Opening doors for all children

Jennifer Cousins invites Be My Parent readers to think again...

We don’t fit into neat boxes labelled ‘disabled’ and ‘not disabled’, because where does one label end and the other begin?

I’d like you to try this: Think of someone you know really well. Write down ten different things about them. It could be anything which strikes you as an important part of that person.

For example, here is someone I know. He is:

  • Witty
  • Messy
  • A fearless swimmer
  • Empathetic and kind
  • Sometimes pompous
  • Has periods of depression
  • Good with small children and animals
  • Creative, and inspiring to talk to
  • Keeps to his word
  • Has mobility difficulties through polio

Where does one label end and another begin?

In your list about someone you know, is there some feature, some impairment, which seems so much part of them that you almost forget about it – even though you know it causes them extra difficulties in life?

My point is that most of us are a mixture of many different things – some good, some not so good. And we don’t fit into neat boxes labelled ‘disabled’ and ‘not disabled’, because there does one label end and the other begin? If we put my friend into the ‘mental illness’ box, we would forget that he is delightful company most of the time.

Now, if we think about the children featured in Be My Parent, each one of them is, of course, a real mixture of lovely things and less good things. You know that many of them will have had really sad times, but if we just fix on all that sad history, we forget that one may also be boisterous and funny, another shy and serious and a third potty about guinea-pigs. And that one child may not fit into your family but another might. They are all individual children – such an easy thing to say, but so hard to keep in mind. And the same is true for children who are ‘disabled’.

When we read about child A who has delayed development, baby B who has a genetic condition or little girl C who has foetal alcohol syndrome, these are aspects of them, not the whole story.

If we plonk these children in a box called ‘disabled’ and put them out of reach on a high shelf, we would miss so many of the other things which they individually bring – that mixture of good and not-so-good things we come to accept and love in all our nearest and dearest.

We would like to change some aspects (but we can’t), but the good things outweigh the not-so-good and we love the person for who they are. This is what we mean by the whole person.

Lots of us feel quite scared that ‘disability’ is a separate and difficult world and we haven’t got the map.

One of the children featured in this issue of Be My Parent Children’s Profiles, for example, has cerebral palsy. Ibrahim uses a wheelchair both indoors and outdoors, and requires 24-hour care. He interacts with others through touch and eye contact, and his social worker says “Ibrahim just loves life!” This zest for life is part of the real child.

BAAF’s disability project, Opening Doors, is a three-year project which aims to reduce the barriers to placing disabled children with new permanent families. It is headed by Jennifer Cousins, a social worker who has worked in family placement and with disabled children, as well as in a child development centre and a family link respite scheme.

Your help is needed

Jennifer is very keen to hear from any Be My Parent readers who have wanted to enquire about a disabled child in the paper, but felt put off – for whatever reason. The project is trying to identify what exactly puts people off, so that things can be improved. We will respond to your call as soon as we can – and in confidence.

Calling all social workers

If you would like to be kept informed about the Opening Doors project, please contact us. We would also be keen to know what has helped or hindered your ability to find a family for a disabled child.

Please contact:
Opening Doors,
BAAF Central England,
Dolphin House,
54 Coventry Road
Birmingham B10 0RX
Telephone: 0121 753 7791
BAAF Opening Doors project

So BAAF’s disability project, called Opening Doors, for obvious reasons, is trying to get children out of the boxes-with-labels, because that box called ‘disabled’ can be really off-putting. I think lots of us as adults feel quite scared that we couldn’t somehow cope, that ‘disability’ is a separate and difficult world and we haven’t got the map. But like all challenges, it’s not so daunting if we take one move at a time and learn about a particular situation with lots of help.

I noticed another little boy in the January Be My Parent who has Cri du Chat syndrome – a condition which brings with it specific health problems – but there is information, a support group and help available.

Seeing Ryan as simply in the ‘disabled’ box with its complicated-sounding label misses the lovely little 18-month old that he is. Anyone with a disabled family member already knows that there are real, ordinary people behind the labels – but the rest of us have to build up our confidence with extra support so that, although we may be entering a new world, we do have that map in our pocket.

So, the first hurdle is to feel OK about a particular disability being something we could take on as part of a child. And the next hurdle is to feel reassured that help will be available in the future if we need it.

New adoption support

As many of you will know, the government is planning that adoption support – practical, therapeutic and financial – should be available throughout a child’s life. Of course, we don’t know how this will work out in practice, but it could be the turning point for families who have been worried about offering to care for a ‘disabled’ child. You will be normal adoptive family who can get on with your lives as you see fit, but you will be able to come back for help and support at any point if you decide to. We hope this will make a huge difference to how people think about adoption – and about how we all think about disability’. Please think again about those boxes. And help us to open doors for all children.

Originally published in the Be My Parent newspaper in January 2004.

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: 13 May 10

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