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Should Nurses go on Strike?

An ethical dilemma.

Last month I watched my Royal College of Nursing colleagues give Jeremy Corbyn a standing ovation at the end of his speech to RCN Congress. I felt proud of the support they gave him.

But 24 hours earlier the RCN made a worrying announcement. They have been balloting nurses about the current pay crisis. 91% of nurses said they’d take industrial action short of a strike. 78% of members who completed the poll said they were prepared to go on strike. This is the first time in 101 years of the RCN that nurses have decided to strike.

I have been a qualified nurse for 40 years. Never in my career have I known nurses wanting to strike. We’ve previously protested about pay. As a student nurse in the 1970s, I and many of my off-duty colleagues marched through the streets of Exeter. I will never forget the reaction of some of the by-standers. Whilst the majority were supportive, some spat at us and accused us of killing patients by being on the march. Nurses were only allowed to march if off duty or given formal permission by a Matron. No patient care was affected by our actions. It took some time for my student nurse pay of £11 a week to improve!

RCN members have now voted at Congress to begin a summer of planned protests. And so they should. There is currently a 1% cap on public sector pay rises. Unless there is a change of government, this will continue until at least 2019-20. The effect being that the average nurse has suffered a real-terms pay cut of 14% since 2010. This is not acceptable. Nurses are now being forced to use food banks.

Our professional registration and indemnity insurance fees have risen. We have to pay these before we can work. Pay and conditions are worsening. Most nurses are now working long 12 hour shifts. When I started to train these had just been phased out, apart from Night Duty. We were told that such long shifts meant nurses were too tired and could make mistakes. Why is the same advice not valid now? 

What can nurses do to highlight their plight? There are few actions they can take without jeopardising care. Working to rule, what would that involve? Not staying on after a shift has ended if there is an emergency? I guess some nurses if they have pressing family issues, such as collecting children from nursery, may feel they can’t stay on. But most nurses I know would willingly stay on to help. Not helping a patient in some extra way? I doubt it.

What would I do if I were still working in the NHS? I really don’t know. I would certainly ‘cover’ so more junior nurses can protest in some way. I suspect when it comes down to taking strike action, most nurses will be very reluctant. I went into nursing because I cared about people and wanted to learn how to help people get better. That still holds true for nurses today. The word vocation may be rarely heard, but nurses still care, deeply.

This current government knows this. It’s why they have treated nurses and other healthcare workers so disgracefully when it comes to pay and conditions. Theresa May did not even bother to acknowledge her invitation to the RCN Congress. Whilst the two other party leaders did attend, Theresa was nowhere to be seen. There are 675,000 nurses in the UK how many votes did she loose? 

I have seen at first hand over the last 6 years how hard nurses work. During that time I’ve had 4 different operations as well as other treatment. Most of my nursing care was good. I saw nurses having to care for confused and elderly post-operative patients in a High Dependency Unit. The unit was understaffed, the nurses not adequately trained. There were not enough doctors  on duty either. 

Visiting a friend in a psychiatric hospital last year, the picture was the same. The ward was chaotic and noisy, with not enough staff. There were no extra staff to provide activities either. The reason? More bed closures including the specialist high care unit.

Yes, nurses can protest outside hospitals or Downing Street. But I cannot imagine any nurse leaving the ward to actually withdraw their labour. In itself that would be a breach of the NMC Code of Conduct. Nurses could refuse to do overtime. But the effect of that will be to reduce their pay even further. 

All I know, is that when nurses are protesting – I will join them. Both as a patient and a nurse. 

 

 

Dating and when to tell………

This blog post is part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014. The date was 1st May, but better late than never!

My last relationship ended almost two years ago and I’ve decided to start dating again. Over the past 5 years, since I was last dating, my need to use my wheelchair has increased to to point where I don’t walk anywhere outside my flat. So, how do I convey this to a potential partner?

My wheelchair is a vital part of my life, in the same way as my iPhone, iPad and car. But I don’t want it to define who I am. My personal skills and qualities are no different to when I was fully able-bodied. My interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes are pretty much the same too. I still have itchy feet and long to travel more in the UK and abroad.

I have never been sporty – I hated games at school and would do anything to avoid playing – especially on cold winter days! Being forced to run round a frozen hockey field three times before play commenced by a sadistic games mistress was never my idea of fun! The fact that I never found a sport I was any good at probably contributed to my preference for playing Scrabble or other board games.

Whilst I love exploring new places and being outside on long sumner days, I don’t understand the lure of going for long walks when it’s cold and windy. I’ve never enjoyed rambling or climbing and certainly not in the rain! Give me a ruined building to explore and photograph or the chance to enjoy a visit to a National Trust property any day.

I love going to art galleries and exhibitions, to be challenged by installations or modern abstracts as much as I enjoy Monet, Manet, de Lempicka or Van Gough. Gallery mooching has always been my idea of a wonderful day out. Walking for hours or bird-watching has never appealed.

I understand for some people that their need to be physically active is a vital part of their lives, especially if they have a sedentary job. As a Nurse I was always on my feet at work, even as a manager I would be found purposefully walking through the building, making sure my staff were doing their job correctly and that patients were receiving the care they needed. My staff never knew when, or for how long I would be on each floor, a great way of being visual, available and informed. At the end of my working week, I looked for enjoyment in theatre, ballet and exhibitions, where I could sit down from time to time. I would much rather stretch my brain than go to the gym!

The only thing I really miss is going to a club, particularly the women’s only events that I once helped to organise. But may be at almost 60 I’m getting too old for clubbing!

As for the things that annoy me, I’m just as intolerant of people who are prejudiced or racist, drive badly and cut me up or ride their bicycles as if they own the road as I have always been. I dislike being in queues when shop assistants are gossiping with their friends instead of serving customers or being pressured to buy something I’m still making my mind up about. I get angry reading or hearing about adults who abuse children, I’m ashamed to share a profession with nurses who are uncaring, neglectful or just downright lazy. None of these views have changed over the years.

So as you can see, in someways, I don’t feel I have changed as a person because of needing to use a wheelchair. When I talk to someone I hope to be dating, I’m very clear to say that the only major difference my disability makes is the need to plan when and where I’m going to park. Most of the places I need or want to visit are fully accessible.

Long before I started to use a wheelchair I didn’t use public transport, I disliked being in overcrowded busses and trains especially the underground. So ever since I moved back to London, I have driven everywhere. From my perspective nothing has changed for me in that respect either.

But for the some of the women (and as I’ve heard from straight friends this applies to men too) I have talked to seem to feel that using a wheelchair is something that should be declared up-front. I’ve seen other on-line profiles when women have either shown photos of themselves in their chair or mentioned that they are disabled.

My thinking process has been different, I want someone to get to know me because of my qualities as a person, and understand what I would bring to a relationship. I take the view that I’m more than my chair – that being disabled has not changed who I am as a person. It’s just an extra facet of my personality. Am I wrong?

Well, I guess one thing comes out of my rationale, if someone doesn’t want to date me just because I use a wheelchair, they ain’t worth knowing! I won’t date a right-wing racist – however good looking they might be! Even if I wasn’t disabled I wouldn’t want to know someone who was prejudiced against disabled people.

I will accept that having to pace myself in terms of not getting over tired or making sure my pain control remains good can be restricting. One girlfriend I dated had two dogs, their needs limited our lives far more than my wheelchair ever did.

Life is about sharing and compromise.

So, back to my question, what is the right time to tell someone I’m disabled? I tend to talk about my need to use a wheelchair at about the same time as I’m telling someone my adopted daughter has a different skin colour to me.

Is this the right timing? Both pieces of information can elicit very different responses, but ones that tell me a lot about the person I’m talking to.

I’ve recently had a delightful date with a woman who didn’t say anything about her Caribbean heritage. Her ethnicity wasn’t obvious from the photo she sent me – she is quite light skinned. On meeting her I was more interested in her as a person than where her parents came from. We are all defined, in some way by our families and how we are raised, for me the most important part of someone’s heritage is their tolerance and open mindedness.

I’m very clear in telling a prospective date how independent I am and that I have paid PA’s who do any housework and caring tasks I need. Also, I have no wish to live with anyone full-time again. I value my solo visits to my cousin and my time engaging in genealogy research, neither of which I would expect a partner to share on a regular basis. Nor would I count on a partner understanding my love of US crime or hospital dramas!

So I don’t think I’m being unrealistic or unreasonable.

But am I?

I would be really interested in hearing from others how they deal with dating and what success they’ve had.

No way Ms Watson!

I am incensed by Shane Watson’s column in the T2 Section of today’s Times. The headline ‘Real Women don’t hold hands; why are we fetishising women’s friendships?’

Which planet has she landed from? No, that isn’t a typo, Shane Watson is woman journalist who writes for The Times on a regular basis.

Reading the article, I had to double check that it wasn’t written by Shane Watson the cricketer, so anti-feminist were her views.

I really do not understand why she is so uncomfortable with two women, whatever their sexuality, holding hands. She seems to regard women who are close friends and are photographed hand in hand as creepy and unnatural.

Well, I have news for her, close women friends have for years walked down a road arm in arm. You only have to look at old photos of trips to the seaside to see groups of woman showing their friendships, it not a new phenomena as Ms Watson claims.

She goes on to explain that she doesn’t have such tactile friendships with her own friends and that she will often speak to her male friends (in preference to female ones) about relationship issues. I think she is missing out on the closeness that other women value. For many women, being able to share concerns with another woman is an essential part of our lives. It provides a safe space where the closest of secrets can be shared and unbiased advice given.

I don’t believe that such support and comfort can be found in the often complex and unequal relationships women have with men.

Maybe Ms Watson’s unhappiness is some sort of unrecognised need within herself?

I remember as a teenager how angry and uncomfortable my own mother was when I was openly affectionate with other women, there was absolutely nothing sexual involved, just enjoyment of a closeness that I couldn’t share with my very undemonstrative parent. But, such was my mother’s discomfort, that her response was extremely vitriolic.

On talking with my mothers sisters, all of whom were warm and affectionate, they felt that her reaction was due to the fact that I was able to make friends easily with other women whereas my mother’s haughtiness pushed friends away.

Friendships between women are precious, valued, life enhancing and affirming, special and very important at every stage of our lives. They can bridge age gaps and enable knowledge to be shared between different generations of women.

Women who are secure in their sexuality and their relationships with other women do not deserve to be derided and condemned. Their choices should be respected and celebrated.

 

The ATOS Form

The Dreaded Envelope

The frantic phone call came a few days ago. My friend *Kim, normally so talkative, could hardly speak. ‘It’s come, I’ve been staring at it, I don’t know how to answer the questions.’ Once she’d got the first words out, the rest spilled out in a torrent; ‘If they cut my benefit I can’t manage. What if they try to send me back to work, I can’t even manage to do my volunteering one day a week.’

I’m really concerned at this, Kim had tried so hard to get a placement with a local children’s storytelling charity. She was thrilled when she was accepted, it was a real boost to her self-confidence. ‘Why, what’s happened?’ I enquire. ‘Since the form came, I’ve gone right back, I can’t cope with anything.’ Was her almost tearful reply.

‘Can I come over to yours? Can you help me fill in the form?’ She pleaded. ‘Yes, of course, come on Monday’ I quickly responded. ‘We’ll get it sorted together’ I heard a huge sigh of relief on the other end of the phone. Then, I was able to talk to her about her children, her son married last summer and now in the US on a work placement and her daughter, A beautiful bright young woman, taking her A levels this year.

A normal mum and kids, you might think. But no, Kim’s children have not lived with her for many years. Her son was the first to go into care, getting involved with drugs and the wrong crowd. Her daughter was eventually long-term fostered by a family member, after a placement where she was physically abused. The woman who has fostered her daughter is the only non-alcoholic, in a toxic family, with two generations of troubled drinkers.

Kim didn’t stand a chance, abused and neglected as a child, she left home to escape, and didn’t make good choices about the men she had relationships with. Remarkably she went to university and got a degree, but the only man she married, and the father of her daughter would not support his family, so Kim left, and never did get any money from him.

I first met her through an ex-girlfriend, who was trying to help Kim look after her children. Kim’s flat was as chaotic as her life had been. I remember Kim being so relieved when the police arrested her then boyfriend for attempted murder. As was I, having felt a coward for not wanting to enter her flat if he was there.

Shortly after that, the children went into care, Kim was determined to get clean and sober, she went to rehab, did really well. She was given a property in a new area, and plans were made for her to get her daughter back.

But then, everything started to go wrong. The house had no hot water, no heating, and Kim had very little money to get basics such as a cooker and a fridge. I visited her daily to give her some support, and despite everything she was cheerful and longing to have her daughter home. There had been short visits, then longer ones, but no overnight stays. Suddenly, the social workers decided that a long bank holiday weekend was the best time for Kim’s 7 year old daughter to return home.

The house still did not have heat, hot water or a cooker that worked. No carpets on the floor and no proper beds, only mattresses. The social workers knew this. Kim was scared, she knew the situation with the house wasn’t right, but she dare not refuse to have her daughter home.

By the Monday lunchtime things had gone wrong. Kim had just had her first sip of alcohol in over 12 months, when her daughter’s previous foster mum turned up unannounced, accused Kim of being completely drunk (she wasn’t) and dragged Kim’s crying daughter out of the house. When I got there 10 minutes later, Kim was sober, she had poured the drink away and was distraught at loosing her daughter again. We couldn’t contact the social workers, our messages were not returned. Nothing could be done until the next day.

Kim was blamed, the social workers not caring that such a quick return was almost bound to fail, especially with the house not suitable for a young child to stay in. This time Kim had no chance, her daughter was to be long-term fostered 200 miles away.

Kim was devastated, started drinking again and eventually went back to rehab. She moved away from London to a small rural town be nearer her daughter. I didn’t see her for a couple of years, till she returned to London, still sober, but having missed the culture of a big city.

She saved what little money she had to keep going north to see her daughter. Her son had a flat nearby and started training to become a social worker, hopefully a better one than those who had failed his family. He and Kim had also become Christians, which gave Kim a new family.

But now, Kim’s world is threatened by an uncaring government, bent on penalising people who are unable to work. Every benefit claimant is being reassessed. The process being run by a government contractor, ATOS who have recently announced they will be terminating their involvement in this discredited process.

All of us on benefits are affected, and some have not survived. Many people have died, having been told only days earlier they were ‘fit for work’ others have committed suicide. Such is the pressure placed on them by this inhuman system.

Anyone newly applying to the DWP for benefits is having to wait months to get the money they need to live on, making people destitute and needing to use Food Banks to survive.

Despite being sober, Kim has anxiety, this is a long term condition, she also has long-standing depression, arthritis, poor balance, vision problems and finds if difficult to concentrate and follow through on tasks.

Individually, these are not insurmountable problems, but all together they mitigate against Kim being able to work.

Hence her fear of filling out the form and being forced to compete for work, with little chance of obtaining, let alone sustaining employment.

Whilst Kim is well read and articulate, she was one of the people who encouraged me to write this blog, filling out the capability for work form has defeated her.

Kim’s creativity, with both words and her artistic skills, are no help. So I need to try and ensure the form is completed in such a way as to maximise Kim’s chances of retaining her current level of benefits.

The prospect if I’m unsuccessful, is too awful to contemplate. Would my lovely kind friend survive, would her long fought for sobriety be lost? All I’m sure of is that until Kim knows that her benefit payments are secure again, everything is at risk.

*Kim is a pseudonym to protect my friend’s anonymity.

The cartoon by Crippen Cartoons is reproduced by kind permission.

 

Banning Books for Prisoners

Recently the UK Justice Secretary Chris Grayling (often known as the Injustice Secretary) issued an edict banning the sending of books into jails. It’s caused, quite rightly, much outrage.

I have worked in several women’s jails, not as a Prison Officer, but a a Nurse Counsellor and more recently as an education worker for the charity Women in Prison. Strange as it may seem I always enjoyed working with the women and found they were keen and pro-active to improve their knowledge and qualifications.

Prisoners rarely get paid to be in education, often actually loosing wages as a result of choosing to learn. To me this is crazy. Often the reason women find themselves the wrong side of the law is because they have made, or been forced by circumstances to make, wrong choices. Educating women (and men) so they can earn money legally and provide for their families needs to be incentivised, not financially penalised.

Prisons and prisoners need books. As well as providing vital knowledge, they are also encourage women to improve their literacy and they often begin to discuss books and the issues than arise from what they have read.

For me, books keep me sane. I use a Kindle Paperwhite these days. Essential, as reading ordinary print is difficult for me and my clouding cataracts mean I need the background light.

Despite having a flat full of books I have to confess to still buying more books! If something new is published about one of my specialist interests, I will invariably get myself a copy.

Whether I’m reading crime fiction escapism or a fascinating biography, I am usually able to immerse myself into that world. I cannot imagine being deprived or restricted in my choice of books.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Russian Philosopher wrote; ‘You can judge a society by how it treats it’s prisoners.’ One of the best ways of helping people become better citizens is enabling them to improve themselves. By denying prisoners books, we deny them rehabilitation.

Prosecuting Emotional Abuse

(Warning – this blog discusses issues related to sexual abuse)

Under new laws being considered by government ministers in the UK, adults convicted of acts of emotional cruelty against children in their care will face the same threat of jail as those guilty of physical neglect.

These changes are amongst a number of updates to laws relating to Child Abuse which are being championed by the charity Action For Children

Whist I think this is very laudable, I am concerned as to exactly how this would work. Does it mean that in future people will be able to report their own parents for the emotional abuse the suffered in childhood?

Could children, supported by appropriate professionals and the Crown Prosecution Service, instigate a case which sees their parents being taken to court?

Will it drafted in a similar manner to sexual abuse laws in the UK which have no statute of limitations?

Will victims be treated appropriately by the courts? In my view, the present system is woefully inadequate.

My own childhood was, at times, deeply unhappy. My mother was over critical and unloving. Nothing I did was ever good enough for her. This meant I grew up with little self-esteem and looked to adults outside my family for emotional support.

There are two particular episodes that I recall very clearly. The first surrounds incidents when I was sexually abused by two different men. I was aged about 11 or 12 at the time.

The first was the dentist who ran a practice next door to the house I lived in as a child. Back then, in England, dentists were allowed to administer their own general anaesthetics. A practice that was only halted after several child deaths. The pervert who molested me, did so when I was in the dentists chair, I only found out what he was doing because I came-to part-way though his abuse. Despite still bleeding from his dentistry, I managed to get out of his house and find a neighbour, who eventually elicited from me what had happened.

This lovely woman was a teacher, and she not only explained to me about ‘bad men’ but also spoke to my parents about the incident, so I did not need to relive my trauma.

When our neighbour took me home, my parents greeted me with blank faces and I was told in no uncertain terms that what had happened was never going to be mentioned again.

The dentist, by the way, was eventually struck off and jailed for attacks on other children.

The second incident was subsequent to my mother’s eagerness to save money where I was concerned. Because she thought that the hairdressers in the town where we lived charged too much she insisted that I went to a woman in a nearby village. This woman ran a hairdressing business above her husbands grocery store. (My mother continued to use one of the the ‘too expensive’ hairdressers in town.)

The hairdresser was fine, I quite liked her, but her husband was a different matter. He always insisted in giving me a cuddle when I arrived (straight off the school bus in my uniform). His hands wandered all over my developing body. As he was tall and well built I was powerless to escape. Whilst I was waiting to have my hair cut, he would lure me into the stockroom at the back of the shop with promises of sweets or magazines and then press himself against me. I could feel his erect penis through my thin summer dress.

Because of what I had been taught by my teacher neighbour after what had happened to me at the dentist, I told my mother what this other man was doing, and got told by both my of my parents not to make a fuss as it was saving my mother money!

The last time I went into the shop, I was literally ‘saved by the bell’. As my abuser pulled me into the dreaded dark stockroom, the shop door bell rang. The incoming customer called out to find out where he was, I yelled in response and in his surprise, my tormentor let me go.

I ran out of the shop, unheeding of any traffic as I dashed across the road to a house whose occupants I knew. Thankfully, they were in and provided me with refuge, comfort, love and support.

I remember clearly the reaction of Phyllis, she gently coxed out of me what had happened, explained that it was not my fault, and that my mother should have known better as this man was known to be ‘too friendly’ with young girls. Her husband John reacted with anger, not at me, but at my abuser. John was a relative of Albert Pierrepoint, one of the longest serving hangmen in England, and made it clear that he wished his ancestor was alive to hang ‘that pervert’.

Eventually my parents were telephoned and my stone-faced father collected me. Again, he exhorted me never to speak about what happened to anyone.

I was in my 40s before I could speak about either incident. Whist I find this difficult to write about, I’ve come to terms with what happened to me and have been able to support others who have had had similar experiences.

The second episode had a much longer lasting effect on both my teenage years and adulthood.

My first three years of secondary school (from 11 years old) education were at a small and select Girls Grammar School. I did quite well academically and flourished in a atmosphere where we were encouraged to debate, discuss and become rounded young women. Towards the end of my third year my father’s job meant that we had to move quite a distance. This meant a change of school. I did not want to leave where I was, nor move to a school which was mixed sex as the new one would be. I knew that other girls whose fathers had the same profession as mine could go to a particular boarding school, either on a scholarship or at reduced fees. Two girls from my Grammar School had recently moved there and my teachers suggested I do the same. I was really keen on this idea, and my father thought it would be good for me. I took the exam and passed.

I remember looking at the brochure and the uniform list and feeling excited at the new opportunities I would have. Also it would have the added bonus of allowing me to live away from home and out of the clutches of my mother.

She, however, had different ideas, she was adamant that I should not go. I’m still not sure if it was just because she wanted me at home to do all the chores I was expected to do or because she had worked out that I had gay tendencies (something I didn’t understand at that time), therefore thinking that an all girls school would give me even more ‘wrong ideas’. My father had no choice but to support, all be it reluctantly, my mother’s views. She could be very forceful and arguing with her was pointless.

So I landed up at a large mixed sex Comprehensive School. It was a real culture shock, absolute hell, I was desperately unhappy there. I was bullied both verbally and physically and suffered two broken ankles in six months. The first time I was deliberately tripped up when carrying a tray of glassware, the second was when I was pushed down some steps into a biology pond.

My academic work suffered too. The school syllabus was completely different from the one at my Grammar School. Whilst I caught up in English and other arts, the maths and sciences were so divergent I failed to pass any O levels in those subjects. Not good, especially as I was determined to train to be a nurse where such exams were usually a requirement.

In fact, partly because of this I was unable to train at any of the main London teaching hospitals and landed up at a provincial one.

If I had been able go to the boarding school I had so wanted to attend, the early part of my career would have been very different and I would have had many more opportunities.

In the end I did well in my profession and got some wonderful chances and experiences, but that was in spite of, not because of my education.

I could relate many more childhood events which have negatively impacted on me. For instance, I can never recall having the wonderful loving relationship with my mother that some of my friends have been fortunate to have with their mothers. But I know other people will have experienced far worse than I.

Will this new law help them? Will it help youngsters growing up today?

I really hope so, but I also hope that somewhere in the school curriculum will be space to teach the next generation of parents how to nurture and protect their children.

However, if this law is enacted I will not be seeking legal redress. My mother is long dead, and my father elderly. Also, the way in which such victims are treated by the courts in the UK means I would suffer further trauma, for me, a price not worth paying.

The situation may well be different for others in similar or worse situations. I wish them well and hope that the redress they seek improves their lives.

My Links to Peaches Geldof

The sad news yesterday of the death of Peaches Geldof, took me back many years. At the time her mother Paula Yates and I shared a solicitor. Paula was divorcing Bob Geldof and whilst we never met, her erratic timekeeping sometimes impacted on my appointments. I gained the impression she was not the easiest of clients. When Paula was presenting The Big Breakfast Show I was invited to go onto the programme, but having briefly watched it, I felt that it would not exactly enhance my professional reputation, so declined, as I also did with invites from Jerry Springer and Jeremy Kyle.

My other link to Peaches is less tenable, she is only one year younger than my own daughter. Her two boys are a year or so younger than my own grandsons. Newspaper articles in the more respectable papers today talk of the trauma Peaches experienced when her parents divorced, no doubt increased by the death of her mother. Much has been written about Peaches feeling unable to grieve for her mother or burying that grief deep within herself.

My own daughter, whilst knowing her mother, did not spend much time living with her as she grew up. As is common in many African cultures (my daughter is Zulu) my daughter was mainly raised by other family members whilst her birth Mum was busy qualifying in her profession and making a living. However, she cannot remember her father, who died in an unexplained car accident when she was just three years old. She feels that loss still and has tried hard to ensure her sons have a father who is involved in their lives and well as other positive male role models.

Peaches was clearly determined to give her boys a more stable home life than she had experienced, much like my own daughter. I often reflect than when we become parents ourselves we either parent our children as we were parented, or as I, my daughter and Peaches have done parent diametrically opposite the way we were raised.

We may still have the same goals of teaching our children good manners, respect for others and a good work ethic, as well as the spiritual and moral codes we hope they will share, and pass on to their own children. But how we help our children achieve these is often expressed in positive actions rather than the negativity that may have clouded our own childhood.

My thoughts and prayers are with Tom Cohen, those two beautiful boys Astala and Phaedra and the Geldof family at this time. In Judaism we say; ‘Zikhronah livrakha’ may her memory be for a blessing.

 

 

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Why the difference?

This week I’ve had two very different shopping experiences in two major store chains.

Food shopping is never my favourite job, I order on-line as much as possible and I try to avoid busy and crowed times. Usually my shopping helper is my neighbour’s teenage daughter, she has Aspergers, and is a good helper, her traits mean that she knows my routine and remembers it. So shopping without her isn’t easy, but her Mum is ill and needs her daughter at home right now.

So, off to Tesco’s on my own for a quick shop for perishables. I use a local big store, which does have one motorised buggy with a large basket, but even if I use it I still can’t reach items on low or high shelves, so I still need a helper. Also, even if I can park near enough to stagger to customer services to collect the buggy, it has to be fetched from another part of the store, which can take up to 10 minutes, I can’t stand for that that long and there is not seating available. The buggy used to be kept by customer service, and I could sit in it it whilst the key was found. For some reason I could never fathom the key was kept somewhere other than the customer service desk! When the buggy was moved I did email the manager, explaining that the new arrangements would make it difficult for both myself and other disabled people, but got no reply. That was a foretaste of my shopping experience.

When I got to the customer service and asked for an assistant to help me shop, the first response I got was; “Why can’t you just use the trolley that attaches to a wheelchair?” When I explained that it only worked for manual wheelchairs (which I knew from trying previously) I was greeted with a blank stare. So, I asked for the assistant again, and with a big sigh, the woman on the desk sent a Tannoy message out, I was glad I was sitting in my wheelchair as it took over 10 minutes for someone to come, and then the man who arrived looked at me, spoke to the woman on customer service, and walked off, without explanation! A few minutes later he came back, and grunted he was ready to help.

My assistant was a man in his late twenties, whose first language was not English, and whilst I’m used to employing people from many different ethnic backgrounds, having managed nursing homes for over 20 years, I reckon my communications skills are pretty ok, but the guy helping me seemed to not understand me at all. Whatever I said I needed, he didn’t seem to know what it was, at the sandwich counter he didn’t know what a wrap was, and at the sushi bar picked out salmon when I asked for prawn, similarly he didn’t seem to know what Brie cheese was. For other items, he didn’t know where they were in the shop or was similarly puzzled as to what they were. Also, when he took something off the shelf, he didn’t check with me if it was the right item, so I had to constantly ask to check he had picked what I needed.

I was very glad when we got to checkout, where he packed everything well. On the way to the car I asked the man what training he was given, but he didn’t answer, just shrugging his shoulders. I don’t think I was an usual customer in terms of my shopping, I had a list, stuck to it and was as systematic as possible. But somehow nothing was quite as it should be. I felt as if I had been an inconvenience, that my helper would rather have been doing something else, anything other than working and assisting a customer.

Just a week later, 5 days before Xmas, I did my final shop, this time at Marks & Spencer at Kew retail park. My treat for holiday. What a different experience. Although customer service was busy, another assistant came up to me and asked if I needed help, no sooner has she left to go and find someone, another assistant came up to me and asked if I needed assistance. Just as she was speaking to me the first assistant came back and introduced me to my helper. She was probably in her late thirties, English was not her first language, but she understood exactly what I was saying.

The shop was really busy, but nothing was too much trouble, she checked exactly what I needed and found it, often suggesting I wait at the end of an isle so I didn’t need to struggle to get through the crowds. She doubled checked with me that everything was what I needed and even suggested other things I might like to try. There were two things that seemed to be out of stock, one of which was my favourite cherry juice. So, my helper went to the stock room to try and find them, but thoughtfully put an alternative, which was running low in my trolley to ensure I got a fruit juice I liked. The cherry juice soon arrived and we were off to checkout. Again, nothing was to much trouble, I was asked how I wanted everything packed and she made sure no bag was too heavy. There was no need to ask about customer service training, I couldn’t have had more assistance if my helper had seen one of those posh personal shoppers you see on TV at Liberty. I tried to give her a tip, but she wouldn’t accept it, saying it wasn’t allowed. So this is one way I can thank her for her excellent customer service.

Why was there such a difference in the two shops? Was it training, or the lack of it, was it attitude, or just gender, the woman being the more attuned to another woman’s needs. Was it that unsaid word ‘class’?

Well, for what it’s worth, I think it’s a combination of all of those things. As in any organisation, attitudes permeate from the top downwards. I’ve shopped at both Tesco and M&S for years. Even when I was able bodied I was well aware that each of those shops treated customers very differently and that difference is stronger and starker when a customer needs a little extra help to do any everyday task.

I wish I could afford to shop at M&S every time, but DLA does stretch to that, it’s definitely a treat and I cannot buy everything I need there, So I’m forced to shop at Tesco or Sainsbury, but a trip to my nearest Sainsbury about a month ago did not inspire confidence. There is no other large supermarket within reasonable travelling distance.

So I’m running out of options, I have to accept what is begrudging and what, in different circumstances I would not. Just because I can’t be totally independent. If I were back at work, and something similar had happened to a client I would be the first one trying to sort things out. Calling the shop manager, trying to explain how staff should have behaved differently. But, for me, there are more important battles to fight, more urgent things to do, which take up my emotional and physical energy.

Maybe Morrison’s will open a new supermarket in west London, but until then, I’m going to be putting off doing food shopping as much as possible.

A Plea to the Supreme Court

Today, Jane Nicklinson the widow of Tony Nicklinson, the right to die campaigner was at the Supreme Court in London, to ask the judges to give guidance on whether it is permissible for a doctor to assist a severely disabled person to die, when it is that person’s wish.

Tony was severely disabled, totally dependant on others for all his care. He wanted the right to die, at a time of his own choosing. Because he was unable to commit suicide unaided he wanted to a doctor to help him die, and to ensure the doctor would not subsequently be prosecuted for murder, as currently the case in the UK.

This case is particularly unusual, because Tony died earlier this year on 22 August. Jane was given special permission by the courts to continue with Tony’s battle. Just 6 days before Tony died the High Court in London turned down his request to allow a doctor to help him die, but most unusually, gave immediate permission for him to appeal to the Supreme Court.

For Jane to continue fighting on Tony’s behalf, is not only a wonderful tribute to Tony, but unique in UK legal history. Normally, if someone dies their legal fight dies with them. Such is the importance of this case, that it can proceed even though Tony is no longer alive.

Jane is joined by Paul Lamb, another very disabled man who is making the same request as Tony did and was involved in the original High Court Case.

There was another person at the Supreme Court this morning. He case is similar, but differs slightly. Martin (whose surname is not disclosed) had a massive stoke in 2008. Martin wants to be able to take his own life at a suicide facility in Switzerland. He describes his current situation as “undignified, distressing and intolerable”.

Martin’s wife and other family members are unwilling to help him, so he wants to ensure that any medical or nursing professional who goes with him is not prosecuted, as could be the case at present. At the moment such decisions are made on a case by case basis. Although the current legal guidance is that prosecution is unlikely, Martin seeks greater reassurance and clearer guidance.

I am pleased that it has been reported on the BBC news website, that the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) will have to draw up new guidelines. This is a decision I feel sure the Supreme Court Judges have been right and wise in making.

The whole debate about right to die raises strong feelings, especially amongst people with disabilities. Some disabled people feel that allowing severely disabled people to have the right to self-determination when it comes to how they die could lead to them being pressured by others. They see allowing such decisions as the slippery slope towards the eugenics of the Hitler’s Nazi Regime.

As someone who is disabled, but has also been a Registered Nurse for over 30 years, I take a different view. I have seen too much suffering. I saw my mother dying from cancer, only being free of pain when she was unconscious for the last week of her life. She was several years younger than I am now. During my career I specialised in nursing people with terminal illnesses and also those with severe physically disabilities. No matter how much good nursing care we could give or how skilled the medical interventions, I saw too many people who felt their quality of life was so poor that they wanted help to die. I also saw greater number of others who had a good, pain free death.

About 25 years ago I joined what was then called The Voluntary Euthanasia Society and is now Dignity in Dying. I feel strongly that everyone, no matter how disabled, has the right to self-determination in the way that they die. That should not be compromised by the inability of physical actuality.

My children know that I have made an Advanced Directive. Should I ever have a massive stroke, or have major brain damage, I do not want to be kept alive. I don’t want artificial feeding or hydration or kept on a ventilator.

In my life I have enjoyed many good things and met wonderful people. I want my children and grandchildren to know that it is the quality of life that matters, not its quantity.

So my plea to the Supreme Court Judges is very simple; please let those of us who are unfortunate enough to be unable to control our own destinies have the reassurance that those who help us have a good death are not punished for their courageous deeds. Please give us dignity in the way we chose to die.

Where were the people with disabilities?

I’ve just finished watching the funeral for Nelson Mandela. I’ve followed all the coverage closely over the last 10 days. South Africa is country dear to my heart, not only because of my involvement in the Anti-Apartheid movement, but because my adopted daughter, a Zulu, was born there.

Mandiba was a remarkable man, who with others transformed his country and gave it one of the most non-discriminatory constitutions in the world. So, in that wonderful rainbow nation where were the disabled people? As I watched the crowds in Pretoria outside Mandiba’s home, the thousands at the football stadium, the hundreds queuing to view his body and those who lined the route his coffin travelled to Qunu yesterday, I did not see one physically disabled person.

I asked my daughter, who is currently in South Africa with her sons, if she has seen disabled people on any of the local footage. She told me she’d only seen one person who was in the queue at Mandiba’s lying in state.

Because I was uncertain about writing this particular blog, I also sought advice from my daughter, a woman wise beyond her years. She told me the facilities in South Africa for disabled people are not good, that disabled people are not as respected as they should be. That the authorities think that just because they provide a couple of disabled parking bays, an extra accessible loo and some ramps they have done enough.

It seems as if not everyone is equal, despite the constitution (and I’m not just talking about the huge inequalities of wealth and opportunity that still exist). For disabled people, South Africa is rather like the UK was before the DDA was made law. I’m sure that they would be many experienced disabled people in the UK who would willingly give help and advice to the South African government and other powerful organisations to help disabled South Africans play a greater role in their country.

I would be honoured to be part of that.

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