This Easter I went to America. This may seem unremarkable in an age of globetrotters, but at one time in my life I thought I’d be doing well to get to Rosslare unencumbered and unrecalled. Even though I believe home is best for my daughter, I still wanted to see the world. The cabin’d cribbed confined stage is familiar to most parents, but with a child with a disability it sometimes seems unending. The fact that I could take myself to the other side of the Atlantic for two weeks shows that it needn’t be so.
Aoife went to stay with her Homechoice family—who used to be her Breakaway family—she’s been going to them for ten years. Because of its flexibility, Homechoice has been a godsend to us. What we didn’t know when we went into it first—desperately seeking holidays—is how good it has been for Aoife. It has given her a long-term relationship with another family. She gets a great kick out of Carol and Jimmy’s young children. And the fact that she seems happy makes it easier for me to take off with a light heart.
I’ve been teaching a course which includes the famous Americans with Disabilities Act, so I was eager to see how far the law had affected real life in the US. On one of my New York bus-safaris I noticed the driver making an unscheduled descent from his cab. He was helping a wheelchair user to board the bus. The fold-up lift was so neat I hadn’t noticed it. And that wheelchair turned out to be a pavement vehicle—a little scooter which has quite a different image. When will these things reach Ireland?
My travelling companion and only begetter of this ambitious trip was on placement in the Maryland School for the Blind. Thanks to the kindness of the Director, I was able to accompany her on her last day there. In the USA most children who are blind attend their local school with support; the Maryland School for the Blind caters for children who have another disability as well as visual impairment—usually a learning disability. Some come to the school daily by bus; other spend Monday to Friday on the extensive campus.
The Centre was very well staffed. We observed a class who were preparing for the spring break: ‘Some of you will be celebrating Easter; some of you may celebrate Passover; some of you may have a family get-together; some of you may not choose to celebrate at all, and that’s OK too.’ Multi-culturalism definitely ruled. The class had eight children, one teacher and two classroom assistants.
But what bowled me over was the sheer range of aids, devices, and toys which were available in every room. In the dining-room there were disposable plastic bibs, and specially shaped cups and cutlery for children with cerebral palsy. In the classrooms there were computers with programmes personalised for the individual child. Much of the material designed for children with visual impairment would be useful for children with severe and profound disabilities. Aoife would have loved the light tables—like large aquariums, lit from beneath, some with great swirls of colour floating through them. In the kindergarten one small child who could not speak had a squeeze box. When she hit the switch, the box said: ‘Hello, my name is Natalie.’ There were speech boards with touch-switches (some in Braille) some of which spoke when pressed. There were all sorts of tape-recorders, with switches that responded to different types of touch. About fifteen years ago I came across such switches in Ireland, but they were so unreliable that I gave up on them. Yet a switch which responds to a slight, half-voluntary movement can give a severely disabled person some control of their environment. I saw little Wendy houses where a child could lie experiencing different degrees of darkness and light. One had hanging strips of material ranging from hemp to velvet which might brush against the child’s face or hands. There were swings, slides, climbing frames and basins of soft balls. The only disappointment was a room for older teenagers where I felt there was significantly less material than in the children’s rooms. Why should age be an additional handicap for people with such disabilities?
Some of the things I saw in the States are already available here; my friend pointed me in the direction of a firm called Rompa Codicrafts Ltd who are based in Roscrea, and whose catalogue contains some of the things I’ve mentioned—an imaginative commercial response to special needs.
My friend told me of the ingenious way the school’s Easter egg hunt was organised. Because the children had problems seeing small objects, the eggs were fitted with batteries which beeped when someone approached. This may seem a small and frivolous thing, but the fact that a company was willing to produce such a device betokens a respect for and interest in disability. Now that Ireland has become so rich and electronically adept, there should be no shortage of sensitive switches, light tables and jacuzzis, so that centres for people with multiple disabilities will be places of imagination, activity and beauty.