What message do we need to convey?















At the Certain Proof screening last week, many said we had to be more vocal in telling our children's stories, and in making those stories mean something to the average person.

I later wrote a piece that touched on the negative picture of parenting kids with disabilities that often emerges from research on parent and sibling health, from media stories about families who are desperate for services, and from general attitudes about disability.

I had a most interesting discussion with a friend who suggested that this negative picture may be feeding the stereotype among doctors and the public that life with disability isn't worth living.

With tremendous pressure to contain health costs, she said, we may see an unexpected effect: doctors and government officials making a case for not saving as many children in the NICU, not putting in as many traches, and not giving parents a choice about raising a child or withdrawing care.

At a presentation on care for children with complex medical needs at the National Symposium on Integrated Care last week, it was noted that the most medically complex kids make up less than one per cent of Canada's child population (67 per cent), but eat up 33 per cent of health-care costs.

Last year, at a Canadian conference on the ethics of care for children with disabilities, we heard that about 20 per cent of the pediatric population in the U.S. generates about 80 per cent of its health-care bill.

It's not hard to see why people fear that the drive to cut costs plus research and media stories that paint a gloomy picture for families may make kids with complex disabilities vulnerable.

My friend noted there will be growing pressure on women to terminate when a diagnosis is made prenatally -- to save money and "protect" the family. The bioethicist Margaret Somerville wrote last year about a plan to make Denmark "Down syndrome-free" by 2030 by promoting abortions.

The focus on hardships in research and the media also affects families raising kids with disabilities. When you hear you're at increased risk for depression, anxiety, and, in the case of autism, divorce, and you read some of the literature about siblings, it's hard not to question yourself. Am I falling apart? Are my other children being damaged? Can I handle this? It's kind of a set-up for failure.

But you can't show any vulnerability. You're constantly fighting the stereotypes, trying to prove that really your child is valuable and really you aren't a complete mess as a parent or partner.

Parents of kids with disabilities want research because we’re told that we need evidence to influence policies on supports and funding. The reason all of the academics are in children’s rehab is because they want to make things better for families.

But do we have specific examples locally or elsewhere where services were put in place as a direct result of study findings -- as a way to mitigate stresses?

I can't think of an example in the time I've been raising Ben. Maybe one will come to me.

My friend was suggesting that we need more studies showing the value that disabled children bring to their families and communities.

There are studies, like this recent one in Child, Care and Development called Parent views of the positive contributions of elementary and high school-aged children with autism spectrum disorders and Down syndrome (pages 817–828) by Holland Bloorview researcher Gillian King.

As King writes in the study:

The findings should guard against the inaccurate assumption that there are no positive benefits in raising a child with a chronic disability, or that families experience unrelenting challenges and stresses. Parents may find it useful to know that other parents report many benefits, and the findings may reduce their uncertainty and fear regarding the journey ahead. The information can assist new parents to realize that benefits and enrichments will accompany the hardships, thereby providing a sense of hope. On a societal level, the present findings may encourage community members to view children with disabilities in a balanced light, not simply as a burden.

But do studies like this get any play in the media? I don't think so. Typically the media is looking for conflict or drama or even just simplicity. They don't do complexity and ambiguity so well. And that's what life is like raising kids with disabilities. It's full of beauty and joy and pain and challenge.

So how do you think we should be telling our stories? How can we create a climate where the public supports better services for families of children with disabilities?