Week 4: Listening to parents #107days

It’s hard to believe that we’re on Week 4 of #107days already, but we are, and this week we’re hoping to explore an issue that comes up time and again, listening to parents and families. We are hoping to reach new understanding through #107days so if you read this post and it relates to your experience, or perhaps you work in a service and recognise the situation but feel like your hands are tied/ears are blocked, or you completely disagree we would like to hear from you. Please do leave a comment and please also share the post far and wide.

To kick off Week 4 we have a blog post from Katherine Runswick-Cole: The #Motherblame Game

A gut wrenching post from Sara prompted me to tweet last week:

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For mothers like me, the Bettleheim reference is familiar. In 1960s, Bettleheim, a psychiatrist, explained the causes of childhood autism as the result of a mother’s cold and maladaptive behaviour; he coined the term refrigerator mothers. Today Bettleheim’s explanation of the causes of autism has been rejected by mainstream psychology and psychiatry, but it seems that mother blaming is alive and well, living in Oxfordshire, as well as many other places across the United Kingdom. Indeed, the Tweets that fill my timeline suggest that mother blame is rife.

In a time of economic austerity and welfare cuts, you only have to open a newspaper to discover that mothers bear a heavy load. Mothers have been blamed for everything from naughty children, the rise in teenage pregnancies to summer riots. They are credited with the ability (or lack of it) to wire their children’s brains correctly, prevent childhood obesity and to create economically productive citizens. It’s tough being a mother in 2015!

But if you have a child with a learning disability things are tougher still. From the moment that your child strays ‘too far’ from the ‘normal’ developmental path, you are under additional surveillance, as the blame game begins – there will be no escape.

You are simultaneously the problem and the solution. You have caused your child’s delayed development (through your inept parenting or your dodgy genetic inheritance, it’s your fault either way) but, at the same time, it is you who must lead the charge to move your disordered child as close as possible towards some sort of mythical norm. Therapies and interventions replace the simple pleasures of playing with your child “you must make him look at you!

When your child starts school, you find yourself characterised as simultaneously grief stricken and in denial. Your grief makes you unreasonable, tetchy, difficult, while being in denial leads you to make unreasonable demands on the system and on limited resources . You continue to expect that your child should have the same life chances as other children, how could you, s/he is learning disabled!

When your child becomes an adult, you’ve guessed it, you are still the problem. Your low/high (delete as appropriate) unreasonable (no option to delete the ‘un’) expectations will not be met. Your demands for your adult child to have a life like any other: a home, friends, a job, or, even, whisper it now, a relationship, are more evidence of your failure to accept your child’s learning disability. Surely you should be over it by now? Oh, and by the way, as your child is an adult, don’t forget, they must make their own choices, as long as these are compatible with the narrow, zero-aspirational, budget-centred (not person centred) options on offer.

And then a child dies, in the most horrific circumstances, a preventable death, surely then the mother blame game ends there? No. In the aftermath of LB’s death even Mother Nature got the blame in the over hasty claim for death by natural causes. Since LB died Sara has been surveilled, smeared and blamed for the crime of loving her son and seeking justice for him and other people with learning disabilities.

This week The Independent Panel for Special Education Advice stated on its Facebook page that 90% of its followers are women. At the #JusticeforLB event at Manchester Metropolitan University on 26 January 2015, I introduced Steve Broach, the disability activist and barrister, as having 3,000 Twitter followers – all mothers of disabled children (I was only partly joking!). I have been lucky enough to meet many amazing mothers of disabled children. Like Sara, they fight for their children to have ordinary lives and to be seen as fully human. It is a fight they bear with grace and tenacity while living with under the shadow of mother blame.

But this is a fight no mother should have to take up, and certainly not alone. The mothers of the disabled children I have met are all fighting for the same thing, recognition that their child is fully human too with hopes, aspirations, dreams, strengths, challenges like any other human being. As George Julian said at the Manchester event: [the campaign] is not a disability issue. This is a human rights issue. She’s right and through the #JusticeforLB campaign girls, boys, men, women, mothers, fathers, disabled people and non-disabled people, activists and academics, practitioners and family members have come together. Here there is a disability collective, a commons, claiming the human rights of people with learning disabilities.

While the neo-Bettleheimers still seek to blame mothers, in coming together as #JusticeforLB, we must work to build systems, structures, laws or better still, a society, in which people with learning disabilities are truly seen as being fully human too.

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