My older brother Graham has a learning disability. We never used this term when we were young -we always just thought of Graham as being a bit slow. I remember when he started school and was learning to read and I would sit on the sofa with him and my Dad while he painstakingly learned to read some of the basics. This gave me a head start and meant that I learned to read before I started school. It also meant that Graham grew up with expectations that he would do the same things as every other child his age.
Graham and I always went to the same school together and right up to when we went to secondary school, I never thought of him as being disabled. He was just a geeky, pain in the backside brother to me. He never got good reports at school but he just went though school at the same pace that I did. I only knew that something was wrong when he got to secondary school. He spent his first year at secondary school failing miserably and by the time I joined him there, the school was insisting that he should leave and go to the local special school. My Mum spent many months challenging this- she knew that he would not be happy there and he had formed strong friendships that he would miss if he left his school. She won and he ended up staying at our secondary school.
My Mum is my original hero. I never appreciated at the time what she had done- this was 1980 in Australia where people were expected to do as they were told by the 'experts' (still are as far as I know...). She knew from personal experience of growing up in care what it was like to be different, to be discriminated against, and she was not going to have that for any of her children. It wasn't easy though. I remember the impatient teachers that humiliated him. I remember the taunts from cruel children. I got into many fights having to stick up for him. But ultimately it was the right thing to have done.
Sadly Mum died in 1982. Graham went on to get a job in a shoe factory, get a girlfriend and indulge in his passion for heavy metal. But without the constant love and attention my mother gave him, Graham's life descended into chaos and he developed alcohol induced schizophrenia in his early twenties and he has been unable to work ever since. I often wonder what his life would have looked like had Mum been there to look out for him. I wonder what his life would have looked like if there had been good support out there for him and us as his family.
I see this incredible love and commitment in so many families that I meet and work with. The belief in their children and the unwavering commitment to help them have good lives, the constant fight, the humour, the anger, the despair. I wonder why we make it so hard for them. I wonder why we so often think that professionals know more than families do. I wonder why we don't see the sense (and economics) of investing in support for families, why we wait for crises and only step in with the best on offer at the time, which is often not good enough.
So in Learning Disability Week 2013 I am going to Celebrate Families with Mencap. They have asked people to nominate their heroes. I don't really think that families are heroes. They are just getting on and doing the best they can in the circumstances they have. But I have countless personal heroes that I have met over the years that I want to recognise this week....
So Happy Learning Disability Week to Michelle, Sheila, Jackie, Nik, Linnet, Ian, Caroline, Viv, Vicki, Jo, Lynne, Mark, Sara, Josephine, Cris, Michelle, Mrs Bedi, Mags, Lawraine, John, Stephen, George, Wendy, Avril, Melanie, Jo, Pippa, Sarah, Elaine, Julia, Sue, Charlie, Clare, Charlotte, Balwinder, Thurayah, Chris, Linda, Paula, Jan, Angela, Marcella, Susan, Robert and the many others that my failing memory will not allow me to recall. You are what makes me want to keep fighting. Thank-you.