Looking behind the label

If you think about the word 'disabled' or 'disability', what comes to your mind? Is it a wheelchair, or sign language, or someone who needs assistance with everyday living? And if you then think about a disabled child and caring for him or her, what does it evoke for you?

Is it a picture of difficulties and obstacles? Do you imagine that you will not be able to cope if caring for a disabled child, that it will be too difficult, too much of a commitment? You might envisage frequent medical appointments, complicated care arrangements, or a child unable to play or communicate with you. All of these things can seem quite daunting and may perhaps frighten people off from considering caring for a disabled child. For many people, disability can carry an overwhelming label, which completely obscures the actual child, and the reality of who that little boy or girl is.

What is disability?

Would you say that a child who finds steps and stairs difficult, or uses British sign language, or wears glasses has a disability? An 18-month-old child who can only go up the stairs on his bottom may not be seen as disabled, but things will be different if the child is seven and cannot move any other way.

The problem with trying to fit people into a box called ‘disability’ is that it is not always clear where to draw the line – a child requiring a dairy-free diet isn’t disabled, but what if he or she is fed through a tube in their stomach (called gastrostomy)? External circumstances make a difference too: A child who uses a wheelchair will be able to move around much more easily in an environment where ramps are widely available.

This is why Jenny Cousins, who runs the Opening Doors disability project for BAAF prefers the term ‘disabled children’ to ‘children with disabilities’, as she believes that children with impairments are ‘disabled’ by society’s discriminatory arrangements. Find out more...

Disabled children in the care system

Despite the difficulty in finding a unique definition, a number of statistics do exist on disabled children who are looked after (taken from Every child is special):
● Disabled children are nine times more likely to become looked after than non-disabled children.
● About a quarter of all looked after children are disabled.
● Approximately 40 percent of children waiting for a new permanent family have an impairment or some form of special need.
● Children with learning disabilities are the children for whom it is the most difficult to find permanent families.
● Many disabled children awaiting permanent placements are under five, two-thirds are boys, and most are white.
● Black disabled children are more likely than black non-disabled children to be placed with white families.

Disabled children are more likely than non-disabled children to be placed with single carers.

Children in Be My Parent

When you look in Be My Parent, you will see that a number of children have some level of difficulties, impairments, or disabilities. For some children, there may be a genetic risk of inheriting a mental or physical condition, and therefore some uncertainty over their future development, and a question mark on whether they will become disabled in the future, and to what degree.

Children may have learning difficulties and attend a special school or receive additional support at mainstream school: this may enable them to catch up on their development, or they may always retain these difficulties. Some children may have a visual impairment, or be profoundly deaf, or need feeding through a tube in their nose, or have limited or no mobility.

Medical terms such as cerebral palsy, foetal alcohol syndrome or hip dysplasia may seem very abstract and mean very little to you. In reality, feeding a child through a gastrostomy tube, learning Makaton sign language or caring for a child with Down’s syndrome may be much simpler and easier for you to manage than you imagine or fear. Please refer to our glossary for more information.

Looking behind the label

A profile in Be My Parent will only give you an initial glimpse of who a child really is: you will see a photograph (though not always), and some words of description. A large part of the profile in the newspaper may be taken over by details of this child’s medical condition, disability or difficulties. The reason that we sometimes include more about a child’s disabilities or difficulties than about their personality is that, if we don't include these details, enquirers who find out at a later stage can become frustrated that this information was left out, and perhaps withdraw their enquiry. It is therefore important that the profile does explain that the child needs special care.

However, with space in the newspaper being limited, there isn’t always room to also tell you that Rebecca loves eating mashed bananas with raisins for breakfast, or that Tyreece never goes anywhere without holding his Winnie the Pooh by his one remaining ear, or that Ryan enjoys stroking the rabbits in the children’s zoo! Half-page and full-page profiles enable agencies to say much more about children in the newspaper, and of course web profiles do not have the same limitations, and can also include short video clips of children, which will really show the child's personality. Find out more by watching a short film about our video project.

So please look behind the ‘disabled child’ label and let Rebecca, Tyreece or Ryan emerge, with their individual personalities, and you will see that they are children, just like any other children, who need the love and stability of a permanent family.

Isabelle Rameau

Originally published in the Be My Parent newspaper in July 2006.

This article is published with the kind permission of the people involved. You may download it for your own reference but if you wish to use it for any other purpose, please contact Be My Parent for authorisation: Be My Parent, BAAF, Saffron House, 6-10 Kirby Street, London EC1N 8TS. Telephone: 020 7421 2666/5/4.

Last updated: 10 February 14

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