One in seven families with disabled children are going without meals. Photo: Getty
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Indignation at stories of “rejected” disabled children masks the harm done by government cuts

Cases like that of “Baby Gammy” or the adoptive mother who allegedly turned down a baby because it was born with a disability are welcome distractions from the bigger, deeper problems faced by parents and disabled children under austerity.

The would-be mum of twins carried by a surrogate has “rejected” one of the babies because it was born with a disability, the Telegraph reported today.  The non-disabled boy was adopted as planned but his disabled twin sister, who has a severe muscular condition, has stayed with her birth mother after the adopting-mum refused to take her. (It’s unclear what the would-be father has done in all this. He either was never involved or the reporting has chosen to put responsibility solely on the woman.)

“She'd be a fucking dribbling cabbage! Who would want to adopt her?” the prospective mum allegedly told the surrogate; both of them British. “No one would want to adopt a disabled child'.”

Well, quite. I enjoy a bit of casual judgement as much as the next person and this woman seems a suitably terrible (wonderful) candidate. “A fucking dribbling cabbage.” Find her, bring back the stocks, and see how she likes scraps of cabbage as they’re thrown at her (probably hard) face.

Today’s is the latest in a growing line of “Won’t someone think of the disabled children?” stories – each depressing and tragic and greeted with customary indignation. The case of “Baby Gammy”, who was left with his Thai surrogate mother by an Australian couple because he had Down's Syndrome, gained international coverage. Even Richard Dawkins has got involved with his “best abort a foetus with Down's Syndrome and try again” tweets last week. Abort, don’t abort. Adopt, don’t adopt. It’s difficult to keep track of just what exactly women should be doing when they find out their child will be disabled, but the media and the public’s role is very clear: pass judgment whilst offering no constructive help whatsoever.

Women, as ever, are the ones on the receiving end of this judgement. The men – or 50 per cent of the genetic material – are presumably mute and locked in a cupboard somewhere. Women are who nature left to grow the child and whom society has chosen, long after nine months, to take the cultural brunt of them. We’re also largely the ones left to take on 24/7 caring responsibilities – an impact particularly heavy when the child has a disability. Almost three quarters of mums with disabled children are forced to give up their careers, or at best limit them, due to lack of affordable or suitable childcare for disabled children.  (Families with disabled children pay eight times more towards childcare costs than parents of non-disabled children.)

What are we doing for them? Other than offering judgement or praise, I mean – which, as yet, hasn’t been proven to care for a screaming child at 3am or pay the electricity bill.

As a country, we’re doing really well at hurting them. One in seven families with disabled children are going without meals and one in six can’t afford to heat their homes. For those where parents aren’t in work because of their caring responsibilities, things are inevitably even worse. This was before the full impact of benefit cuts hit. (Guess what things are like now.)

The social security and tax changes have had more of a negative effect on families that include at least one disabled person, particularly a child (and especially for those with already low-incomes). Poor families that have a disabled child – or adult – have lost what’s estimated to be five times as much proportionally as better-off non-disabled families. Let’s say that again. Our government’s response to the difficulty of raising a disabled child, particularly with low-income, has been to make it more difficult. It’s funny how little we hear about that. It’s as if headlines about lazy adoptive mothers are easier to get our moral heads around.

Stories like “Baby Gammy” or the British surrogate are welcome distractions from the bigger, deeper problems of parents and disabled children. They let us simultaneously cast judgement on a woman’s reproductive choices whilst convincing ourselves her individual prejudice and selfishness is in such contrast to the rest of society. Failing to look after a child with a disability? What kind of monster would do that? Our government – and the cash strapped councils sitting in every part of this country.  

Almost two thirds of English local authorities had reduced their expenditure on short breaks for families with a disabled child after two years of coalition government, according to disability charity Mencap (pdf). Play services to youth clubs, babysitters, overnight care and residential stays are disappearing – cast out as not a “legal necessity” and therefore just more luxuries we can do without.

Perhaps we could ask the parents currently looking after their disabled children if a bit of help is a luxury – if they have the money to drive to the next hospital appointment, the energy for getting up tonight without a break. I would but I’m busy finding old veg to throw at the latest useless adoptive mother.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.