Today I went to see my 8 year old son pick up an award from school. When I arrived the school’s liaison officer helped to me push me in. My dad commented that she had helped my son when he’d had a meltdown the week before. As I thanked her she told me that there had been more problems today. I entered the hall mid-assembly. My son was sat on the floor next to his teacher looking downcast. I waved to him and when he saw me his frown broke and he signalled I love you. All the way through his assembly he made hand gestures towards me. “He’s still my little baby,” I thought.
After he received his award he came up to me and said, “they’ve done it again mum. It was R— he was saying such mean things about you and I got really upset. The dinner lady looked after me and said I could probably come home. Can I please come home mum?” His eyes filled with tears. We’ve been through this so many times before I know exactly what mean things they were saying. It’s always variations on a theme of “your mum is disabled/retard/a spazz”. I told my son to go to his classroom and discuss coming home and then to come back to me to let me know.
Whilst we were waiting the parent liaison officer came to speak to me. She confirmed my fears. Yet again it had been about the fact that I’m sick. All three of my sons have been through this now. My husband is disabled, my middle son is autistic, has ADHD and learning disabilities, and my youngest has social communication difficulties (yet to be formally assessed by CAMHS) and an anxiety disorder. My parents, sister and nephew are also all disabled. We’re no strangers to ableism. It doesn’t make it sting any less though. Apparently my son had reacted badly to this boy’s taunts about me being a “retarded monkey” and a “spazz”, and he’d kicked him between the legs. Perhaps the boy deserved it, but I certainly don’t think it’s healthy that my son has turned to violence out of desperation to solve these problems.
In the car on the way back from the school my son was talking about what had happened. Guilt weighed down on me, making me feel physically sick. As his anguish circled my brain I felt more and more crushed. Tears began to stream down my face against my will, thankfully he could only see the back of my head. I tried so hard not to let him seem my pain, but as I replied to him my voice cracked. I told him that he should only care about the opinions of nice people and that those who use ableist terms are saying much more about themselves than their victims. I know this script off by heart now. Though I believe what I say it doesn’t make that dark feeling of guilt go away. At the end of the day, if I wasn’t his mother this wouldn’t be happening.
I’ve often looked at parents riding their bicycles with their children and felt such a crushing jealousy it’s been hard to breathe. I spend so much of my life in bed that I feel like their childhoods are passing me by and our special years together are being wasted. Add in all the bullying they experience because of my health and you’ve got the recipe for motherly guilt that could put the whole of the Catholic Church to shame.
Ableism has always existed. In some countries I’ve travelled to you will never see a visibly disabled person out on the streets because they still believe in institutionalism. In the UK we pride ourselves on being so progressive, but our othering of disabled people is simply more insidious. Over the last few years of state sponsored bigotry it’s become progressively worse and shows no signs of abating.
I want the school to let me face this child. I want to see how he copes when he’s sat there with a disabled person with whom he has a power differential. I think it would do him good to understand how it feels to be vulnerable and scared—just as I have to feel every time I leave the house. But more than that I’d like to face his parents, because this must surely be coming from somewhere. Bigots aren’t born they’re created. Our right wing press has presented a view of disabled people built on nothing more than lies and anecdotal stories. Unfortunately there are many people who accept these ideas without criticism. It’s been apparent to me for a while now that my generation has some pretty shady views about disability. I used to have hopes for my children’s generation, but those hopes are lost now. If anything, it seems to be getting worse.