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Understanding Parenting with a Disability

Thank you to Chris, our Disability Trainer and Advisor for writing this post about understanding parenting with a disability.

I’m a wheelchair user who can’t walk at all and have been since I was 7-years-old when I caught polio. But very early on in adulthood I knew I wanted kids. I hadn’t thought it all through then but the thought was always there.

I graduated and started to work (as a school teacher), and eventually got married.

By this time I was very confident of what I could and couldn’t do in work, at home, around town, on holiday and so on. But the prospect of bringing up children was something else entirely.

I had concerns in 3 areas:

  • Could I physically manage? Stairs, transport, carrying baby etc
  • What would other people think? “Is he able to manage?”
  • What came later – how would my growing kids view me? “All my friends Dads are playing football with them…”

Well I can report that it all worked – not all plain sailing but an incredible journey. Looking back now over the last thirty five years I’m now at the grandparent stage – nine so far with every prospect of many more!

Of course one short article can’t give you every practical piece of advice you might want.  And the advice is very specific to your disability anyway. I can give you everything you need to know if you’re a wheelchair user and I can give you my general observations on attitudes. This includes ideas for further research (see below). If you are worried there is a tremendous amount of top-quality, specific information out there.

I think you’ll discover particular solutions that work for you. Disabled people are a very diverse group indeed – the variation across wheelchair users for instance is vast. What’s common though is problem solving and determination.

Okay, so, I can’t walk at all. How do I carry a baby up and down the stairs?

Why don’t I live in a bungalow you might ask? Well, when I became disabled I already lived in a house and I liked sleeping upstairs so I carried on. Sixty years later nothing has changed!

I found that if you tightly wrapped up baby in a shawl you could carry him/her in your teeth. Good enough for lions and tigers so good enough for me. I did what I needed to do.

How do I keep baby safe when I’m out and about if I’ve got my hands on the wheelchair most of the time?

The standard child harness went over shoulders and clipped to my belt which worked perfectly, just the same as for everyone else.

What if they run away, you can’t catch them?

Well, they just didn’t. It’s as if they know you can’t chase so they don’t go running off too far. As they grew I would be trying to give them independence but always telling them not to go too far/too fast. They seemed to take this on board.

Sometimes you see parents frantically running after their little loved ones and obviously getting really worried that they won’t catch up. But I’d say the child hasn’t been properly primed and that the child absolutely knows the parent will chase. So it’s all a bit of fun to them!

What did other adults think?

I’ve always said – most people, most of the time, do the right thing – and that applied here in abundance. There were lots of offers of help and total acceptance of the situation.

I mentioned I was a schoolteacher. There were some initial reservations about whether I could command a class, deal with emergencies and exert discipline. But the children always responded. They might mess other teachers around but not me!

I’d often transfer to sit on a higher bench so I could see the class easier leaving the wheelchair empty. The pupils would then argue about whose turn it was to sit in it for the lesson!

So, my lads turned out to be very sporty but there were no issues at all around me being unable to participate. They watched me play wheelchair basketball and I watched them swimming, playing rugby and the rest. It all worked so well I found myself running the junior rugby club for years. Interestingly not a single questioning/negative comment ever from players, parents, visiting parents etc I was just decent at the job so they let me carry on.

There’s lots of hard work but also so much to smile about.

What’s still happening?

I park up with one of my lads in the car. He gets out and gets my chair set up. If I’m fiddling with keys, gloves or bags he’ll sit in the wheelchair and scoot off round the car park for a minute. Lots of admiring faces because he’s very skilled (poor lad but doesn’t he do well?).

He then races back and promptly stands up! Admiring faces change – they’ve been duped. But then I transfer into the chair. Oh, it’s dad and he really is disabled! Conflicted or what?

Or this – I’m at home in my comfy armchair, wheelchair alongside. Grandchild asks if they can use the wheelchair and zooms off outside. “This is great; can I have one for Christmas?” “None of my friends has got one of these”. “Can I take it to school for “Show and tell?”

Incidentally, when grandchildren stay over they all copy me on the stairs. If I sit on the top step and start to bump down then so do they!

Of course I had to sort a lot of these things out as I went along – no computers, no mobiles at the beginning, but now there is a wealth of information out there. If you’d feel safer with more information, then there’s a lot to research relevant to your own specific issues. Just try to approach the situation with some confidence. People have been there before. Disability didn’t just start with the Paralympics. Parenthood will be so rewarding, and you’ll find there are lots of people in the same boat.

Try these sources of information:

  • NHS Choices – discusses entitlement to support and your needs will be properly assessed.
  • You can also get in touch with other disabled parents via Netmums
  • Scope – where you will find all sorts of useful links
  • Disability Horizons – this website has hundreds of relevant articles and a blog
  • DPN (Disabled Parents Network) – again, endless links here.
  • Super Nanny – lots of useful links
  • Many relevant self-help groups, including specific to your disability
  • Many relevant chat-rooms
  • Lots of online support

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