cerebral palsy

"They told me I was a classic sib."

Every so often, an interview comes along where one of us connects so soundly with the interviewee that it feels more like the start of a friendship than a research project. I had the pleasure of having this sort of connection with one of the sibs who we interviewed on the phone somewhere between Chicago and South Dakota. Maddie* is currently getting her masters in education at a school in Chicago. She has twin older brothers names Elliot* and Allen* who are 4 years older than her. Allen has cerebral palsy and currently lives independently in Virginia.

From an early age, Maddie took on the "Mother Hen" role when it came to Allen and he rewarded her with being very affectionate towards her throughout their childhood. Interestingly enough, Allen would even call Maddie his older sister to others, despite being the older brother. When it comes to Allen, Maddie now cycles through a "typical sib" set of emotions, feeling overly empathetic, feeling guilty about not calling him enough, and a residual level of anger. She describes the sib relationship as simply one of heightened emotion.

Maddie has painful memories of Allen's schooling growing up. Their neighborhood elementary school was not ADA accessible so he had to go to a school that was farther away. When he reached middle and high school, desperate to be cool, other kids would pay Allen to curse out a teacher or to do something equally awful for his standing at the school. As a result, in combination with his occasional violent outbursts, Allen was expelled from both their middle and high school and wound up going to a charter school for students with special needs. Maddie is the first sib we've met to have drawn a particular lesson from these violent outbursts. She hypothesizes that perhaps the reason that individuals with disabilities seem to have more behavioral problems in their adolescent years is that they, like everyone else, have these sexual desires and emotions that they are usually unable to fulfill. Maddie says that this realization has helped her to understand her brother's actions so much better as an adult than she did at the time.

Maddie went to therapy for the first time this year. What drove her to seek help? Her one sib friend had told her that his brother had just passed away. Maddie felt sad for her friend but also was shocked to find herself feeling immensely jealous that he no longer had to care for his brother. She was disgusted with herself -- how dare she feel this way? Maddie told me that she has enjoyed therapy so far and really appreciates the opportunity to talk out and come to terms with her feelings about her family. She said that they diagnosed her as the "classic sib" - a complete perfectionist, ridden with anxiety and guilt, driven to always make others happy, high achieving so that her parents could have a "perfect child", the list goes on and on.

At the same time, Maddie is quick to mention the benefits that have resulted from her experience. She finds that she is able to deal with a broader group of people professionally and also believes that her experiences have prepared her to be a better and more compassionate teacher. She always served the role as "the negotiator" in her family, bridging the gap between her brother and her parents often. As a result, she has learned how to be patient and calm in stressful situations in her life.

Maddie had some great things to say about how it affects her dating life as well. She used to believe that she would have to date a doctor or a lawyer in order to be sure that she and her spouse could financially take care of her brother. However, as she's gotten older, her views have changed. She now believes that it should really just be about "who loves me and him and treats us well" and to not sweat the financial aspects as much in her choosing.

She's had a similar change relating to whether or not she would want to have a child with a disability. She said that "for the longest time, I really didn't want to have a kid with special needs". This view didn't come from her dislike for people with disabilities but rather just the amount of time and resources that she saw her parents put into having a child with a disability. Nevertheless, at this point, Maddie believes that even if her child had some sort of special needs, because it was made by her and the person she loves, she would love them regardless.

Maddie ended her interview by telling us how proud she was of us for doing this project. She noted how she thinks that many in the sib community are afraid of sharing their story for fear that they will get backlash from the other sectors of the disability community. In order to combat that, Maddie thinks that it will be a movement of sibs speaking out together that will create the awareness that many of us crave surrounding sibling support issues. We're glad to have Maddie as a part of this effort and thank her for her story.

Claire

At the intersection of rage and reflection

During our Chicago visit, we had the opportunity to interview employees of access living. One is Scott, who is an amazing advocate for people with disabilities, especially in terms of securing them supports so that they can remain in their own home independently if they please. Scott is very motivated by his anger about the state of disability services currently. Scott is part of an army family and is a veteran himself. He has two siblings with some sort of disability. His brother was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 2 and his sister was diagnosed with dyslexia.

We always ask sibs if they think that their experience affected them at all academically. That question is based in our knowledge that many sibs become high achievers, either from a place of wanting to not take for granted their intellectual capabilities or a desire to be "the perfect child" for their parents. Scott quickly let us know that he did not fit the mold, telling us that he "passed high school by the skin of his teeth". However, he reminded us that it's important to not only think about maturity and growth in the academic arena. See below:

Anger is an emotion that comes up pretty frequently in our conversations with sibs. Normally this anger has something to do with either the behaviors that their sibling displays or their feelings of resentment that they didn't get more time as a child. Scott's anger was a different form all together, and was aimed not inside the family but outside its realm.

Scott used this phrase again and again, the idea that our society was wrong, and oppressive, and in many circumstances even awful. Here, he describes the problem with the diagnosis process for families, and the psychological harm that it could potentially cause because of the specific and recommended paradigm for coping.

Many of our Chicago sibs spoke of the dire lack of services in Illinois. Here, Scott makes the perfect metaphor of the level of struggle to secure the necessary supports for individuals with disabilities.

This made the perfect segue into Scott's professional life. Scott works for Access Living, an organization that helps provide the appropriate supports so that individuals with disabilities can continue living independently and not be moved into a nursing home or more institutionalized setting. Simultaneously, Scott volunteers with ADAPT --- taken from ADAPT's website --- "a national grass-roots community that organizes disability rights activists to engage in nonviolent direct action, including civil disobedience, to assure the civil and human rights of people with disabilities to live in freedom." Listen to Scott describe ADAPT's past and current work:

Scott's story eventually took a tragic turn. His brother, while living independently, tragically died after attempting to clean up an accident he had made. Scott has so much justified anger about this incident. For months, he and his mother had searched for someone to come in to help his brother so that he wouldn't have these long periods alone. He details his struggle here in these next two clips:

I'd like to end his story with his description of his brother, simultaneously beautiful and so revealing about the importance of prioritizing independence for those with disabilities.

 

Claire

Three Women, Three Perspectives

When we were in New York City, we had the pleasure of conducting our first-ever group interview. The women that we interviewed were all members of a group called SibsNY, essentially an organization formed by sibs, for sibs that tries to connect sibs to one another and provide them the support and advice that they might need. Here's a short profile of each of our interviewees:

Lindsay: a math teacher from Staten Island, part of a family of four, with a younger sister named Julia with microcephalia (a condition where the baby's brain stops growing while in utero) which has led her to have pretty severe impairments throughout her life. Lindsay's sister is currently in a day program and community residence on Staten Island.

Cecelia: also one of four, with a younger brother with Cerebral Palsy and a developmental disability. Has two older sisters but both of them are much less involved than she is with her brother. Brother currently lives at home with her mom who is now 90. The brother's disability was always kept very hush hush, even within the family.

Mary*: also one of four(!),has an older brother, a younger sister and a younger brother. Currently a child psychiatrist in NY. Older brother was never formally diagnosed with anything but has mild to moderate cognitive deficits, social deficits and is emotionally immature as well. Brother has married twice and currently has three children.

*Name has been changed.

**Because not all of the women were comfortable with video recording, this blog post will be spliced in with audio recordings rather than video.

When asked to describe their relationships with their sibling, the women had very different responses for us. Lindsay described how despite the fact that Julia doesn't call Lindsay or sister and can't verbalize her feelings towards her, she knows that their relationship is valued and special by the way Julia lights up when Lindsay walks into her program.

Cecelia struggled more with this question. Because her parents were so set on the idea that having Bobby as a brother should not influence their quality of life, the siblings often left him behind in order to lead their own lives. Cecelia recently realized how detrimental an effect this had on Bobby and has since thrown herself wholeheartedly into improving Bobby's self-esteem and emotional health. Listen here for her depiction of her family life:

 

[soundcloud url="http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/99713926" params="" width=" 100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]

The quality that most influenced Mary's relationship was the sheer intensity of that bond. Because she was born immediately after her brother Mike*, the direct comparison between the two of them was inevitable. While Mike was floundering a bit academically and socially, Mary was valedictorian, held many leadership roles and always felt that she needed to be the "reliable one" or the "one who could get things done".

[soundcloud url="http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/99863929" params="" width=" 100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]

What was so fun about this interview for me is that it truly was a conversation among sibs instead of a more structured interview. One of us would pose a question and then the sibs would take it in whatever direction they wished, bouncing off one another's ideas. One place where there seemed to be a lot of common ground was when we asked the sibs what was valuable about having a sibling with special needs. While each sib struggled to delineate what was caused by being a sib as opposed to just their personality, they all mentioned that they believe that being a sib had made them more compassionate. Each woman added their own personal qualities that they attributed to their experience as a sibling as well:

Lindsay: [soundcloud url="http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/99783279" params="" width=" 100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]

Cecelia: [soundcloud url="http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/99783672" params="" width=" 100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]

Mary: [soundcloud url="http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/99783190" params="" width=" 100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]

Finally, I want to leave y'all with something that Mary said. She spoke beautifully about how sometimes what a sib wants most is to be seen outside their role as a sib. [soundcloud url="http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/99788157" params="" width=" 100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]

Bringing sibs together to share their experiences with one another was always one of my goals for this project. Getting to watch that connection happen right in front of us was inspiring, thought-provoking, and gave us even more fuel for our sib-fire.

Claire

Our First Rural Stop: Oneonta, NY

One of the main reasons we are going on this trip is to diversify the records of stories available about sibs. For this reason, we know that we couldn't only stop in big cities and suburbs if we were going to get the complete picture on the sibling experience. With help from a friend of mine who lives near Oneonta, we decided to stop in Oneonta, NY to see the sibling experience from a rural perspective, far from the expansive benefits that are often available in large, metropolitan areas. After the beautiful, yet slightly rainy, drive from Boston to Oneonta, we had the great opportunity of visiting Springbrook. Springbrook is a school in New York that offers several residential programs for students in New York whose school districts are unable to accommodate them as well as day programs. They also offer group homes and other therapy and occupational readiness programs for people over the age of 21. 

We were welcomed at the school by Traci Lanner, the director of the Tom Golisano Center for Autism, and  Madeline Sansevere, the director of Community Services. School wasn't in session when we visited - students were on one of their few short brakes - but the facility was beautiful. They have classrooms of about 6 students each, with one teacher and three assistants. They implement different therapies in the classroom and also offer a variety of pull-out therapies for students who may require extra time or services.

We spoke with Madeline and Traci about our project and about the various programs offered in New York for children with special needs. They explained that New York has excellent services for individuals until they turn 21. School districts unable to accommodate the needs of students will pay for them to attend Springbrook. However, once students age out, the school has very little say in where the individuals may be placed and New York's adult services varies tremendously in quality. The staff and teachers care deeply about the individuals at Springbrook. Springbrook offers to pay for teachers to get their Masters degree in Special Education and they work with SUNY Morrisville to offer classes at Springbrook to make it easier for teachers. They also offer an online program through Endicott University (in Massachusetts).

Check 'em out: www.springbrookny.org

Next, we headed over to the Family Resource Network in Oneonta where we conducted another group interview with three woman, one of whom was only 13. Here are the basic facts about these women.

Meghann is the Executive Director of the Family Resource Network and has a 24-year-old brother with Trisome 8 (a genetic disability) and autism.

Heidi works with her sister who is developmentally disabled at the Main View Gallery in Oneonta which helps provide artistic jobs for individuals in the community that are developmentally impaired.

Manu is a 13 year old sib to one brother who has ADHD and bipolar disorder and another brother who has cerebral palsy, cortical dysplasia, epilepsy, and is non-verbal.

We had a fantastic interview with all of them in one room so we will basically let the clips speak for themselves.

As we have seen time and time again, sibs seem to have these incredible "old souls" that cradle maturity and insightfulness beyond compare. Below, Manu illustrates some of the turmoil that went along with her relationship with her brother.

One of our favorite questions to ask sibs is what their roles in their families were growing up and what they are now. It was interesting to see the range of answers we received from our three interviewees. From Heidi's job of "getting her to giggle" to Manu's role as advocate and future caretaker, we learned a lot from their stories.

Another question we always get a range of answers to regards how having a sibling with special needs affects sibs socially. Below are some their responses.

 Manu shared light on a phenomenon we hadn't truly fleshed out. Many of the sibs that we interview speak about striving for academic excellence in order to "make up for" their sibling's lack of abilities to do. Manu shared some of the issues that affect her personal academics because of the house that she lives in.

One of the main reasons we stopped in Oneonta was because we wanted to see a rural perspective on the disabilities community. We gained a lot of interesting information on what it is like to care for someone with special needs in a small, economically-depressed area. They talked about how difficult it is for people with special needs to gain access to jobs and healthcare. "The threat of being cut-off is always there," Heidi told us.

We are so ecstatic that we got to meet with all three of these amazing women in Oneonta and certainly learned a lot from them.

 

 

Ellie and Renee

Sibling, Mother, Daughter

In between our New Orleans and Atlanta stops, we had the opportunity to interview an amazing woman, Karen Driver. Karen happens to be both the sister of two individuals with disabilities as well as the parent of a child with cerebral palsy. See the clip below for Karen’s description of her multi-layered connections to the disability community as well as her leadership role in providing services there.

Clearly, Karen has had a lot of experience navigating the often complex world of disability as it relates to her own life as well as her relationships with her friends and family. My first impression of Karen was overwhelmingly positive. Here was a woman who had driven an hour from her home to meet up with a few college kids and share her experiences with us and she was just so kind from the get go. Because of this, I was interested to hear that when she was my age, she had a pretty poor relationship with her siblings. The youngest of the crew, she described her bond with her brother and sister as not affectionate and also has had to deal with the fact that her older sister has chosen to not join in the caretaking of their two disabled siblings. As many sibs do, Karen often struggled with thoughts of who would care for her siblings after her single mom passed away. See below for her poignant description of these conversations with her mom.

Throughout our interview, Karen touched and elaborated on the differences between her family growing up and her current family unit of her typical daughter and atypical son. One thing that seemed extremely important to Karen was how affectionate and loving the family was able to be, given the presence of disability or difference. Also in this clip, Karen makes the comment that the sibling experience is a journey, which made us so excited to see this new double meaning to our blog title!

Given her very positive attitude today about being a sibling of two individuals with special needs, I was surprised to learn how bad her home life had been at some points. Specifically, during her brother's teenage years, he developed some more intense behavioral problems. When we asked her how that compares to how she balances her family members today, it became clear how much of a delicate balance Karen attempts (and almost always succeeds) to have between all of her responsibilities.

Something that many siblings have confided to us is that even if they are the younger sibling, they often wind up functioning in the role as the older sibling. I had the intuition that we had a very wise woman sitting with us so I thought I would ask her thoughts on this issue as the "baby" of a family of four. See below:

Another thing that both Ellie and I have encountered is people telling us that we are very mature for our age. I remember getting this comment, especially when I was younger and around my parents friends. When people told me that, for whatever reason, I never took it as a compliment. It always made me feel like I had failed at presenting a carefree front to them. Karen also spoke to how both she and her daughter often get told that they have "old souls". As she did with so many other topics, Karen was able to present this comment in a positive way that I hadn't thought of before. She explained that to her, being mature for her age meant that she just realized earlier in life the things that just don't really matter. Later in the interview, she elaborated on that by saying that being the sibling of someone with special needs has allowed her to let go of what other people think and start enjoying living her life much earlier than her friends who have not gone through that experience.

Karen's interview was certainly a source of inspiration to me as it made me reflect on how much can change and develop in a sibling relationship over time. Growing up, there were moments where I worried our relationship would be frozen in whatever was its current state. Talking with and listening to Karen began to help me shift my thinking about our relationship to a more evolutionary and ultimately hopeful perspective and for that, I am forever grateful.

Claire