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Fostering and donor conception

I am a 35-year-old wheelchair user living in Hertfordshire, UK. I am very lucky to have been born into a family that experienced disability and came out the other side rebelling. My mother is a wheelchair user as a result of polio. My disability – spinal muscular atrophy, a muscle wasting condition affecting me from my neck down – has never held me back.

Challenging stereotypes

I have always entered into activities that challenged other people’s comfort zones and stereotypes of disability. By the age of 16, I had been scuba diving, gliding, and abseiling, and was the first disabled person to have taken GCSE dance, which I passed with a grade A.

By the age of 18, I had A-level dance under my belt and was performing, teaching and choreographing professionally within the ‘mainstream’ and ‘disability’ arts worlds. At about age 27, I taught dance on a series of projects with looked-after children, consisting mostly of boys about the age of 13–16 years. I felt a real energy from these children and it was here I found my calling. I decided to quit performing and applied to start fostering teenagers.

I was pleasantly surprised by the attitude of the fostering team about me being a single woman with a physical disability. My assessment process was reassuringly thorough and non-discriminatory. However, the panel which approves the applications sought advice from their doctor – who had never met me and had no experience of spinal muscular atrophy – and consequently, my application was denied, based on my disability. I quoted the Disability Discrimination Act and stated that if they intended to refuse my application based on my disability, I expected, at least, to be examined by a specialist with experience of spinal muscular atrophy, who could make an informed decision regarding my ability to foster.

With the support of my supervising social worker, my application was approved for 9–18-year-olds, on the basis that the fostering team would take care in matching me with young people who they felt I could manage physically.

Over the next few months, I was thrown straight in at the deep end. Many young people came into my care for respite, for periods of between three days and three weeks. They were all deeply disturbed by their past experiences. They each had their own ways of dealing with yet another carer – some of them displayed sexual behaviour, some displayed violence, others were cold and numb.

I put my heart and soul into every placement and took each learning experience with me to the next placement to make it more positive. I learned from this incredibly valuable rude awakening that these young people needed a patient, non-judgmental, emotionally available, genuine person who didn’t want anything from them, to validate, respect, admire and embrace who they are and to listen, even when they didn’t want to speak.

My physical disability was never an issue for me. Growing up as a disabled person meant that problem-solving was something I learned early on. I know that given a physical obstacle there is always a way around it. The only time my disability has ever been an issue in fostering is with other foster carers. Unfortunately, some of the ‘old school’ carers found it difficult to deal with me being a carer, as they held onto the stereotype of a disabled person as someone who needs to be cared for.

I’ve been fostering for six years and I have never once had an issue with a young person regarding my disability. I have had two long-term, full-time placements. One was a boy, who was physically disabled and lived with me for 18 months, and the other was a girl, who was deaf and stayed for two years. All the others were non-disabled.

I have fostered some young people for long periods of time, and others for only one day and never seen them again, and everything in between.

I would say that being disabled has been an advantage in this work – to have the tools to teach someone to acknowledge the cards they have been dealt, embrace them, let go of the martyr within and make their life something to be proud of.

Personal choice and prejudice

Until two and a half years ago, I did this job as a single person. I now foster with my partner which, as I am in a same-sex relationship, is another adjustment for society to deal with. Again, the young people have never had a problem with this and it is a great window for conversation about personal choice and prejudice.

Now my life has taken another turn and I am proud to say that, thanks to donor insemination, I am four months pregnant. That process was very interesting and I was surprised at how many people, for a range of different reasons, use this method to conceive. We certainly weren’t unique and that was reassuring.

Wheelchair access to clinics in London’s Harley Street is not very friendly, although the staff at the clinic we chose were prepared to adapt in any way possible.

Choosing a donor was a strange and uneasy experience. Being a couple who pride themselves on embracing their flaws, having to make a choice about height, hair colour, job, hobbies and even nose size, was uncomfortable.

After much soul-searching and embarrassingly shallow motivations, we decided on someone who seemed perfect for us. We used this donor for seven months but something inside me knew this man was not the right match and so at the last moment we chose to use a completely different donor who had none of our original requirements.

The rest is irrelevant because it worked first time and we realised that this selection process, which seems so huge at the time, loses its importance once the baby has been conceived. What is important now is that there is a baby growing inside me who needs our unconditional love.

We have decided against nuchal scans (which may detect the possibility of Down’s syndrome) as it would not bear any relevance to the way we feel about this child if they were diagnosed with a disability. I am really excited about being a birth mum but intend to continue fostering as long as I have the energy, as it is these young people who have enriched my life and given me the passion to be a parent.

First published DPPI Journal, Issue 60: Winter 2007/2008

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