This is one of my favourite photos. It’s my older brother Ross, and a chap called Michael. It’s a special picture because both Ross and Michael passed away within a couple of years of this picture being taken, and it reminds me of some really happy times.
My adoptive parents were residential social workers and so I've always known and worked with people with physical and learning disabilities. When I was at uni, Ross and I used to take groups of residents from my Mum's care home on holiday – this photo was taken on a holiday in Scotland, in the same place where our whole family stayed when we were kids.
Michael was one of our longest-standing residents. He could be very loving and had a wicked sense of humour, but he was stubborn as a mule, and could fly into a fury if you asked him to do something he wasn't keen on. He loved to spend entire days copying words and letters out of books, and his favourite thing to watch on TV was nature documentaries – he loved animals.
Like many men of his age with Downs Syndrome, Michael spent many years in a hospital. His speech was poor because he was born at a time when it was thought 'kinder' to remove the teeth of people with Downs rather than subject them to the trauma of dental care. But he was able to communicate, using a combination of sounds and Makaton sign language.
Michael was very happy, but he looked and sounded different to most people. When you knew him, it was easy to forget about, but strangers would often stare. But what used to upset me far more than that was when people would steer their children away from us in the supermarket, or tell their children not to look.
I'm sure, looking back, those parents had the best of intentions, but I still think they were teaching their children that disability was at best embarrassing and not to be talked about, or at worst, frightening. Why is this?
I know as a parent that sometimes it's hard to look at someone with a disability without thinking, "Thank God my child is healthy", but I do bend over backwards to try and teach Flea that disability is just part of some people's lives, and it doesn't stop them being smart, or funny, or kind, or – in some cases – bad-tempered old gits. I think there's a balance to be struck between being sensitive to someone's disability and remembering that they're not JUST a disability – certainly, Ross and I used to tease the residents we cared for just as we teased each other, or any of our friends.
If Flea is staring at someone or asks why they look different, or don't walk, I tend to try and explain openly, about what that person's disability might be. I've found often that people will talk to children directly and explain why they look a bit different, or can't do the same things as her, if Flea asks them directly.
I'm not sure this is the right approach – it's just the one that seems most respectful to me, based on my own experiences. I’d be really interested in your tips on this – how did you introduce the idea of disability and difference to your children? Do you find it difficult to know how to strike the right balance?