What if disability was considered an asset? Currently almost everyone considers it a problem to be solved at best, but more likely one to be brushed under the carpet and forgotten about. This creates a whole bunch of largely unnecessary issues for those of us at the sharp end of dealing with it.
But let’s try a thought experiment. What if that regressive thinking was turned on its head? What benefits might flow from that?
A good example of the possibilities that might emerge from a change that sounds radical, but really shouldn’t be, emerged earlier this week courtesy of a project undertaken by the University of Worcester that looked at fostering.
Now, the Fostering Network, a charity, last year said there was a need for 8,500 foster carers. It’s a shortage that can create some terrible problems and can lead to heartbreaking stories that most people would rather not think about. Mostly they don’t unless Panorama or Dispatches, or some similar outlet, chooses to highlight the issue and their programmes generate enough publicity to briefly wake Britain’s authorities and elected representatives from their sclerotic slumbers.
But they should because the consequences of such a shortage can include vulnerable children ending up living long distances from their families, schools and friends, sometimes cruelly separated from their brothers and sisters, sometimes matched with carers who lack the relevant skills and experience to meet their needs.
How to address this? One way is if the agencies that match foster parents with children were willing to reach out to people from groups they might not normally consider. Such as... well you probably know where this is going.
For them to consider the merits of disabled carers, however, requires them to undertake the change in thinking I’ve highlighted. It requires them to cease thinking of the supposed problems disabled carers might present and instead focus on the benefits they might bring to the table.
During initial surveys of fostering agency staff for the project, which was funded by Drill (Disability Research on Independent Living & Learning), several questioned the ability of foster parents with significant disabilities to care for children. They expressed fears the child could end up caring for the foster parent.
This really isn’t the problem they think it is, certainly not with the correct support and the right placements (and the report produced at the end of the study gives examples). It is, rather, a prejudice, one that is, regrettably, fairly common in society at large.
The study also identified barriers that prevent potential disabled carers from applying. Agency websites rarely feature positive images of disabled foster parents, buildings are inaccessible, ditto information systems and support structures – all issues that could be addressed relatively easily and cheaply.
And they ought to be, not least if agencies want to be in compliance with the Equality Act, and are prepared to adjust their thinking to see disabled people as the potential assets they are.
They bring to the table empathy and understanding for those facing challenges, which are often emotional and severe. They have a natural affinity with the underdog. They understand feelings of fear, frustration, insecurity, and hurt. That’s because most of us have dealt with them at some point. Getting dumped on goes with the territory.
Disabled people are also often unusually adept at hacks; at improvising ways to get around the difficulties imposed upon us. Needless to say this means disabled foster carers could serve as very good examples to children who face their own set of challenges.
The study offers some good case studies of where it has worked (training agency staff has worked wonders).
All that’s really required to create more of them is for people to be prepared to put their prejudices aside in the name of solving a problem; to flip the switch.
It isn’t just true of fostering and disability. It could be applied to any number of fields.
What might help is if Britons in authority positions made an effort to re-establish some of the common sense the country has lately abandoned.
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