cut the red tape

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My son is 15 years old and loves to participate in sports.  We’ve learned the hard way that most sports teams don’t want him because he has Down syndrome.

Alas, true inclusion in recreation or sports has rarely happened in real life particularly as Aaron has gotten older.  One exception has been his high school, where he has heartily been welcomed in Physical Education classes and his teacher has embraced the modifications that he requires because of his bum knee, intellectual disability and short stature.  Hurrah for the inclusion champions at his school.

Outside of gym class, Aaron been pushed into segregated sports activities.  I’ve come to peace with this, despite my philosophical insistence on inclusion.  Inclusion to me means belonging in the bigger community.  Being ‘allowed’ to play sports with other kids who are segregated is not inclusion.  But it is what it is and it allows my kid to be active with a diverse group of people and so that’s a positive thing.

In the community, I’m not going to waste my precious advocacy energy fighting to have a team include Aaron if they don’t want him.  So he’s slowly been moved over to segregated sports and recreation programs like those at Challenger Baseball, Down Syndrome Research Foundation and Special Olympics.

Surprisingly, here in the segregated world, accessibility comes into play too.  There is a spectrum of ease of participation.  Challenger Baseball says – your kid wants to play baseball?  Come on in!  We don’t care where you live or what’s going on with you!  Just show up!   Down Syndrome Research Foundation says welcome to our Bollywood and Taekwondo classes!  Sign up if you can afford it (if not, you can ask for a bursary)!  You don’t even have to have Down syndrome!  These are good models and make it easy for kids to be active and have fun.

Now I pause at Special Olympics.  I know Special Olympics is a beloved institution so I’m going to get my hand slapped for this.  But I am going to say it anyway.

Special Olympics has grown into a massive organization. Along with growth comes bureaucracy. Accessibility for people with disabilities here is marred by red tape. Your athlete has Down syndrome?  He must get a controversial neck x-ray before he can register.  You live out of region and your local program is full?  You aren’t welcome on another team, unless you get approval from your home region to transfer over.  And then the transferring region has to approve you too. That requires having many forms filled out and then waiting and waiting, as my son has been doing for the past month.  He can’t attend practice until all the paperwork is done and the season has already begun.

Who loses in the red tape environments?  It is the kids themselves.

I will surmise when an organization gets too big, it drifts away from its grassroots beginnings and loses sight of the people they are supposed to serve.  It becomes about bureaucracy, policy, risk-management, staff/volunteers and rules, not the people themselves.  I’ve seen this happen over and over again with support groups and health/human services organizations too.  This is a darn shame.

This is particularly frustrating because I keep reading articles about how children with disabilities struggle with being physically active.  If we know this is true, why aren’t we making it easier, not harder for kids to participate?

I know that people working and volunteering for these organizations are well-intentioned.  I would ask them to pause and consider:  are your policies and rules causing additional barriers for people to participate?

If they are, I’d respectfully suggest it is time to untangle and take a good hard look at all your red tape. Who is this red tape serving anyhow?   Has red tape become a barrier for people to participate?  And is that okay by you?

Instead, let’s do what we can to let kids be active and have fun and never forget that sports and recreation is not about us adults.  Make it easier, not harder, for our kids to participate.  Help them find ways to be as healthy as they can be – and in the process, to find belonging and friendships too.

 

the gerber baby

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This is a slide from one of my presentations to health professionals explaining the reality of having a child with a disability.  This is a picture of a Gerber Baby, a so-called blue ribbon, or perfect baby.

This week, the Internet is abuzz that the new Gerber Baby has Down syndrome.

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Gerber Baby Lucas Warren

I’m obviously going to have to rethink my presentation slide.  My point was that we all expect a perfect baby when our children are born.  The honest fact is that no child is perfect, but with most children, this is something we gradually figure out as the years pass – particularly when adolescence hits and we get the inevitable call from the principal’s office.  Our job as parents is to help our children embrace their imperfections, for that’s what makes them – and all of us – human.

If you have a child with Down syndrome, the fact your child isn’t perfect is immediately pointed out by many people upon diagnosis.  I am happy for Lucas’ family and I know that having a baby with Down syndrome represent the Gerber Baby is a big deal for new families.  I’ve seen lots of sharing of Lucas’ image on social media and indeed, this news should be celebrated.  It is great that children with differences are starting to get a shot at modelling.  I pause here to say how I wish we were more evolved as a society and this wasn’t big news at all; that the advertising world chose images that represented the diversity of our world – including diversity of ability.  But that’s me with my rose-coloured glasses on.

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Aaron is the dude in the middle

When my son Aaron was three, he was chosen to be on a campaign to advertise a Buddy Walk, an annual fundraiser for organizations who support people with Down syndrome.  We were thrilled to see his image on the sides of buses and up on billboards.

I understand how validating this Gerber Baby news is for us families who are anxious about the reception our children will be received in the world.  Lucas will be a role model for families with young children, no doubt.  We search for role models for now-14 year old Aaron, too – in television shows with stars with Down syndrome like Born this Way or through plays like King Arthur’s Night, co-written and starring Niall McNeil, who has an extra chromosome like my boy.  Aaron needs to see other people with Down syndrome in the public eye to show him what’s possible.  It affirms his very existence.

Having Lucas as the Gerber Baby will bring awareness to babies with Down syndrome. But will this mean the world will start to change to embrace disabilities?

“I’m skeptical this is a significant moment,” said David Perry on CBC’s The Current this morning.  I feel jaded saying this, but I agree with David.  We have to go further.  Awareness is not even a start to anywhere significant.  Awareness is just awareness.  We can’t pat ourselves on the back for being so progressive that Lucas’ modelling gig represents great change in a world that continuously and repeatedly discriminates against people with all sorts of disabilities.  That would naive and foolish.

I’ve written before about The Cute Thing.  Lucas is super cute, as was Aaron during his brief modelling career.  Aaron grew up and Lucas will grow up, too. We all grow up.  Teenagers and adults are not cute, whether they have Down syndrome or not.  Are those who are not cute – for whatever reason – simply discarded, if cute is all important?  Is it only those people with disabilities who make us feel better about ourselves (a disturbing phenomenon called Inspiration Porn, as explained by the late great Stella Young) the only people of value?

I don’t know the Gerber Product Company’s intentions by choosing a baby with Down syndrome to be their Gerber Baby.  I’d hanker a guess that it is for the same reason they choose any baby:  an attractive baby helps them sell products. The baby food business is big business.  I note that Gerber was sold to Nestle in 2007.  I’ve boycotted Nestle products since the mid-1990’s, ever since I found out about their unethical marketing of infant formula – allegations of which continue today.

I do so wish this news was associated with a more ethical company.

What I’m asking for is for us to consider: Is that all there is?  When a large corporation chooses a baby with Down syndrome to represent their product, does this mean that my son’s own life is going to improve?  Will he now have friends?  Will I have funding for therapies, respite or childcare for him now? Will he be able to find a job?  Love? Will he be safe as he makes his way in this world?  These are deeper questions that bubble up for me.

As I said about cancer, awareness is simply not enough.  It is a feel-good road to nowhere, unless it is followed up by real action:  a change in practice about how prenatal screening and testing is offered to women, a commitment to inclusive education + employment opportunities, equitable health care and governments who demonstrate they value all sorts of diversity.  For sure, let’s pause to celebrate the new Gerber Baby. Then let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

the day i sobbed at the bakery

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I stopped by Gabi & Jules bakery yesterday to pick up an almond croissant and a maple pecan pie. By the end of my transaction, I was sobbing at the front counter, barely able to eke out any words, my face hot and embarrassed by my unexpected show of emotion.

Before the crying, I was perfectly composed and waiting in line to order my baked goods. There was a young man in front of me. I could tell he wanted to chat, so I turned and faced him and smiled. ‘All the food here is good!’ he said. ‘Have you tried everything?’ I asked. ‘YES!,’ he said, bursting to tell me.  ‘I work here! In the back.’

Now I could feel the tears beginning to well up. I swallowed them back as we chatted a bit more.   This young man had some sort of disability – autism maybe – but that doesn’t really matter. He was obviously very proud that he worked in the bakery.

Being employed is so much more than just a pay-cheque – it can offer a sense of value, worth and belonging.   This particular bakery in Port Moody is well known for its inclusive hiring practices. (Here’s a video and article explaining their philosophy).

After the young man left, I mentioned to the nice woman working behind the counter (Sarah, the manager) that my husband recently heard owner Lisa Beecroft speak at a panel for inclusive employment. I kept it together until this point, until I confessed, ‘Our son is 14 and he has Down syndrome. I hope one day an employer like you will give him a chance.’ Then my voice caught and the tears started to seep out. I managed to finish up before fleeing to my car, but not before Sarah said: ‘Bring your son in one day so he can look around!’ This made me cry even more. I’m sure she thought I was odd (and admittedly I am, especially since the dumb cancer, which seems to have broken me open emotionally).

When Aaron was born, I was clouded in many fears for his life: that he wouldn’t find love or belonging or friends or meaningful work. To be truthful, we are still working on helping him with his search for many of these things. I feel hope in my heart for the future with companies like Gabi & Jules taking a chance on all different kinds of people.

I started going to Gabi & Jules because I heard they hired people with disabilities and I wanted to support them. But now I’m a regular there because the baking is just so damn good. (The hazelnut tarts! The granola! And oh the pies). And now that I’ve met one of the bakers in the back, I have a strong sense, as their logo says, the maple pecan pie we ate last night was made with love.

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*Coming up next week! A special guest blog post from my husband, Mike Waddingham, talking about inclusive employment practices.

what inclusion means to me

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I’ve been agonizing over preparing a presentation all week.  For creating a talk is like crafting a story – it is carefully pieced together to engage the audience early on, to create a safe space for listening, to allow them to feel.  This is trickier than you might think.  I say this from hard-fought experience of crashing and burning onstage – misreading your audience is the absolutely worst thing you can do when you are behind a podium.  I live in fear of it.  This is a hell of a way to make a living.

I was asked to speak to all the teachers at my son’s high school about What Inclusion Means to Me.  There would be about one hundred educators in the audience on their Pro-D day.  I sweated out my approach, talking to the teacher in the Access Program (Burnaby’s special ed) who had kindly recommended me, the physics teacher who was the organizer, and many families who had kids with differences in schools across the provinces.  I was desperate to understand my audience, to not misstep, to represent other families well, for I had a lot of skin in the game.  This is the high school where Aaron would be for the next six years.  I could not screw this up.

I had spoken once before to a teacher/parent audience on this same subject, almost three years ago in Alberta.  My stumble then was not to include any research about the other kids in the school – the ‘typically developing’ kids, many of whom were travelling on a strong academic path.  One mom had angrily protested from the back of the room:  your kid is taking away from my kid’s teaching time!  I have recognized over the years that it is crucial to address barriers and concerns that the audience is holding early on in the presentation, for if you don’t, they hang onto those concerns during the entire talk, and this is a barrier to the listening.

This time I was more grizzled and wiser (but alas, still not perfect – is there really such a thing?).  I drew upon others for expertise in my talk.  I don’t know one thing about adapting or modifying curriculum, so I showed Shelley Moore’s great bowling video.  I leaned on Ian Brown’s wisdom about the value of people with disabilities.  The moms from my Family Inclusion Group Facebook page kindly offered up some wonderful quotes about our kids being brave, and presuming competence.  I remembered the young man, Ryan, who has autism and graduated with my daughter three years ago, and read that little essay.  Two local family leaders, Karen Copeland and Suzanne Perrault, helped me immensely with pep talks and information. I was very aware of not being self-serving – not only concerning myself with my own son’s experience, but with his colleagues’ experiences, too:  those who used wheelchairs, those who were non-verbal, those identified with ‘behaviour’ challenges.   I had many people behind me in spirit for this extraordinary opportunity:  for a mom taking up a morning in a high school’s Pro-D day is a rare sight indeed.

And what does inclusion mean to me?  In the end, I talked about our journey with Aaron – from when he was first diagnosed (the baby we expected was not the baby we got) to my struggles with my own fears about people with disabilities when Aaron was born, embedded in my head from my junior high days in 1974 (if you are going to have a stereotype, at least have an up-to-date stereotype).  I acknowledged the good work teachers do – how busy and exhausted they are too, and asked them to reflect on their why – why they chose teaching.  I talked about how inclusion was so much more than academic inclusion inside a classroom, how it was about inclusion in the hallways, at lunchtime, at school events, in sports, in extra-curricular activities.  I invited the audience to think of one way educators and the other students could include the kids from the Access Program in the school, no matter how simple:  learning the kids’ names, giving high fives, starting up a Buddy program, picking one thing from their class lesson to teach them each day.

My goodness, as I write this out, I realized I covered a lot of ground.  I’d had better practice what I preach about presentations, and that is:  Identify your intention.  Pick three key messages.  Know thy audience.

My intention was to touch hearts to change minds.  My key messages were about the value of children with disabilities (the disabled do the work of love, says Ian Brown), expanding the definition of diversity to include different abilities, and to point out how we are not preparing the high-achieving students for the real world if they do not know people who are ‘the other.’

I had to pause a few times during the talk to catch myself from crying.  This topic is deeply personal to me, as Aaron’s school experience is everything to us.  We chose to live in Burnaby based on the school district.  We bought a condo close to the school.  I resigned from my job to be more visible and available to support his school experience.

Scanning the audience, I knew others were crying too.  Maybe they had someone with a difference in their family.  Maybe they were remembering the feeling of being left out.  Maybe they were triggered to recall why they chose teaching.  At the end, the applause was more than polite, and I had a patient line of teachers waiting to chat with me.  It tears me up to think about how much these educators want to reach all children, but sometimes they just don’t know how.  This desire is everything.  Change happens with just one step at a time – the first step is the most important one.   This is the beginning of belonging, one high five at a time.

Inclusion to me means finding love + belonging.  It means taking the time to understand another person’s perspective, to feel empathy, to demonstrate compassion.  These are the exact same messages I share with health care audiences, as I’ve realized that these concepts are deeply universal.

In the end, for me, everything always circles back to Raymond Carver:

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Beloved on this earth.  That’s what I want for my children, for myself, and for you too.  xo.

behind the boy in the moon

I wept during Ian Brown’s plenary talk on Tuesday at the CAPHC conference. Big wet tears leaked through my mascara. I stopped myself just short of audible sobbing.

Towards the end of Ian’s closing words, I peeked at the audience around me. To my surprise, they were crying too: researchers, academics, administrators, physicians – those of impressive titles, but all people too. I pulled my tissues out of my mom purse and passed them around my table.

I knew why I was weeping, but I wasn’t clear on the reason for their tears. I am the parent of a young man who has an intellectual disability. I, too, have a little dream of a community of love for Aaron, like Ian’s dream for his son Walker.  But clearly my professional colleagues had their hearts touched and their tears triggered for different reasons – perhaps they were thinking about one of their past patients, or an aunt or an uncle, or even about their own vulnerability. I’ll never know.

Ian’s talk, although centred on people with intellectual disabilities (finally, they had airtime on a stage) was also a talk about what makes us human. And that’s not success or competition (as many of my accomplished friends are engaged in), but instead he expressed what makes us human is simply love and belonging. People with intellectual disabilities understand that deeply. As Ian said, the disabled do the work of love.

I can’t adequately summarize his talk. It was a profound homage to people with intellectual disabilities – the likes of which I have never bore witness to before.

I heard Ian speak in 2009, also in Halifax, also at CAPHC, and knew him to be brutally honest and real – unafraid and apologetic – refreshingly with no reverence for the graduate degrees and fancy titles that filled the room. I knew Tuesday’s talk would be important, and delayed my flight home until the next morning to see him. I knew it would be an important talk and it was.

The whole pediatric health conference had been focused on fixing: deciding who was worthy of fixing and funding; research focused on helping families to fix their children; and a session mocking patients who were trying to fix themselves by turning to alternative medicine.

All this fixing talk made me unsettled by Tuesday afternoon, after crashing from my high from Sunday’s CFAN Symposium. In stark contrast, Ian told the health care audience to stop trying to fix his son, to “pay attention to the person he actually is”. He continued, “Let us put medical care behind human interaction. Let us build communities that are much less bureaucratic, much more inclusive…and that embrace and celebrate the beautiful grace of people like Walker.”

Ian Brown was a messenger for love and belonging – the two things that really matter in health care – the only way we are going to see our way through the big costly bloody mess that is our health care system. He was an eloquent poet, each phrase carefully chosen, spoken straight from his Dad heart, passionate and poignant. I furiously scratched snippets in my notebook. About his son: what value does Walker’s broken life have?

About building a community: for once the disabled would have a home with a great view…where all you have to do is keep company with one another.

In the end, Ian challenged us to join the intellectually disabled and be touched by the grace of who people actually are, not by who we think they should be.

Later that night, I FaceTimed Aaron: ‘Hi Mom!’ he said brightly, his round face and almond eyes lighting up the screen, ‘How was your day?’ I was struck by the gift that is my son, by the very fact that he was born, that he is with us, that he is human. There are so few people who understand him in this world. He shows us the path to love every single day, over and over again. If only we can adopt enough humility to push our own egos aside to clearly hear what he’s trying to say.

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from cruise ship to dinghy

Slide1There’s a familiar saying that floats around the our world about education services for our kids.  It speaks directly to moving from the preschool to the elementary school experience – we call it jumping from a cruise ship to dinghy, because almost all the therapy support from the schools dries up after kindergarten.

I was preparing to speak as a mom about transitions Saturday at a CHILD-BRIGHT workshop.  Now ‘transitions’ is a term the health professional world loves, and it is a more evolved term about being discharged from one service and moving into another.  (I especially detest the word ‘discharged’ and I’m glad they are moving away from it – as it reminds me of nasal discharge or discharge of the vaginal kind, or being spit out at the side of the New Jersey Turnpike, a la Being John Malkovich).

The word ‘transitions’ to me means change.  The professionals tend to put their own provider-centred lens on that, assuming this means moving from one of their programs to another.  To me, families should be the ones identifying what transitions are important to them.  For instance, for me, moving from the end of the school year to summer is a horrible transition, as I have to dig around trying to find childcare for my son so I can go to work. (This year I failed at that).  Another transition would be our move to a new home earlier this summer.  My boy’s adulthood is impending, so I’ve run around, panicked, trying to find my son a family doctor who will see him as he turns 19.  Each school year brings a new transition, with a new teacher and new Educational Assistants in Aaron’s life.  These are the transitions that matter to me.

I’ve never been accused of being subtle.  To take the cruise ship to dinghy metaphor a bit further, I created this cheeky image (above) which I showed to the workshop audience, a group of researchers and health professionals.

For me, this is what services for families and children with disabilities looks like throughout the years.  The last image is yes, someone drowning – and that is what looming adulthood feels like.  As I told the audience, the most important part of their work is to get a deep realization about what it feels like to be a family member afloat at sea. Change will only happen once they feel what we feel.  As pediatrician and IHI co-founder Don Berwick says in his 2014 book of his keynote presentations called Promising Change:

…”(change will happen)…when we realize that our white coats and our dark suits are disguises…our next big step is not to just serve people but to join them.

Services in the system – from cruise ship to drowning.  Pause for a moment to join me to feel what that might feel like to a family who has a child with a disability.  When that feeling finally touches your heart, then we can start to talk about change.

the leave

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Each morning we wake up at our leisure, sit on the red couch and write our plan for the day in my little coil scribbler.

It often starts with an egg salad sandwich for breakfast and moves to ‘Mom work’ which means me closing myself in a windowless office for two hours to write while Aaron watches obnoxiously-loud Johnny Test on TV.  Then electronics off and we begin our time together.  The day stretches out before us like a prairie sky.

My mantras this summer, the summer of my leave, are this:
1. Stay in the moment
2. Move at Aaron’s pace

I rue the day 15 years ago when I said, in response to yelling at my then 5 + 8 year old children:  I wish I was a more patient mom.  The Baby Gods heard me and two years later they brought me a third child named Aaron.  I’ve calculated a direct correlation:  the faster I try to move Aaron along, the slower he goes.

So slow we go.  We pick one nature outing a day and sandwich that with meals, errands and meandering strolls.  I distinctly feel as if I’ve regressed ten years and am at home with a toddler instead of a budding teenager.  Aaron craves both routine and unstructured time with his people of comfort.  Why did I think I could sign him up for a variety of day camps, just like other moms do with their kids?  This year is a stark reminder that I am not just like other moms and Aaron is not just like other kids.  Even in contemplating this complex web of summer childcare arrangements, I was in denial about our differences. This leave is my humbling, a sign that I was getting too big for my britches.  It also shows me how a lack of childcare options for older children with disabilities pushes families into poverty.  (But that is another topic for another time).

So here we are, making lemonade out of life.  Despite the adolescent defiance, the need to negotiate every move and the mortification of being seen with his mother in public, he sidles up to me at least once a day and says, I love you Mom.  Other days, This is the best day ever.   His relief at not being dropped off at a different summer camp every week, complete with a different routine and different people, is palpable.  And that’s gotta be enough.  Enough for the lost income and the stalled career, for if you really try to live in the moment, you know the moments are soon over and then they are simply gone.

We’ve gone for hikes by canyons with little cousins, played an excessive amount of mini-golf, brought our bird book to the sanctuary to identify our feathered friends, munched on popcorn in dark air conditioned movie theatres.  Right now, I’m sitting on a log by the dog beach (is there anything more glorious than a beach of dogs?) and Aaron has buried himself deep in the coastline forest, emerging victorious with found sticks and talking to them as if they are people, as he’s apt to do.

I’ll add to my mantras ‘Be Weird’ as my boy is often weird (at least to the typically-developing eye) and I struggle with that reality, particularly in public.  My own deep-rooted 13 year old awkward teenage girl fear of being judged pops right to the surface.  When I ask him:  Why are you making that funny sound? he wisely and matter-of-factly tells me:  It is the Down syndrome way.

Today he picked up a black rock and announced:  This is an asteroid!   Then he scrambled up on a big ocean rock and yelled:  THIS ROCK IS REALLY INTENSE MOM!  Last night, munching on a chorizo taco:  This meal is phenomenal!  He doesn’t stop talking in exclamation marks, except when presented with direct questions from boring adults.

[Many years ago, when Aaron was two, I belonged to a playgroup of kids with disabilities. I remember complaining that Aaron would not stop saying:  mom mom mom mom all the time.  Another mom looked at me with sadness in her eyes and said:  I wish my daughter would say my name, even once.  Her little girl had Angelman syndrome and did not talk at all.  I hung my head in shame, my face flush with my own stupidity.  It was the first of many reminders to watch my words and count my blessings].

Aaron couples his love of language with a never-ending string of knock knock jokes:

Aaron: Knock knock.
Me:  Who is there?
Aaron:  G.
Me:  G who?
Aaron:  God.

Me:  Huh?  That’s it?  God?  What does that mean?
Aaron:  … {Shrugs. Sly grin}.

All children offer up both joy and pain, happy and sad.  If I uncensor myself, I will confess that it is easier to be at my work:  dressed up, adult, respected, uninterrupted in the washroom. In my leave I have left that.  I am dressed down, a mom, invisible and interrupted in the washroom.

Aaron and I have eight more weeks together, but I am going to stop counting.  Life, I tip my hat to you: I’ve been knocked off my pedestal once again, but I want to tell you that the view down here ain’t half-bad.