Adversity is a word you hear quite often as a foster carer. It seems to sit hand in glove with the profile of many of the children who come into the care system. The adversity, hardship and horror that some children and even their families may have faced, can leave lifelong scars that few other people can truly relate to.
From most people’s perspective, adversity applies to us all in some way on occasions in life; death of a relative, serious injury that has made life difficult for a period, losing a job, the ending of a relationship or even financial hardship.
There are many possible reasons, but with time and support those scars do tend to heal, and often we can change our own circumstances to improve things. I suppose one of the main groups who can experience lifelong adversity in a similar way to ‘looked after’ children are people with disabilities or serious life limiting illnesses and conditions.
Disability and adversity
I wasn’t born with a disability, although I grew up around it, and lived in a house with it throughout my childhood. My grandfather was confined to a wheelchair and lived with my parents and my siblings and I until his death when I was eleven. He died from complications caused by muscular dystrophy (MD). This was the very same condition that I was diagnosed with six years later.
It may seem naive considering the circumstances of my childhood, but no one ever thought that me and my brother would end up having the same condition.
It led to a hard time for me. I felt anger and bitterness about this dream shattering news, the disappointment about my life goals being taken away and fear of my new future – all suddenly being piled on top of the insanity of being a teenager. It was not an easy time at all. In fact, it was the best part of a decade and a half before I was anywhere close to coming to terms with it, if we do ever actually come to terms with such a thing.
I have seen both sides of disability, firstly not having it and being able bodied, then having it and not being fully able bodied.
I have perhaps the unique perspective of both points of view. Now I am a foster carer, I also have a further perspective in the sense that I’m the person with the condition doing the caring.
Inevitably as expected I became disabled slowly over time in an ever-decreasing spiral of capacity. I trained to be an engineer, and I worked in heavy industry for as long as my condition would allow.
This was perhaps my first taste of disability adversity – the way employers run away from it and don’t see beyond the heightened insurance risk or the perceived lower productivity. For a person with a disability, adversity isn’t something that stands alone. Discrimination, bigotry, attitudinal prejudice, bullying and exclusion also unfortunately play a major role in day-to-day life.
It can present itself in many ways. Some are obviously cruel and intentional, like being laughed at and called names because you walk differently or look different, to not being given equal opportunities and so on. Some are unintentional like events that don’t have proper disabled access, toilets or parking.
Some people only see disability that is either extreme or obvious. Because of some people’s discomfort around serious disability, they can form a negative opinion about it that they then apply to the world in all circumstances. Most disability is in fact hidden, for example diabetes, or a hearing or visual impairment.
‘Not being included isn’t the same as being included’
I’ve recently become involved in a project to examine why more people with disabilities are not actively recruited to be foster carers, and why people with disabilities tend not to engage as much with employers or events.
This has allowed me to highlight some of the key issues around disability and the lack of proactive inclusion for disabled people in mainstream society. We are all aware of the politically correct version of how it should be. We are unfortunately also all very aware of how things far too often play out in reality. It is perhaps better to phrase it as, ‘Not being excluded isn’t the same as being included’.
Society sometimes doesn’t engage as much as it should with disability because traditionally, a person’s value is judged on their productivity. This can paint all disabled people as incapable of certain things, sometimes overlooking their actual abilities and what they can contribute to society.
This might include the constant ability to adapt, the drive to overcome challenges, the determination to prove themselves equal, the compassion for others, the pride at being productive and of value, the loyalty they show to the companies who give them equal opportunities.
Fear and acceptance
It would be remiss of me not to talk about fear, the fear some people have of disability. I have met people who have asked me if they can catch it!
I have two children living with me who have been with me for eight years, from being very small children. They rarely take notice of disability or outwardly observe it in people that often. They have become so included with the notion that disabled people are normal that they just see all people as people.
They have no fear of a person with a learning disability, facial disfigurement or a person in a wheelchair. To them, disability is part of normal life, and disabled people are not to fear or mock, they are there to be helped and to include. This is what inclusion brings – natural equality and compassion.
I do understand fear of disability. Even as a person with one I still have it; I quite honestly find very severe disability a little unnerving. This is purely because I feel vulnerable, and I see it as a failing in myself, that I try to overcome. For example, I was once pushed over and injured by someone with a very profound learning disability, not deliberately I must add, but due to my own lack of balance and my condition I couldn’t prevent it.
It is and always will be human nature to fear what we do not understand. Though if we endeavoured to bring disability to the fore for people to become accustomed to more often and earlier in their lives, not just when the Paralympics is on, perhaps we can fuel acceptance in new generations.
These fears make me reluctant to engage too, and I battle with myself to do so. I think the battle is the war I need to win in myself to change things. So, I push aside the fears and anxiety as best I can, and throw myself head first at life and the role I now have.
Win or lose I am determined to try because the children I care for are more important than I am. They are what matters most to me, not my limitations. I do it for them and want to change the world for them. Like anyone who sees themselves as a parent, foster parent or otherwise we all want the best for our kids!
My journey with the National Fostering Group
It is at this point I must sing the praises of the fostering agency I work with, the National Fostering Group. After engaging with me about disability and disability recruitment into fostering, NFA changed their training venue in my hometown because it had no disabled access.
This was entirely of their own doing, and they actively engaged with me to find a more suitable location. This follows on from the amazing support they have given me from the very first conversation I had with them when I wanted to foster.
It’s proactive engagement like this that feeds into a better future for everyone. The children who need safe, happy homes; disabled people who feel valued and relevant; and the staff who gain insight and experience around disability and its issues, which helps them have a more inclusive and positive view of disability to carry forwards throughout their careers.
It may seem ridiculous to some, but my condition gave me some things back for all it took away. It gave me compassion, mental strength, and a dogged determination to be seen as the same. Not to mention an understanding of ‘adversity’ that I can use to relate to the children whom I care for with the support of the NFA. Like them, I know what it’s like to suffer at the hands of others. Those experiences gave me the strength to overcome it and that’s what I need to give them.
Becoming a foster carer
If you do have a disability and want to find true value and acceptance, then perhaps enquire about fostering and use the unique perspective and skills you have to improve the lives of vulnerable children and young people.
I have seen first-hand what it feels like to see children accept and inherently promote disability as normal. It’s an amazing thing to see, and it’s an amazing skill to give them, to not be afraid and to overcome what life throws at them, not just with resolve and determination but with pride in themselves.
I foster because of my abilities, not my disabilities. But I recognise that I have gained some distinctive skills and reference points about life because of the experiences disability has forced upon me. It is the emotional competencies of a foster carer that are most important. Disability only comes into if it seriously affects your ability to provide a child with everything that they need.
And yes, some people just are not fit to be parents through their own failures, but that itself always has a deeper rooted cause.
The children I have met in the course of my fostering career have been varied and different. Some have bigger things to resolve and deal with than others, but they are all affected by the failures of others. They are affected by the same stigmas and attitudinal prejudices that we as disabled people face.
Many resonate with the same lack of self-esteem, fears and worries that I had. Most importantly though, they do have the ability to heal, they just need our help to do it. Some of the most amazing and most surprising people I have ever met are looked after children.
Some have just experienced bad things that they have normalised. Some have experienced things that would break us. They have not only lived it for years, but they have somehow survived it.
I agree fostering is not for everyone, but that’s not to a person’s detriment. It takes courage to admit you can’t handle it, but I believe it takes more courage to at least try. It takes more to give yourself to it, to make any difference you can to these children no matter how small, no matter how ungrateful they appear at the time.
Fostering is certainly hard, and it can even feel thankless at times, and it is often emotionally draining.
Home based therapeutic care ensures you don’t lose benefit entitlement
I realise the thought of losing benefits is always a big issue to disabled people.
The UK government recognises this obvious fact and have tried in many ways to make doing it viable and rewarding.
This is why fostering falls into a special category called ‘home based therapeutic care’. This means that disability benefits are not affected by being a foster carer, so you can foster and still claim what you claim.
Wherever you are I would always recommend you get independent professional advice. You may find out that your financial worries about fostering are unfounded.
The challenge and reward of being a foster carer
Fostering is not a job for anyone without huge commitment, dedication and perseverance. It is a professional and difficult role, for which you must be trained.
It takes great mental strength, drive and determination to succeed to do it well. Fostering is a job that very quickly becomes a vocation for those who love it. Vocation or not we are professionals, who play a major role in the rehabilitation of children’s well-being.
Nobody has ever remained a foster carer for the money. Any that set out with that in mind will not last. But it is impossible to do it without money, as self-esteem doesn’t pay the mortgage, the rent or the gas bill!
No, fostering allowance pays for the love and care and attention that I give my children; that’s free and always has been. The fostering allowance merely facilitates the provision of a home for them to live in and the required necessities to allow a happy and normal life for the children.
To the disabled person, if you do consider it, you should not expect special treatment because you have a disability. You will be (and rightly so) assessed like everyone else and surely that’s a good thing. You will succeed or fail based on your ability to meet the needs of a child, not your disability. A lot of able-bodied people can’t meet the needs of a child either. Hand on heart it’s the most rewarding thing I have ever done. It actually matters. It’s worth it and it changes lives.
To me it is a privilege to be able to look after other people’s children and change their futures for the better. Currently in the UK there is a need for 10,000 foster homes. There are 13,000,000 people with disabilities. If just 0.07% of the disabled community became foster carers, we could solve the national tragedy of foster care shortages.
Fostering has given me a purpose beyond myself. It has given me back a sense of self-worth and has made me a better person.
I would recommend it to anyone who wants to challenge themselves and rise above the stereotypes and labels society wants to put on you. But most importantly, help give a future to these children and young people.
Has Jon’s story inspired you?