A Family Affair: `Yes, they're disabled - but it's not a tragedy'

After bringing up their five children, Gina Bower, 55, and her husband Ron, 56, decided 12 years ago to adopt three disabled youngsters. They have also fostered another child. The family lives in Brentford, Greater London

Gina

We had our own children - they're now aged between 29 and 37 - and when the last one left home we decided to adopt young people with learning difficulties. I had been a care officer for disabled children and adults, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think another reason why I wanted to adopt was because of my Auntie Nora. She had learning difficulties, and had an absolutely awful childhood. We decided on older children because they're so difficult to place. Jason has been with us 12 years this Christmas. He's 27 now, and has got severe learning difficulties and cerebral palsy.

He was shaken at 14 weeks old, and it damaged his brain. We picked Jason at a picnic day that the charity Parents for Children put on for prospective parents. All the parents were talking to the social workers of the younger children, and no one was talking to Jason's. He did look quite disabled when we first saw him, but once you get to know the person the disability almost disappears. He was laughing and tapping our hands and I thought: ``Yes, this is the one for us.''

When we took him home in the car it felt just the same as when I brought my first son home from hospital as a little baby. Jason settled really well and went to school. He now goes to a day centre. He's really happy, really enjoys life and is full of mischief. When we took him they didn't think he would actually come to recognise us, but he definitely does. We always intended to provide a "family" environment, so we adopted Steven nine years ago. He's got a small brain. They didn't know whether he would be able to hold a conversation when we got him. He's 18 now, talks, and is a really lovely fellow. He's doing a photography course and learning independent living at college.

Just after Steven, we got Ruby - she's 24. She wasn't up for adoption, so we fostered her. She's got serious mental disabilities, but physically she's quite able. She goes to a day centre with Jason. And five years ago we adopted Maria when she was 11. She's very similar to a nine-month- old baby, and goes to school.

People like to think that having a disabled child in the family is a big tragedy, but it's really not. Even though three of my children are very disabled - they can't speak and they're doubly incontinent - they're still capable of having fun in their lives. They've all got their own personalities, and are quite sensitive to other people's needs.

This was a three-bedroom house when we moved in, and we've had to extend it to six. I do all the cooking and I have someone to help with the cleaning. I try to buy clothes that don't need ironing. We take the children on holiday in England four times a year. It's fairly expensive looking after them, but we do get allowances.

Ron and I don't go out much, but I don't mind. If anything, we get on better now because you've got to be more considerate. Sometimes the children have seen violence and arguing, so you have to always remember not to shout at each other in front of them. You get into a habit of not doing it.

The children are fairly easy to cope with. They get on well with each other, as well as with our other children who really love them. I love them all the same. It's quite jolly at home. Everyone is always laughing. The best bit about looking after them is the fun. The pleasure comes from seeing them so happy. They keep you young. I wouldn't swap them for the world.

Ron

Having seen what some people with learning difficulties can go through we wanted to give somebody a bit of "home love". I was a lorry driver until I retired with arthritis about five years ago. You have some doubts in the back of your mind about whether or not it would work out, but you have to think positively. Some of our friends thought we were mad in the beginning, but they admired what we were doing. A lot of them said they wouldn't have the courage to do it themselves.

When we first met Jason, we fell in love with him straight away. It was the look on his face and the smiles he gave us. It was nice to see him so happy when he came back with us. When we first saw Steven, he reminded me of the Milky Bar Kid - a little blond boy with glasses. He asked me to sit on the floor and play with some live centipedes with him. That was it - I fell in love with him. We've never looked back.

The children are part of our family and it's like they've never not been here. The enjoyment you get from them is unbelievable. The week before we go on holiday, they're all excited, laughing and smiling. Mind you, they do that all the time.

During the week gets them up, washed and dressed. After breakfast she walks Jason and Ruby to the day centre, and puts Steven and Maria on the bus. I stay upstairs out of the way unless she needs me, because she's got it into a routine.

The children start coming in about 3.30. There's always food and drink on the side ready for them. They're washed and changed, and they then do what they like.

We don't distinguish between them and our own children at all. As far as we're concerned they're an addition to the family, and we treat them the same.

When we're too old to look after them, our other children will take them on. We have money and the house left in a trust for them. They can stay here and live with either one of my children and their family, or a professional nurse or carer.

The most enjoyable bit is the satisfaction you get. Since they've come to us we can see how much happier and more outgoing they are. Jason used to just sit and rock. Here he gallops around like a lunatic.

Interviews by Julia Stuart

Parents For Children: 0171-359 7530

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