Sally Whittle on Respect, Compassion and Disability

When I asked (possibly wine-fuelled) at the recent MAD Blog Awards if Sally Whittle (the founder) could find time to write a little guest post for Downs Side Up, I was flattered and surprised when she said yes. Because this woman really is one very busy person!

Sally Whittle happens to be one of the women I respect the most in this world of blog. She's a brilliant single Mum to an incredible girl called Flea, she writes with integrity at Who's the Mummy and heads Tots100, Trips100, HIBS100 and the Foodies100

The plates she spins are full to the brim, yet she is fun, down to earth and full of integrity. I doubt whether she would stand for much nonsense.

Thank you Sally for finding the time to write this important post on your views of respect, compassion and difference:

Sally Whittle's lesson on respect and compassion

"I can’t remember a time when we didn’t spend time with people who had disabilities, whether learning disabilities or physical disabilities." 

My parents are both residential social workers and disability was just a part of my childhood. When I was a toddler, I went to work with my Mum, who worked as a care assistant in a residential home. For several years when I was in primary school, we lived in a flat attached to one of the homes where my Mum was a manager, and even when we didn’t live on-site, we were used to dropping in on my parents at work after school, and hanging out with the various people they worked with, whether it was homes for the elderly, the mentally ill, the physically disabled or those with learning disabilities. 

Over the years, we got to know some of the clients pretty well. One of my abiding memories is of a man called Bernard, who lived in the first home where my Mum ever worked, as a care assistant. When I was three or four, he used to like to sing “Sally, Sally, pride of our alley” at me, and dance around the lounge. When I was in my teens, he’d been moved out of residential care into a shared house as part of the “care in the community” scheme. We visited him in his new house, which was dark and shabby, and in a sketchy part of town. After that, I’d see him sometimes hanging around the bus station in the day-time. I heard he died a few years later. 

My parents didn’t shield us from this sort of thing – we were raised to see that governments have a bad record of caring for the most vulnerable members of society. When I was 15, my Mum made the decision to leave social services and set up on her own, opening a residential care home for six adults with learning disabilities. We moved into a large, converted B&B and my parents made a flat on the top floor of the house for us. In some ways it was hard – bringing boyfriends back to my house was always an interesting experience! any of our clients had spent most of their lives in a hospital and it was great to see them flourish with us – these were men from a generation who thought it was “kinder” to remove the teeth of people with Down Syndrome so they wouldn’t have to see the dentist (of course, it meant they couldn’t speak properly, either). We all learned Makaton and listening carefully, we soon learned to communicate with everyone. 

But living side by side with our six clients was also a lot of fun – my brother and I both worked for my Mum, caring for the five men and one lady who shared our home. We went on holidays with the clients, and took walks along the seafront, stopping in at the local pub. We always ate Christmas dinner together – although on more than one occasion my brother and I spent the day in Casualty because one of the clients had a habit of taking a tumble when he got over-excited. Another year, David (a scrupulously tidy gentleman) threw all his presents in the bin because he couldn’t cope with the mess on the lounge floor! Me and my brother spent the afternoon sifting through the remains of Christmas dinner trying to salvage them for him. 

"No matter who you meet, compassion and respect should be a given."

It was David who I was with in Tesco the day I saw a young Mum steer her child away from him – and I remember wanting to tell her that David was a lovely guy with a wicked sense of humour and aside from the odd outburst of foul language when we teased him a bit too much for his liking, he would never harm a soul. But I think people are naturally cautious of anything or anyone different – and also we are so often told about the things never to say and never to do that we’re often nervous to say or do anything, for fear it might be the wrong thing. 

What my childhood gave me wasn’t an insight into learning disability, really. It was an insight into people. For every person I met with Down Syndrome who was gentle and loving, there was someone who could be cranky and anti-social. Or someone who was both, depending on the day. Some people with learning disabilities are short-tempered, some are generous, some are lazy. 

In short, they’re people – and of course, they’re as unique as those of us without disabilities are. That should be obvious. And I hope for Flea it is – we encourage her to ask questions when she meets people who are different, and to understand that just as you can be different because of your hair, or your height or your personality, you can be different in terms of how your body or your brain might work. 

And that no matter who you meet, compassion and respect should be a given.

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