There are lots of misconceptions about fostering with a disability, and many people believe that their condition makes them unsuitable for caring for vulnerable young people. The truth is, many disabled people have exactly the right kind of qualities to be an effective foster carer, and will find the process rewarding, challenging and fulfilling.
Sunday 15 July is Disability Awareness Day in the UK, the world’s largest not-for-profit disability exhibition. The event, whose programme of activities takes place in Cheshire, was developed to showcase what disabled people can do in their life and career, and how people are no longer as limited by their condition as they once were.
To mark DAD 2018, we talk to one of our carers, Jack, about his experience of fostering as a disabled carer. Jack has fostered a diverse mix of young people in North West England, whilst living with muscular dystrophy, and he has thrived as a highly-successful and much-admired foster carer.
Here, we talk to Jack about the challenges and rewards of fostering with a disability, and take a closer look at how fostering can affect different aspects of life for disabled people.
Hi Jack, thanks for agreeing to talk to us about your experience of fostering. Firstly, could you tell us a bit about why you decided to become a foster carer?
I decided to become a foster carer after struggling to find employment in my field of engineering due to my disability. Having always enjoyed being with children, and feeling I had a lot to offer to young people, I wanted to turn my life experience into something positive, and use it to help others.
Tell us about your initial contact with your fostering agency. What did the process involve and how did you feel after the initial visit?
Initial contact with the NFA was very good. I had spoken to several other agencies who seemed disinterested due to me having a disability and no children of my own, which was ridiculous but that’s how society can be. NFA gave me a completely fair attempt and allowed me to go through the same process as every other carer. Fair treatment, not special treatment.
I felt very positive and reassured after the initial contact. Having your questions answered honestly was very helpful and gave me the confidence to go ahead.
How did you feel when you were notified of your first foster care placement?
Your first placement is always scary. It’s nerve-wracking because you don’t know what to expect, but the training beforehand is excellent and prepares you as well as you can be. And, you’ve got to remember that it’s much scarier for the young person coming into your home, so I put myself in their shoes. It was actually a lot less difficult than I imagined, as we all make things worse than they are when we are uncertain. In reality, it was really enjoyable.
As a disabled foster carer, what help and support is available to facilitate you in carrying out your role?
Support as a disabled carer comes in many forms. NFA are helpful and provide training at places with disabled facilities and understand my limitations. But support also comes in the benefit structure we have in the UK, which, due to the unique nature of fostering, allows a person on disability benefits to retain most of them even when working as a self-employed foster carer. This removes some of the fears around what may happen between placements or just initially around finances.
How was your condition viewed and assessed when you first applied to become a foster carer?
My condition, which is muscular dystrophy, was discussed and assessed the same as any other person’s health. It’s important to remember that I foster on my abilities, not my disabilities. In fact, living with my disability has given me skills other people don’t have; I understand adversity, fear, victimisation and prejudice, and I know how hard it is to overcome these things. Disability made me stronger, more caring and more understanding. Skills I feel are vital to the role.
Coming into the process, did you have any fears and anxieties about how your condition could affect your ability to foster? And, if so, what helped to alleviate these?
Fear and anxiety are always an issue. I was afraid my condition would stop me, and I was anxious about my ability to do it well. I think honesty on the part of NFA and the assessment process made those concerns go away. The process is long and detailed, and there was a lot of time to discuss and resolve my concerns.
What can other foster carers with disabilities expect during the initial medical assessment?
The medical assessment was more concerned with my state of mind, how I view the world, what I think about life and what kind of mindset I have. My condition isn’t that severe, so I have a degree of physicality. It was thorough, but it was also mindful of my condition. It was really not a stumbling block. There is no reason a disability should prevent a person from fostering, provided they have the capacity and the capability to provide a loving, caring and safe home.
What can disabled foster carers expect in terms of the young people they’re matched with?
Every child or young person who comes into NFA care will be very carefully matched with prospective carers. This is done in-house, and takes into consideration people’s strengths and weaknesses. Whether a person is disabled or able-bodied doesn’t really play a part; the point is finding the best placement for the young person. The disability of a carer is not the primary consideration, but it is considered, and each carer is matched to the child’s needs. I have a disability and I’ve had all kinds of placements – from young offenders to preschool children.
Does becoming a foster carer as a disabled person affect the benefits you receive?
Benefits are an interesting subject. Disability benefits are not affected and neither is Motability. Fostering is classed as home-based therapeutic care, which is a special category and allows some benefits to be classed as exempt from employment status. But I would suggest that people considering fostering get independent professional advice about their own situation, as I can only speak for myself.
What would you say is the most challenging aspect of fostering with a disability?
The most challenging aspect of fostering with a disability is a good question. I don’t really see it as a factor – fostering is challenging anyway. It’s complex, difficult and requires a lot of work, both emotionally and physically. You have to invest yourself into the role completely to be successful at it.
I have a disability and I don’t let it impact on what I do. Of course, I have limitations. I can’t run around a park and things like that, but I compensate for it in other ways. My condition affects me, and I try very hard not to let it impact the children I care for. Fostering is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. It isn’t the easiest, but any expectations that it will be are a little naive. It’s a hard job, but it’s also a great job.
Do you have any other input and advice for disabled people considering foster care?
Don’t believe the horror stories. Fostering is 95% amazing and 5% challenging. It can be heart-breaking at times, inspiring at others. This is the most difficult, most wonderful, most frustrating, amazing thing a person can do. It’s a mixture. Believe in yourself, don’t let your condition hold you back, and most of all, if you have fears and doubts, speak to the NFA and they will help to resolve them. If I can do it, then so can you.
Do you have anything else to add on the topic of fostering with a disability?
Disability remains an issue in our society. No matter how far we have come, prejudice is indicative of the world we live in, and it’s hard for the world in general to look beyond the surface of a person to find what lies underneath.
But fostering is all about what lies underneath. Both in terms of the child and the carer. In this role, we try to overlay bad with good, and to remove fear. We have to challenge ourselves as people with disabilities to be more than others expect. To rise above that hidden stereotype. If we can show just how deep the talent pool is in the disabled community, then maybe we can slowly start to change that perception of being less in the eyes of the world.
Make a difference to one child who hasn’t had the benefits of your upbringing, who doesn’t understand anything but fear – and not only will you have shown something amazing and life-changing to that child, you will have risen above those who look down on you.
We’d like to thank Jack for sharing his experiences of fostering, and hope that his insights and guidance may inspire you to take the first step towards what promises to be a fulfilling career. For more help and information about fostering, visit our homepage or call us today on 0330 022 9135.