All those time-hopping notifications on social media reliably inform me that my blog Downs Side Up is 5 years old.
That just can't be right.
*Cues fanfares and balloons and copious amounts of cake and makes a note to slow down sometime soon.*
So why are there so many special needs blogs these days, and what are the advantages and pitfalls of starting one?
This concept never ceases to amaze and humble me.
|SEN blogs in the media|
CovergirlThis Christmas, a sparkly article in Womans Weekly was published, featuring Natty on the front cover and a two-page spread inside. Blogging is evolving, it's becoming more and more mainstream and merging with the media.
Evolving BlogsOver the years I've written about the people we've met and the places we've been through Downs Side Up and looking back I feel the need to pinch myself at times. There've been celebs-a-plenty, more magazine articles than I can remember, commissions to write chapters and articles, collect awards, interviews, tea with the Queen, fancy dress with the Lord Mayor of London, a slot in a documentary, lots of modelling and a sea-change towards inclusive advertising.
But this is not why we do it. It is the thousands of parents and bloggers and medical professionals that we have hooked up with along the way that really count. The rest is just icing on the cake.
'Why are there so many special needs blogs these days?'I recently attended Mumsnet #Blogfest16 to host a Special Needs Blogging round table, and one of the first questions I was posed by the organisers was why we thought there were so many special needs blogs, enough to warrant their own round table and even their own award ceremony (The BAPS - Bloody Awesome Parents - are to celebrate these writers in May '17):
|Mumsnet Blogfest16 Special Needs round table|
When I started Downs Side Up five years ago, it was one of the first Down's syndrome blogs in the world. It filled a void I guess. And 5 years ago when I first attended a blogging conference I pretty much knew all the other SEN bloggers who attended. There was Steph Curtis - Stephs Two Girls and Tania Tirraoro - Special Needs Jungle and Steph Nimmo - Was This in the Plan??? and Renata Blower - Just Bring the Chocolate, each writing in their own niches.
Today, there is a blog on every condition and disability to suit everyone. Each with a personality as varied as its author's voice and each with its own unique readership. There are family forums and patient groups hosted by every charity and many companies too, lending support to all who are looking for it. This can only be a good thing, our writing has formed a kind of safety net.
But why are there so very many of us writing about this particular topic? We* set about finding out why, in a safe and supportive space.
5 Reasons to Blog about Special NeedsIt's true that bloggers write incredibly powerfully about special needs and mental health, often drawing on personal experiences in a way that mainstream media struggle to do. They are completely motivated by a desire to create change for their families and others, in a way that paid writing cannot match.
- It's cathartic - the most common reason to start a blog is to be able to express yourself. As one writer put it, blogging is a cheap form of therapy or counselling for many. So often we find ourselves writing into the evening, tears plopping onto our keyboards, and working through the trickier emotions we so often face and somehow we 'blog through it', as if seeing the words on the page unscrambles what is in our heads and hearts.
- Sharing information - Some parents share resources and tips on their blogs, others use the online space as a kind of diary to provide a running commentary with friends and family when their child is ill. This reduces the need to keep repeating themselves and the blog acts as a kind of one stop shop of information. It can also be a way of explaining difficult situations to loved ones when a face to face conversation might be impossible.
- Support and community - When I began my blog I thought I would be supporting new families with a baby with Down's syndrome. What I very quickly realised was that my blog would act as a portal into a whole online community who would help me through the toughest of days, the worrying moments and whose families would lead the way for us through example. Blogging brings us access to a fantastic network of support and friendship and often supplies the answers we seek that we can access in small chunks whenever we are ready. It reinforces that we are not alone.
- Campaign work - Often the blogging community join forces to create lasting change. Our voices are stronger and louder together, and we can see them put to good use working on projects such as calling for more accessible toilets, supermarket trolleys with support for disabled children or adapted clothing and larger nappies to be more readily available. These, along with campaigns to educate the public and medical professionals about various conditions are having a real impact on the way families like ours experience life.
- Fundraising - Another way in which SEND bloggers often join forces and work together for good is fundraising for their charities, as well as raising the profile of the work they do. With social media and hashtags often going viral on awareness days, it can be a straightforward way to collect vital funds.
5 Things to Watch Out for When BloggingBlogging is not always plain sailing, in fact far from it. I have experienced many times where I have thought about giving up, where it has taken an unexpected turn I didn't like. Here are the pitfalls that you may encounter along the way.
- Comparison with others - It's easy to end up either comparing your writing, your lifestyle, yourself or your child's condition to others. You, your family and your blog are unique, so accept and celebrate that.
- Pity and/or inspiration porn - This can be a very fine line to tread for many and you have to weigh up being honest and truthful with creating a welcoming space on your blog for others to visit. I think it's important that readers don't feel sorry for my child, or think her inspirational for doing ordinary everyday things, that would be when it all becomes patronising. I would also stop short of using her voice as my own, putting words into her mouth.
- Privacy vs advocacy - There is increasing criticism of parents writing blogs about their children with disabilities without their informed consent. Our blogs, after all, will be a digital tattoo for the rest of their lives and this is worth bearing in mind. My blog has certainly changed as the children have got older but it has always been a place to showcase the voice of those with Down's syndrome too. I think having a child with a learning disability means that we often become their advocates and without our blogs they would still be hidden and forgotten. That said I am cautious about what I share and many bloggers chose to keep their writing anonymous.
- Trolling - The internet, social media seem to encourage a kind of sport where it is acceptable to write horrendous things to vulnerable people that you would never say to them in real life. Like most bloggers we've had our fair share of trolls, some which needed police attention, and also criticism from within our community. This can sting and it's taken me years to grow a thick enough skin to let it wash over me.
- Losing your way - Comparison to others, following the latest meme, competing for votes for awards, over-monetising your blog and filling it with reviews or simply accepting to help every single charity that ask you to get on board with a campaign, can all contribute to writers losing sight of why they started blogging in the first place. As you should always pause before hitting publish, always pause before you write. Your blog is your own space and it can quickly become hijacked. Sometimes a blog break helps bring back the focus and reminds you of the original motivations and why your readers started following you in the first place. It helps you find peace with your blog.
So while I can no longer keep up with the volume of SEND blogs, the dinosaur that I am, it is really heartening and important to know that they are there, and that they are making a difference.
So, keep writing, blog for yourself, your families, your sanity and make your voices heard.
* List of Mumsnet Blogfest16 round table attendees: