasts and books about creative brilliance and productivity could relieve me of the uncomfortable fact that being in my job was beginning to compromise my sanity.

A sorry but familiar tale of resource and people-power deficits that I thought I could overcome by just working myself harder. For longer.

A broken corporate culture that I thought I could overcome by imagining I was wearing a coat of armour at my desk, deflecting arrows as they flew.

The stuff of fantasy. But not the marshmallow kind.

None of this is news to anyone who has picked up a newspaper or switched on the tv in recent months. It’s health and social care. It’s the UK. There’s not enough money. Not enough people. And what happens then? People have a crap time at work and do a worse job.

I held on too long.

Why?

Because it matters to me that I work. That I have a career. That what I do makes a difference.

That as a mother of a disabled child I will cling on by my fingernails to the opportunity for financial independence and career development. Because I know others want that too.

I have campaigned about the rights of mothers of disabled children to have careers, too hard to just give it up. So walking out the door on an intolerable situation was out of the question.

In the end, my brain and body did it for me. Pushing too hard for too long eventually saw me unable to get out of bed bar a visit to the GP to find out why I felt like I was dying. Why I thought I was having heart attacks in the middle of the night. Why I couldn’t sleep. Why I spent two weeks on leave from work in the summer that I don’t remember a minute of.

It was a wake up call.

Months on and I have resigned from my job, with shiny new consultancy work waiting for me on the other side. I have started boxing again. Seen friends I haven’t seen in months. Taken up a new writing hobby as a theatre critic. And opened up this blog again to find a raft of messages from readers I didn’t know were reading but have given me a refreshed sense of why I write.

Because this matters. And I can make change happen on the outside. I don’t need to work inside the system to do it.

 

Undiagnosed: unexpected but not unusual

Undiagnosed: unexpected but not unusual

I’m often asked if I knew when I was pregnant that Orange would have disabilities. For many reasons that I have written about previously, I’m glad that I didn’t. His disabilities were completely unexpected.

When I started to realise that life might not be straightforward for Orange, I wanted to know why. Why was it that he couldn’t move his head, spluttered when he fed, slept all the time and did this odd stiff banana pose when we picked him up? Why didn’t he seek out my gaze like his older sister had? Why didn’t he smile? And what about that failed newborn hearing test?

When I googled, the answer I got was cerebral palsy.

I spent the first weeks of Orange’s life terrified that he had cerebral palsy and that no-one else had noticed.

Of course, over time, they did.

“I’m not sure about his muscle tone” said the GP at his 8 week newborn check. “Come back in four weeks, won’t you”, he said.

“Has he woken up yet?” said friends, half jovial at the fact my second baby slept so much he was more than making up for the pinned-eye waking torture of my first.

As the months rolled on, and Orange missed milestone after milestone, we were whipped into a system of genetic testing, brain scans and neurological assessments.

Nobody mentioned cerebral palsy. In fact, no-one mentioned any diagnosis at all.

At the time, I held on with hope that if a diagnosis could not be found, that meant Orange was fine after all. He would catch up with his milestones, it was just the stiff neck from birth causing his delays, that’s all.

Orange was almost one before anybody said to me that he would almost certainly have difficulties for life, that we wouldn’t know what they would be until he got bigger, and that we might never know the reasons why.

Until that point, I had no idea that ‘undiagnosed’ was even a possibility for a severely disabled child. And at the time, I also had no idea that there were others in the same nameless boat.

I had so many questions.

Would he walk? Would he talk? Would he need to go to a special school? What about epilepsy, I’ve read that’s a thing for lots of children with disabilities? How will I know if he’s having seizures? How long will he live?

Nobody could or would answer them.

I tried to answer them myself by reading every medical study and report available on the internet about rare genetic syndromes. But all that could be found there was fear. So I stopped.

I asked geneticists and neurologists about specific tests and syndromes. But all that could be found there was the result ‘normal’. Every medical test that Orange has ever had has recorded the result ‘normal’. So I have stopped that too.

There are no answers, except those that Orange is able to give us himself.

He is six now. He hasn’t walked. He hasn’t talked. He does go to a special school. And yes, he has epilepsy. And boy did we know when that started.

Without answers, for a long time we had hope that Orange would catch up. When he didn’t, we learned to replace that hope with a new one. That life could and would be fulfilling and wonderful anyway.

Orange has shown us that what an academic medical journal may have led us to believe would be a difficult and frightening life is anything but. They don’t tell you about the fun. The laughter. The sweet little habits. The kind hands. The bond you have with a child who needs you on a deeper level than most.

They also don’t tell you about the wonderful people you will meet when you have a child with disabilities. Kind and dedicated teachers who see your child’s personality and achievements and celebrate them with you. The respite carer and passenger assistant on school transport who become like extra grandmas.

The families you will meet, sitting alongside you in the boat without a name.

The friendships I have made with other families who also have undiagnosed children are what gets me through when there is no answer to a difficult question. Because while our children may all be different, often we are all floating about in the same unknown territory.

And there are thousands of us.

Every year, 6,000 children are born with an undiagnosed condition. SWAN UK is the only charity in the UK that provides support for families with an undiagnosed child.

It is through SWAN UK that I have made lifelong friendships. Together we celebrate our children, help each other out with ideas for equipment, home adaptions, how to handle meetings with medical and council staff, share frustrations, support each other through grief and loss, look out for each other’s mental health, laugh together, cry together.

But while our group is now at over 1,000 families, we know there are so many more who may need that support.

Today, it’s Undiagnosed Children’s Day, and we are asking people to help us find other families with undiagnosed children who may need support and friendship along this unexpected, but not unusual, path.

So if you know someone who might be in our shoes, put them in touch with SWAN UK.

Happy Undiagnosed Children’s Day!

Uncommon Parenting 101: Lessons I’ve Learned About Surviving and Thriving

Uncommon Parenting 101: Lessons I’ve Learned About Surviving and Thriving

 

There’s no doubt that raising a child with disabilities can change you. I’m no subscriber to the belief that ‘special children are given to special people’, nor that having a disabled child automatically adorns a person with a Pollyanna-esque gratefulness and wonder.

It would be fair to say that the experiences along this uncommon parenting pathway can shift your centre of gravity fundamentally. But learning to navigate this path, and find your way along it with a spring in your step, can take some practise and sometimes determination.

When Orange was tiny, I didn’t want to be on this path. So for about eighteen months, I still hoped that he would be fine. Without any firm diagnosis, and with plenty of developmental ‘catch up’ time in front of us, there was still room for a small chink of hope that we weren’t really on this path at all. That one day all my fears would be let go as unfounded.

The reality was that many of the things I was afraid of back then did indeed turn out to be on our path. In the first few years of Orange’s life, we rollercoastered head on into some of my biggest fears. Non-walking child – tick. Non-verbal child – tick. Special school required – tick. The big one – epilepsy, seizures that stop your child from breathing – tick. And I hadn’t even anticipated the things that would be most anxiety inducing; negotiating the education and social care systems to get him what he needs to have a normal life.

Even in my darkest moments, though, I never wanted to back myself into a corner through fear or anger. I was not going to be the person asking ‘why me?’, nor the one in denial, or embarrassment.

To me, the ultimate ‘failure’ and loss of control would be to have felt aggrieved at the unfairness of it all and let this overcome my world view. Even though I had no idea how I would do it, once I knew our lives would be different I always wanted to embrace it. To turn challenges into opportunities and to find happiness and fulfilment right where sadness or isolation could have easily set up camp.

So I had to adapt. To find creative ways to establish some sense of control. To feel a little bit normal in what felt like deeply unusual circumstances.

I’m still learning, of course. And I’ve also learned that our circumstances aren’t so unusual after all. Which also helps.

For those of you at the beginning of this path I won’t pretend it’s an easy one. But I will say this.

You can survive things you might have thought impossible.

You can thrive in a life you might have thought unpalatable.

And you are most definitely not on your own.

You are human, and that means you’re really good at adapting. It’s what we do. What I’m about to share here is just a few of the things I have learned along the way. It might not be for everyone but it’s what I would tell myself if I was doing this all again.

You can choose. It’s completely ok to admit this might not have been the life you wanted. It doesn’t make you a bad person. So you can let go of that guilt. But you can choose whether to hang on to the sadness that your lives, and your child’s life, might not fit the vision you had in mind.

Life is unpredictable and if it wasn’t this, there would almost certainly be some other challenge round the corner that would throw best laid plans off course. You can choose to embrace life’s unpredictabilities or to be blown about by them. That doesn’t mean denying that life will sometimes bring sadness, grief or regret, or that any of us might have more than our fill of bad luck, but that you don’t waste the good times wishing your life was different.

 

You do need help. I’m an introvert. I’m also fiercely independent. I don’t do asking for help or showing vulnerability very well at all. But there have been times when I couldn’t have coped with a situation without the help of others. Figuring out the statementing process and securing the right school place for Orange would have been impossible without the help of wiser, more experienced SEN parents. Jumping in an ambulance with a non-breathing child and not having a kind neighbour step in to care for his sister. Maintaining a career without the help and support of family and the right childcare and respite network.

I couldn’t manage any of these situations without help.

So don’t hold back in seeking out help. Online, in groups, at school, at work, or within your own family and friends. Find it and nurture it. You will find that you can give as much as support as you take and this will make you feel good and useful too.

Learn to recognise anxiety. I didn’t, until very recently. Last November in fact. So almost six years into this uncommon parenting life. Before then, I just stuffed it away by over-filling my days with an impossible number of tasks and washing it down with enormous boxes of Maltesers and Kettle Chip chasers. This seemed like a pretty successful strategy until I was close to burnout, my jeans no longer fit and I stopped wanting to leave the house.

So don’t do that.

Listen to yourself, find a healthy outlet for negative emotions and nurture gratitude. I thought it was deeply cheesy at the time, but one of my Christmas stocking fillers this year was the ‘Five Minute Journal’. I don’t exaggerate when I say it has been life changing.

Preserve and create energy. Because you will need it. I won’t lie. Lifting, carrying, changing and feeding a full-size child is physically demanding. Advocating for your child’s educational, housing and equipment needs with your local authority – who you won’t want in your life at all but you will find are a necessity – is mentally and emotionally exhausting. Surviving an emergency hospital admission, or waiting around in wards and hospital waiting rooms for medical appointments or diagnostic tests is anxiety inducing.

These things can’t be avoided. And they might be more frequent that you would like.

In the first few years I treated these moments as being in ‘crisis mode’, that I could get on track with healthy eating, exercise and better sleep habits when those times passed so it was perfectly ok to stop at McDonalds on the way home or to stay up late watching Netflix and drinking wine like some kind of special reward.

Only those times never really passed. So I spiralled into an unhealthy pattern of eating crap, going to bed late and sitting about on my arse.

This one’s most definitely a work in progress but I am feeling so much more balanced and energetic in the last month having started the Eight Week Blood Sugar Diet. Next stop, exercise…

One step in the right direction

Maintain your friendships. Sometimes you will feel like you can’t. You’ll feel that your life is different now and how could they possibly understand. They won’t always get it right. But give them a chance. They are your friends for a reason. You may find that the people who support you day to day may change, but your long standing friendships will give you a sense of normality and a connection to yourself ‘just as you were’ that you will find you want to come back to, again and again. It will keep you grounded and connected to the outside world. This is a good and necessary thing.

Switch off. Mindfulness meditation was recommended to me as a way of managing the looping lists and invasive mind-patter going in my head. It wasn’t for me but I have found that writing and walking most definitely are. Preferably by the sea. Find your thing and make sure you do it. Your brain needs the space.

 

Feeling a little bit like a dickhead and hoping it’s worth it

I’ll be honest and say I’ve shied away from writing about this for a really long time. For fear that everyone else is just getting on with it and hasn’t needed some kind of survival strategy to see them through. That I might just sound like a massive dickhead. Perhaps I do. But if it helps just one person, I’ll take that.

Disabled Facilities Grants: this way madness lies

Disabled Facilities Grants: this way madness lies

The irony of having written a post just this week about getting out of the house more as a family has not escaped me as I sit here in my house on a rainy Friday, with a broken lift outside in the garden.

As many of you will know, we had lifts fitted in our garden in February 2014, funded by a Disabled Facilities Grant and facilitated by Cornwall Council, to enable us to get in and out of the house with Orange in his wheelchair.

The construction works were fraught with difficulty, in the hands of wide boy contractors and a council adaptations team that didn’t know what they were doing, or were off sick or on leave throughout the project.

As a result we were left with lifts that never worked reliably from week one, and a garden completely obliterated by builders who decided to work to their very own unique concrete obstacle course design.

For the past three years, we have complained and negotiated with the council to rectify these problems. To provide us with lifts that work, and to rectify the dumpster fire that is our garden.

I wrote about it in this post from August 2015, when our lift dangled open dangerously leaving a two metre drop for one of us to fall in. This made front page news locally and finally kicked the council into action to think about rectifying the issues.

Being diplomatic, it has been a learning exercise for the council. For 18 months.

At times, we have even felt listened to by the council, and that we had made progress together, and helped them to improve their processes for managing Disabled Facilities Grants.

Today, three years since the first ill-fated works were done, we were due to have our kick off meeting with the council adaptations project manager and their engineer and the new contractors to discuss the new works.

I had hoped this evening to write a really positive and happy post, celebrating that we had a start date for new works to begin, and that we had got through this difficult process with the right outcomes, that the council had listened and learned from their mistakes and this would help not only us but other families needing adaptations works in the future.

Unfortunately I cannot. Because the council have let us down again by deciding not to show up to our kick off meeting. They cancelled it fifteen minutes after they were due to arrive. Apparently because they could not drive to us in the rain, down roads that both we and the double decker bus and countless other vehicles had no problems with this morning.

Instead, I have spent the last two hours writing a complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman and calling a lawyer, as well as negotiating with the council yet again to send an engineer to fix the broken lift outside.

If I were to count up the hours, days and weeks my husband and I have spent trying to resolve the issues related to our home adaptations, the countless lengthy meetings, emails, phone calls, coaching the council through their own management of the contracting firms they hire, or how to dial in to a conference call (I kid you not), and negotiating with them to fix the mess they have caused, I have no doubt at all of the significance.

And yet this issue is not unique. Up and down the country there are families dealing with the same issues. Funding applications that are declined, council adaptations teams giving bad advice on where equipment and adaptations should be fitted, work being undertaken poorly so it has to be redone, families with broken lifts who can’t get in or out of their own homes.

It’s an issue that the Local Government Ombudsman has investigated repeatedly in the past and need to do again. It needs a national spotlight on what is a systemic and endemic problem affecting families all over the country.

Disabled Facilities Grants should be a good thing. To enable families to do basic things like get in and out of their homes, move around and bathe, eat and sleep safely. And yet it isn’t. Often it’s a disaster.

I will be writing to Penny Mordaunt MP, the Minister for Disabled People who I met last week at Westminster. I will also be writing to the Womens & Equalities Committee who have disabled adaptions on their radar and were discussed just this week.

If you have had an issue with Disabled Facilities Grant adaptations, please do the same or feel free to share your story here if you would rather stay anonymous. Equally if you have positive adaptations stories to share please do so we can shine a light on good practice!