A very public (in)convenience

No toilet available

This post first appeared as a guest post on the Cardew Physio & Performance blog as part of a series of blog posts promoting awareness of continence issues during National Continence Week.

I don’t know about you, but one of the reasons I’m not at Glastonbury this weekend with all the other mud-coated revellers is because I can’t quite get my head around the festival loo situation. Queuing up in the rain to use a long drop with no toilet paper is enough to put me right off going to Glastonbury, even with the most star-studded of line ups or luxury boutique camping on offer.

But can you imagine if there were no toilets at Glastonbury at all? Or if there were toilets that were only accessible to people over the height of 6ft 5? Or that would collapse if anyone over 10 stone entered the cubicle? There would be uproar among the hundreds of thousands of Glasto fans.

Or, quite simply, people wouldn’t go.

We have become used to toilet facilities being available to us pretty much wherever we go in the UK. Public toilets began being introduced in London in 1851 and since then have become a familiar feature of cities, towns, villages, attractions, public buildings and restaurants across the country.

It would be unthinkable to go for a day out in a public place or to a major event and there not be a toilet available, right? Wouldn’t it?

Unfortunately for some of the most vulnerable people in our society this is not the case. Until the advent of the Changing Places campaign in 2006 there were no toilets available in the whole of the UK for the ¼ million people who cannot use standard or typical accessible/disabled toilets.

According to Changing Places, this includes people with profound and multiple learning disabilities, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, severe physical disabilities as well as some older people. A quarter of a million people.

This quarter of a million includes my son, Lawrence, who is five years old and wears a pad because his disabilities mean he does not have adequate control over his own toileting, or the ability to transfer to a toilet, even a ‘disabled’ one. He needs to be changed by a carer, regularly, throughout the day.

When he was tiny, we used the baby changing facilities like every other parent. Luckily, these have been installed in most public places and restaurants across the country because managers have recognised that families with young children are an important and valuable part of their customer base who have money to spend.

Unfortunately the same is not yet true for severely disabled people. A quarter of a million people. And their families.

In the vast majority of public places in the UK, the place where severely disabled people get changed by their carer is the toilet floor of the disabled loo. The filthy, often urine-soaked and dirty, toilet floor. A place that most people would only want the soles of their shoes to touch.

This is the now the reality we face with our little boy. The same reality faced by vulnerable, severely disabled people and their carers across the country. It is not safe. It is not dignified. It is not kind. It is often the reason why severely disabled people and their families are limited to local short trips out only, or why they very rarely leave the house at all. For many carers, lifting a disabled teenager or adult from a wheelchair onto the floor of a toilet and back again would quite simply be impossible, never mind the filth.

What people like our little boy need is a toilet that can be used in safety and comfort for both him and for us as his carers, which has more space than a conventional disabled loo and the right equipment – including an adult sized height adjustable changing bench and a hoist.

Changing Places have made great progress on campaigning for suitable toilet facilities for severely disabled people over the last 10 years, but there are still less than 1,000 across the whole of the UK. In Cornwall, where we live, there are only 10 Changing Places toilets in the whole of the county.

I am delighted to say that this will soon become 11, as a result of a local parent the new (and fabulous) Cornwall Services on the A30 has understood the need for these facilities and is fitting one as I type.

I am, though, sorely disappointed to see that in all the £17.6 million revamp of the Hall for Cornwall, there are currently no plans to install a Changing Places toilet, despite vocal campaigning from parent carer and disability groups.

John Lewis (a favourite retailer of mine until last week) responded to Changing Places a few days ago to say that they ‘didn’t have space’ to fit a Changing Places toilet in one of their flagship stores that has over 70,000 square footage of retail space. Imagine if they said they ‘didn’t have space’ to fit regular toilets, or if they said they didn’t have space for a café, or a shoe department? Unthinkable.

Already, even with Lawrence being quite small, we are finding ourselves planning family days out and long journeys around where there is a Changing Places toilet. We love the Eden Project, because they have a fabulous Changing Places loo, as do the Life Centre and Drakes Circus shopping centre in Plymouth. But beyond that, it’s pretty sparse. What will we do when we can no longer lift him ourselves and when we get sick of carrying around a mat soaked in urine from the toilet floor?

We will be isolated.

You see, it’s not just the person with disabilities who suffers when there is no toilet they can use. The lack of Changing Places facilities isolates entire families too. Families who have money to spend at your restaurant, shop, theme park, hotel or festival, just like everybody else.

So please, if you are a restaurant owner, a hotel, shopping centre or theme park manager, or a local authority public convenience planning officer (do they even exist?) then please, please fit a Changing Places toilet. Not only will you see the investment repay itself with new loyal customers but you will be changing lives.

Oh, and by the way? If you’re heading to Glastonbury this weekend and one of your party is severely disabled, you’ll be thrilled to hear that the festival has a Changing Places toilet in the Spring Ground Accessible Campsite. For everyone else, if you’re not keen on the long drops, you might want to check out the compost loos… Good luck 😉

It takes (more than) a village to raise a child (with an undiagnosed genetic syndrome) #thankyouteamorange

When Orange was not quite two, I remember counting in my head the number of doctors, nurses, specialist consultants, therapists and support workers that had been involved in our lives as a result of his difficulties since he was born. I was astounded when I got to 46 and was sure that I wasn’t done counting.

Since then, Team Orange has grown considerably. I stopped counting some years ago but in his five years I can be sure that well over 100 and probably over 200 health and social care professionals have been involved in Orange’s care to date. And that doesn’t include the hundreds of administrators and officials who we speak to day in day out to coordinate appointments, medication reviews and prescriptions, equipment deliveries and repairs, blue badges, disability benefits and education, health and care plans.

That’s an awful lot of people to welcome into your lives. An awful lot of people to open up to, to place your trust in and to rely on to do what’s needed for your child. An awful lot of people who need to work together, in a coordinated fashion, to deliver the right support and care for your child and for you, when you have no idea what you are doing and are learning as you go.

If I have learnt anything in raising a child who has severe disabilities and complex medical issues but with no diagnosis for his condition, it is that I cannot do this alone. It is too big a job.

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While I know that I am the world expert on my boy, I am not the world expert on epilepsy, hypotonia, dysphagia, arachnoid cysts or scoliosis. I also need to sleep, work, take care of Orange’s sister, be a wife, sister, daughter and all the other ‘normal life things’ that can get swept aside when you are a parent carer. I can only do ‘normal life things’ if we have help.

As much as there are (many) times when I just want to snuggle down with Orange and hide away from the perpetual merry-go-round of appointments, medical examinations, reports, meetings, phone calls, letters and assessments, I know that I would be doing Orange and all of us a dis-service if I didn’t build a solid team around us of people and professionals who can help. And lead this team to deliver what Orange needs to be safe, happy, well and fulfilled in his life.

When you have a child who has complex needs but no diagnosis there is no well-trodden pathway, no yellow brick road to follow.

No-one will show you the way.

Unsignposted

Here are some things I wish I had known, that would have given me confidence, in the early days of us discovering Orange had a syndrome without a name.

You will have to cut your own path, often in a forthright and determined fashion, even when you are at your most worn out and frightened. You will have to do this to access simple things like the right schooling, essential medical support, suitable childcare so you can work, or fit-for-purpose home adaptations for basic daily care like having a bath, or essential tasks like leaving the house. You will do it, because you are strong and because no-one else will.

Lots of people will enter your lives that you didn’t expect. Some invited and some uninvited. Sometimes this is exactly what you need. Sometimes it will drive you nuts. Often at the same time. Roll with it but know that you can press pause if you need to. You are in control.

You will learn to trust people. You will also learn when not to. Your gut instinct is always right. Use it. Lean on the people who you trust and ask for a change of professional in circumstances where you feel there is a lack of trust or understanding. You will know when you need to do this.

You will learn to ask for help (sometimes unceremoniously). This is something I wish I had learned sooner. It took me four and a half years to actually open up to a professional who could help us get the respite care we needed to keep our family on an even keel. It wasn’t pretty. Something akin to hanging a dirty nappy on the door, which one of my favourite SWAN bloggers made famous with her post on Complicated Gorgeousness about the lengths some parents have to go to in search of respite care. It shouldn’t be like this but often it is. Ask for help. Loud and clear. And do it now, don’t wait until you are at crisis point.

You will see the best in humankind and it will make your heart swell. And sometimes you will see the worst and it will make you want to sink into the ground. But most of the time you will just see people, normal people. Some who can answer your questions, some who can’t, and plenty who want to ask fountains of questions of you. Consultants, educational psychologists, social workers, parents of disabled children – these are all groups of people I had preconceived ideas about. And in the most part, I was wrong. We are all just people, for the most part trying to do our best in life and be fulfilled and happy. Remember that always.

You will find people just like you. You are not alone. There are thousands of families with children posing similar quandaries to professionals all over the world, who have complex conditions and no diagnosis, despite years of testing and the best, cleverest minds in genetic research on the job.

These people will hold you together when your child stops breathing and you are in an ambulance racing to hospital with a child in status epilepticus, not knowing if he will pull through.

These people will help you when you have to fill in 40 pages of disability living allowance forms that are not written with complicated, undiagnosed conditions in mind and you have no idea where to begin.

These people will celebrate with you when your child takes a small step that for them is a gigantic leap. Putting a spoon in their mouth for the first time, turning the page of a book, smiling in response to your smile, or squeezing your hand with affection.

These people will laugh with you, cry with you, rant with you, stand and campaign with you at Westminster, share your ups and downs, solve problems with you, hold your hand and drink wine with you.

These people are everybody who makes up the community that is SWAN UK, the small but growing charity that supports families who have children with undiagnosed syndromes.

Through SWAN UK we have found our people. Without them we would be lost.

Friday 29th April is Undiagnosed Children’s Day. On this day, we celebrate the support and love of SWAN UK, raise awareness of undiagnosed genetic conditions, and reach out to other families who may be feeling lost, or alone and unsure where to turn to for help.

Every year, as many as 6,000 children are born who have undiagnosed genetic conditions. They, and their families need your help. SWAN UK cannot keep going and keep delivering the support that it does without funds. This is why Mr K ran the London Marathon last weekend for SWAN UK, raising over £3,000 for the charity. You can still sponsor him here. Thank you.

I would also like to say thank you to all the professionals who are part of Team Orange, who help us negotiate this untrodden path. There are too many to name, but a special thank you goes to Orange’s school team, his school transport escort, his disabled children’s social worker and his school nurse, who provides our respite care. Thank you. We absolutely could not do this without you.

To end, here’s a little video with some great tips for professionals on how you can help families who have an undiagnosed child, and some lovely stories of professionals who are worth their weight in gold, who have gone above and beyond to help families with undiagnosed children.

Happy UCD2016!

What’s your why? #whyirunldn (Well, not me…)

Orange with the marathon number

Watching the London Marathon on the television as a child, I always used to think it was totally amazing that a human being could run 26.2 miles. It seemed like such a super-human feat when I was six. And thirty years on it still does. Which is precisely why it’s Mr K rather than me heading out there tomorrow morning with a six figure number strapped to his chest, an electronic tag on his shoe and vaseline in interesting places.

I often used to wonder why people did it? Why volunteer to put yourself through that? Blisters, chafing, awkward toilet trips, hmm, no thanks. But as I got older I started to understand why people challenge themselves to their limits and sacrifice their own comfort for the good of others.

And then we had Orange.

And then I was grateful to all those tens of thousands of runners who determinedly put one foot in front of the other for mile after mile after mile. And I began to realise that events like the London Marathon are so awe inspiring not just because of the superhuman physical and mental challenge, but because it brings people together.

It is people at our best. Regular, common or garden folk challenging themselves to do something super human, very often for other people who need help.

Every one has their own reason for wanting to run the London Marathon. Because it’s on their bucket list, because they entered the ballot for a laugh and got a shock when the pack dropped on the doorstep announcing ‘You’re IN!’, because they are an athlete, because they want to prove to themselves or others that they can, in memory of a loved one, or because they are raising money for a charity close to their hearts.

The reasons for running are many and varied but for us, for Mr K, it’s because having Orange has opened our eyes. Before we had Orange in our lives there was a whole world we didn’t understand, because we thought it didn’t apply to us. But it does. It applies to anyone and everyone in humanity.

Anyone and everyone could, one day, have a disability. Or a child with a disability. Or a parent who becomes disabled in later life. Anyone and everyone could, one day, become a carer. And while life is easier today for people with disabilities in the UK than it was even five or ten years ago (big up to the DLR for the wheelchair lifts and the Excel Centre for the Changing Places toilet by the way), it can still be a very hard place to be.

In our family, we don’t seem to like to do things the straightforward way either, so of course it should be no surprise to us or anyone else that in having a child with severe and complex disabilities, we also happen to have one who has no diagnosis for his condition. We have absolutely no idea why Orange has the disabilities he has and just about every medical test he has ever had (there have been many) has come back to say he is ‘normal’, whatever that means.

On 29th April 2016 it is Undiagnosed Children’s Day, led by SWAN UK, the small but growing charity that supports families like ours who have an undiagnosed child. It is no exaggeration to say that without SWAN UK we would not be able to cope with all the uncertainties and difficulties that come our way because of having a disabled child who has no diagnosis. With no diagnosis there is no prognosis, no known future, no pathways of care in the NHS to follow and no known programmes of therapy that can help. Everything is an unknown.

But we are not alone. There are thousands of families facing the same challenges. The daily challenges of disability but also the additional load of uncertainty that comes with having no diagnosis (disclaimer: people with some diagnosed but rare conditions face this uncertainty too).

And so, that’s our ‘why’.

Why wall

Today, Mr K took Orange over to the Excel Centre to get registered for the Marathon. While they were there they took a little video about their experiences and Mr K’s reasons for running London. Have a watch. And perhaps have a think about how you can help.

What’s your why?

Everybody can help to normalise disability, because it’s something that any of us can encounter in our lives, and probably will, in some capacity. It’s a small thing perhaps but a smile, instead of a stare, could change the face of someone’s day.

And the bigger thing is that all too often it all comes down to money. Disability is expensive. Support for people with disabilities is expensive. Support for their families and carers is expensive. So we would like to extend a massive and heartfelt thank you to everyone who has sponsored Mr K so far to run the London Marathon to raise money for SWAN UK.

Thank you.

For now, we are all tucked up in bed in our hotel overlooking the river. Significantly more comfortable than last time I sat up in bed looking out at this view while incarcerated in St Thomas’s postnatal ward, and more recently, in actual labour, with said Orange.

Vaseline is on hand, tagged running shoes are by the door, and a last minute dash for nipple band-aids has been made.

So night night from us, and go, go Mr K! See you at the finish line with a cold pint of London Pride.

To sponsor Mr K in the London Marathon 2016 click here!

Hearts over heads

Hearts over heads

Earlier this week, Katie Price came under media fire for saying she would have aborted her son Harvey had she known about his disabilities when she was pregnant. Perhaps her honesty shocked a lot of people but living in a country where over 90% of pre-natal Down’s Syndrome diagnoses end in abortion, to take one condition as an example, we know that Katie isn’t alone.

Perhaps Katie’s point could have been articulated better (and fellow mum to a disabled child Stacie Lewis, who I feel privileged to know, wrote this wonderful piece in The Guardian), but when I heard what she had said I knew exactly what she meant.

She meant that she would have been afraid.

That she would have ended her pregnancy based on medical prognosis, ignorance and fear of disability, not knowing the characterful, sweet boy her baby would become. Because, in those circumstances, all too often, that is all a mother has.

Since Orange arrived, I’ve met and become friends with a lot of other mums of disabled children. A complete cross section of society that I would not have met otherwise. Different backgrounds, different views, but united in our experiences of being parents to disabled children and the world in which we are raising them.

We all adore our children. Knowing the little people that they are and the love we have for them, I don’t know a single parent who would wish to turn back time and experience life without their child. That thought is as unpalatable to us as it would be to any parent. Contrary to what some of society may think, our lives would not be better without our disabled children in them.

Before I had Orange I would have mistakenly and quite offensively believed that life with a disabled child would be tragic and terrifying, joyless, isolating and punishing, and that the hardships would far outweigh love. Being frank, I would have believed it to be the end of any life worth living. I would have done anything to avoid it.

But I find myself in an uncomfortable situation in discussions like this because I don’t know any other mothers who have experienced quite what I have and it’s not something I talk about often. About a year before we had Orange, I had a termination. We were told that our baby had heart conditions that were ‘incompatible with life’ and that there was ‘very limited chance of survival’.

Before we even knew the underlying diagnosis (Down’s Syndrome) that had caused our baby to be so (apparently) desperately and terminally unwell, I had decided to end the pregnancy.

Because I was afraid.

Afraid of giving birth to a dead baby but even more afraid of what might happen if he lived. I justified my decision based solely on what the medical prognosis had told us. That my baby was probably going to die anyway and if he survived the pregnancy his life would be short and painful.

I was afraid. But I thought I was doing the right thing. For him, for us, for Bea.

If we had never had Orange, I would still believe that the decision I made on 29 January 2010 at four o clock in the afternoon was the right one. And I would never have questioned that what the medical prognosis told me was correct.

The tears I cried as the theatre team at St Thomas’s chirpily asked me ‘what procedure are you in for?’ while they placed the needle in my hand and the deep relief I felt as the gas washed over me and turned off the world, and drowned my fear for the sick child inside of me, are etched in my heart forever. It felt wrong, in my heart. In my head, I believed I was doing the right thing.

And now?

Now I question that medical prognosis that drove me to have that termination. Now I know too many children, alive, and beating the odds their parents were given. Children, who by all medical accounts should be dead. I question the decision I made. Now I am no longer afraid of disability and now I know that medical prognoses aren’t always right, I wish I had let nature take us on whatever path life had in store for us.

Now I count my blessings for Orange. I am thankful every single day of my life that I didn’t know when I was pregnant with Orange that he would have disabilities. Because again, I would have made a decision with my head, not my heart.

A decision based on scary lists of symptoms with big medical words like hypotonia, nystagmus and status epilepticus.

A decision based on what I thought I knew about the hardships of disability with no knowledge of the sweet, gentle soul I gave birth to, the easygoing and peaceful baby he was, the cheeky Peppa Pig obsessed toddler he became or the cute and funny almost five year old he is today, with his surf dude blond hair, a divine appreciation for the ridiculous, lover of cuddles, Bert and Ernie, rugby and bananas.

A decision based on things I had no direct experience of but my preconceptions would have told me I couldn’t cope with, not allowing even a chink of possibility that life and love would carry me through and leave me stronger and happier on the other side.

A decision based on what I might have mistakenly thought would be best for Bea, with no knowledge of the fierce sibling bond they would develop and the adoration Orange has for his devoted sister.

A decision that, for me, I now know, in both my heart and my head, would have been the wrong one.

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We lose ourselves in books, we find ourselves there too

What on earth could be more luxurious than a sofa, a good book and a cup of coffee?%22

 

As a lifelong lover of literature, I have always cherished the ability to pick up a book and disappear into it. To make sense of the world around me through stories. To try on situations and characters for size, within the safe confines of someone else’s words and the expanse of my own imagination.

So when I lost the ability to pick up a book and disappear into it I knew for sure that something was wrong. New parent tiredness, perhaps. Pick up any top tips article on ‘things you should do’ before your first child arrives and reading is always on there – “read books!” they say, for you won’t have the time nor the inclination once you have a newborn.

How true this was. So after Bea was born I stepped away from the bookshelves in the confidence that one day, when life was less baby armageddon, my reading mojo would return.

But just as I was coming out the side of baby armageddon round one and starting to feel like a trip to Foyles to browse for something wonderful to disappear into, Orange arrived.

A gentle and unassuming little soul, Orange arrived into the world as a sweet natured baby who slept well, fed well and demanded not very much at all. There was no baby armageddon this time. But just as we started to find our stride as parents of two, and the newborn haze began to lift, the foundations of our lives shifted.

It wasn’t a sudden shift. It wasn’t even definite. In fact there were many times when I persuaded myself that our lives hadn’t changed at all, and that I was panicking unnecessarily about Orange’s stiff neck and floppy little body. Because no-one knew what they meant or even wanted to hazard a guess. But the uncertainty grew over me like a mushroom cloud and before long it had consumed my every thought.

I wanted so much to distract myself from the fear that had cuckoo nested itself into my head. To pick up a book and transport myself into someone else’s thoughts, emotions and dreams.

But I could not.

Since those early days of uncertainty with Orange, I have had many a false start in trying to put a light back under my reading mojo. For me, for whom great literature is pretty much up there as my greatest passion, this reading roadblock was like losing a large part of myself. I had both lost and found myself in books, always, and now I found myself totally lost inside my own head. Locked in by puzzles I could not solve and fears I could not quell.

I had always believed that I would relish finding both adventure and comfort in books, no matter what life threw at me. Reading was both a joy and a refuge and yet here I was unable to even pick up a book beyond the smallest collection of well-thumbed and dog-eared Murakami and Fitzgerald favourites. Familiar territory.

Looking back now I know that these three or four books held me in a place where I felt safe at a time when everything else felt dangerous. Where emotions would not spring out at me, unexpected.

So I knew that when my Christmas list this year consisted almost entirely of new reads, that I had turned a corner. A most definite shift.

I had just finished reading ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘ by Jonathan Saffron Foer about a little boy’s quest to solve a mystery left after his father’s death. A tenderly written story that cleverly interweaved personal tragedy with the enormity of world events, both recent and historical.

For the first time in years I had been able to allow myself to be filled up by the lives and emotions of the people in the pages I held in my hands. To live their lives in my head. Because my head was no longer full solely of my own.

And so I did what I love to do almost as much as reading. I started a list.

Reading list

And a Pinterest Board

I feel confident in saying now that my reading mojo is most definitely back. But also that I know now the books I can turn to for comfort when life is a little too ‘full’.

And now I’ve got the bug back, I’d love to know what’s on your reading lists for 2016. What have you loved or hated? And what are your go-to comfort reads when you are in the trenches?

“Books are the mirrors of the soul”

Virginia Woolf