Disability

Yesterday was the International Day of People with Disabilities. The perfect time for me to write about something that’s been on my mind for a while. Only, true to form, I’m now a day late…

(I should also point out that it was originally called International Day of Disabled People, and many disabled adults that I follow would prefer it still to be so. If you are interested, there is a wealth of information out there on the social model of disability v the medical model.)

It took me a loooong time to describe Pudding as disabled. At first all we knew was that he was a bit behind his peers, then came the mention of development delay. But still I thought he might ‘catch up’. The diagnosis of MPS (mucopolysaccharidosis) meant having to alter all our preconceptions about what his life would be like. Yet I still didn’t really think of him being disabled.

Looking back I know it is down to deep-rooted beliefs about the word itself. I saw it as a fairly narrow definition for those with obvious physical differences. And, dare I say it, I saw it as a negative. Neither of which I wanted to use to describe my son.

Growing up I never really had much exposure to disability. I didn’t see many people out in society, very rarely on TV (although there is still a long way to go, this at least has changed massively since). At university I did volunteer for a project working with disabled children and young adults, but even in that context language and attitudes surrounding it never came up. Later I did know a few disabled people, but again the conversations just didn’t happen. So until Pudding’s diagnosis I was ignorant of so much of society. And I do feel guilty of that.

Pudding smiling widely seated in his wheelchair wearing a bright red coat with ladybird spots.

Over the last few years I’ve followed blogs and listened to disabled activists on Twitter. I know that disability is not a dirty word. I know that many disabilities aren’t visible. I know that an estimated 22% of the UK population is disabled in some way. And I use the word regularly to describe my son. Pudding IS disabled – both physically and mentally, and also by society in general. And that does not mean he himself is any less value as a person.

And yet, in a conversation the other day I felt bad for using the word. I was speaking to someone I’d only recently met and they asked about my work. Unlike the first years after diagnosis when I felt almost compelled to throw into conversation the awful prognosis of MPS, I tend to avoid it now. So I replied that I didn’t currently, that my son was disabled and ‘it was complicated’. Very true. Yet my tone obviously implied more, and their response was to say ‘I’m sorry about that’. That made me worry that I am continuing to perpetuate the outdated notion of disability being solely negative. But I don’t want to come full circle and kill conversations with the bombshell of ‘he’s got a life-limiting disorder’.

Some day I’ll find the right way to respond to a simple question!