Interview | Life with my Assistance Dog

“Petworth has changed my life greatly…he has given me a reason to get up every morning.”

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the lovely Harriet Butler about life with her beloved assistance dog, Petworth.

Harriet, 26 from Worcestershire, studied media and cultural studies at University and currently volunteers at KEMP hospice. Like me, she has a form of muscular dystrophy.

Here she explains all about the application process and why she wouldn’t be without her canine partner…


1. What is your disability and how does it affect you?

I have Duchenne muscular dystrophy. This form of muscular dystrophy predominately affects boys but in rare cases females like me can have the condition. Duchenne is a progressive muscle-wasting condition that affects every muscle in the body. I was diagnosed at the age of nine. When I was younger I was able to run and jump around but over time things became more difficult and eventually impossible. When I was twenty-two, I broke my ankle and now I am unable to weight-bear and so I rely on a wheelchair to get around.

2. What made you decide to get an assistance dog and what did the process involve?

Several years ago I visited the dog show ‘Crufts’ at the Birmingham NEC. Whilst I was there, I watched an assistance dog demonstration. I was blown away by what the dogs could do.

In June 2014, I had a spectacular fall and broke my ankle. Before my accident I could still walk short distances on the flat. I had surgery in which pins and plates were inserted. I had hoped I would be able to regain my mobility but it became apparent that this would be impossible. Once home and in a difficult place in my life, I applied to Canine Partners. They are a brilliant charity that provides assistance dogs to those with physical disabilities.

Once I had applied, I was invited to an assessment day at their centre in West Sussex. I met some incredible dogs and did some task work to see how a potential assistance dog could help me. I also had an Occupational Therapist come out to visit my home. She checked that my garden and home environment were suitable. I was then added to the waiting list and Canine Partners would start the process of finding me a suitable dog. They try to find a dog that fits in with your lifestyle and the tasks you need help with. For instance I required a tall dog to pass me items because I am quite high up in my electric wheelchair.

Eventually I got the much-anticipated call from advanced trainer Chrissie to say they had found me a potential dog. I was invited to meet Petworth and it really was love at first sight. We seemed to click straight away and I really liked how unusual he looked. Petworth is a curly coated retriever Labrador cross. He has extremely long legs and a lovely curly coat. We discussed the tasks I would like him to do. The following day, Chrissie phoned to check that I wanted to go ahead with Petworth. Of course, I said yes.

The final stage involved going on a two-week training course and learning how to work with Petworth. I have now had Petworth for over two years and I couldn’t be happier.

3. How does Petworth assist you and how has he changed your life?

Petworth can assist me in so many ways, providing me with a degree of independence away from carers. He picks things up when I drop them (I do this very often due to my reduced dexterity). He gets help when I need it; he goes and finds my Mum. He brings the post to me when it arrives. He opens and closes doors around the house and also pushes automatic door buttons when I’m out. He turns on and off the lights in my room and bathroom. He assists me with taking my coat/jumper off and shoes and socks. He fetches my phone for me if I leave it in a different room. He is able to open and close cupboards so at feeding time he fetches his bowl for me. He also helps me tidy up by putting his toys away in a box. When we go shopping he can help getting items off the shelf. Once we are finished shopping, Petworth can help me pay and gives my purse to the cashier.

Having just written down the things Petworth does for me, I’m quite amazed. He really loves to help me but it isn’t all about work, he still gets time to be a normal dog. We both enjoy going to the park or going on a long walk. One of my favourite things is teaching Petworth a new task; he is a very quick learner. As my condition is progressive I can train Petworth to do more tasks that will benefit me in the future.

Petworth has changed my life greatly. In many ways he has flipped it upside down. Before I had him I was too scared to leave my house. I was always worried I would drop my phone or keys. I always felt like all eyes were on my wheelchair and me. I didn’t have a social life and I became very isolated. Now I feel like a different person as Petworth gives me so much confidence. People are more interested in Petworth than my chair. He is a fab talking point and people love to ask me questions. I don’t have to rely so heavily on carers. Most importantly he has given me a reason to get up every morning. He looks after me and I look after him.

4. What, If any, are the challenges of having an assistance dog?

This probably sounds cheesy but I don’t think it is a challenge. Petworth really has enhanced my life and opened up many doors…literally!

The main hurdle we face is good old British weather – come rain or shine Petworth needs a walk. This means wrapping up warm, getting my waterproofs on and embracing whatever Mother Nature has to throw at us.

I was initially worried that I would struggle looking after a dog due to fatigue, but in reality Petworth gives me more energy by completing his tasks. I am responsible for exercising, grooming, feeding and playing. This has helped me maintain some muscle strength and it has given me a purpose and a sense of achievement.

5. What would be your advice for others who are considering getting an assistance dog?

Go for it! Having Petworth has completely changed my life and an assistance dog could do the same for you. I know some people think I’m too disabled or I’m not disabled enough but I still recommend applying. I would try to speak to somebody who already has an assistance dog to see what is involved and if it’s for you. The best advice I can give is be patient. It is not a quick process and the charity waiting lists are long at the moment, but it really is worth the wait.

*All images courtesy of Harriet Butler


I would like to thank Harriet for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly.

For more information about assistance dogs, visit the Canine Partners website.

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Interview | ‘The Undateables’ Steve Carruthers

“It is a life-changing experience.        Embrace it!”


The Undateables is a Channel 4 TV show featuring people with a variety of disabilities, all of whom are looking to find love.

Steve Carruthers, who has Crouzon syndrome (a genetic condition affecting the shape of the face and head), was a participant on series two, back in 2013. Though romance did not blossom with his date, the experience gave him much needed confidence.

Following his appearance, Steve – now 36, from Manchester – soon met the love of his life Vicky, through social media. Vicky had in fact seen Steve on the show and decided to contact him.

The Undateables screened Steve’s romantic proposal and the couple later married in 2015.

1. Steve, why did you apply to The Undateables and, what reservations did you have?

I initially applied for a different show called ‘Beauty and the Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice’. As a result, I was approached to appear on series one of ‘The Undateables’, but declined as it had never been on and I didn’t get the gist of the show. After series one ended, I was approached again but this time it was by my good friend Adam Pearson, who worked with the team to find participants for the show. He convinced me to give it a chance as he said it would help me with my confidence and outlook as I had a negative outlook on life after the loss of two of my siblings. I was a bit reserved and concerned that after being on the show, more people would make fun of my appearance. But, in doing the show, my outlook changed to a positive one and allowed me to helped people.

2. How were you treated throughout the production process?

The team were incredibly nice and understanding. Everything was treated with care and compassion.

3. What response have you received following your appearances?

Like all things with TV, there are negative people who see disability as something to mock and joke about. But the positives outweighed the negatives in a huge way. People are so kind and understanding. I found that it [the show] helped educate people about disability. It also helps with how we perceive ourselves and how society perceives us to.

4. The show has been accused of being insensitive and exploitative. The title in particular is widely criticised. What do you think?

The show itself everything you see. It is exactly how dates are – you have moments of silence, awkwardness and moments of hope. The shows titles show cupid shooting the [prefix] ‘Un’ off, leaving the word ‘dateables’. The point is to prove we are all dateable, and that we [disabled people] have the same experiences on dates as everyone else does.

5. What would you say to anyone who is considering applying to the show?

My advice to anyone going on or applying for the show is go into it with an open mind. There will be those who will say [derogatory] things, but overall the positives more than outweigh the negatives. It is a life-changing experience. Embrace it! The positive message you’re putting out helps others as well as yourself. The impact the show’s had has given so many people confidence. Those who watch the show have gained so much more understanding of different disabilities too.


I’d like to thank Steve for taking the time to speak with me.

You can watch his original appearance on the show here.

Images courtesy of The Undateables and The Sun


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Muscular Dystrophy | A Guide for Parents

*Disclaimer* Please be aware, this is in no way an official, definitive guide for parents of children with neuromuscular conditions. Here I offer support and advice along with my personal perspective, having lived with Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy for 29 years.


About Me

– I am a UK based disability blogger
– I have Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy
– Born in 1988, I am now 29 years old
– Born with ‘floppiness’ and dislocated hips
– Slow rate of progression: I didn’t start to walk until 19 months old and ‘bum-shuffled’ until then
– I was able to walk short distances, wearing custom-made leg splints, until age 10
– I would fall over a lot as a child
– I could never walk up or down steps or stairs
– I am now completely non-ambulant and use a powered wheelchair
– I have contractures in all joints
– I have a severe ‘S’ shaped scoliosis (curvature of the spine), which has not been surgically corrected
– Over the years, my condition has deteriorated
– As an adult, my primary concern is respiratory-related
– Education: I attended mainstream school, achieved A-Levels and a degree with Honours.


My Advice

I would first like to say, a life with muscular dystrophy need not be an unfulfilled life! Many people with neuromuscular conditions lead full and active lives, whilst pursuing demanding careers.

Though severely disabling, muscular dystrophy is not synonymous with suffering or a poor quality of life.


Diagnosis

It can, of course, be shocking and extremely distressing to learn your child has a muscle-wasting condition. In some cases there may be a family history, whereas for others like me it could be completely unexpected and unfamiliar.

I am the only member of my family with any form of muscle-wasting condition. So when I was initially diagnosed, aged 4, with congenital muscular dystrophy following a muscle biopsy, my parents were venturing into the unknown.

The year was 1992, there was no Internet, no Google, few resources and more to the point – they had never even heard of muscular dystrophy!

It may be helpful to talk to other parents of children with a similar condition. If this is something you think would be beneficial for you, ask your care advisor or neuromuscular consultant who will assist.

If you are not ready to speak to other families, remember this is always an option if you change your mind in the future.


How and when to tell your child

There is no right or wrong answer. Only you can decide what is best for your child. It is also important to consider siblings, as they should be included in any discussions you have as a family. However, I would strongly advise against telling siblings more about the condition than the affected child. Any information you choose to share with your children should be fair and equal, regardless of the gap in age.

When deciding if, when and how to tell your child of their diagnosis, consider:

– Their age
– Their own awareness of their disability                                                                       – Emotional maturity
– Your ability to answer any questions they might have

From a personal perspective, I recommend an open and honest policy from the very beginning.

I cannot recall any formal discussion or disclosure of my condition, whereby my parents sat and explained the ins and outs of it all to me and my older brothers.

I was officially diagnosed with congenital muscular dystrophy at age 4 (specified as Ullrich CMD many years later), but I was always aware of my disability. I recognised that I was different from my peers – I was unable to walk, run and climb steps. I also looked different – I was very thin as a child, I had contractures and scoliosis causing asymmetry of the torso.

My parents told us that I have something called muscular dystrophy, meaning I have much weaker muscles than other children. At that age, this was enough knowledge for me.

For many years, when other children would ask the inevitable question, ‘what’s wrong with you?’
I would simply answer, ‘I’ve got muscular dystrophy so I can’t walk like you’.

Whenever and however you decide to approach this, I would urge you to emphasise above all else that your child is loved and supported by you and your family. Sometimes the comfort of a loving hug from your parents is all the reassurance you want and need.

Ullrich Congenital Muscular Dystrophy

Infancy

Do your research: Unlike when I was a child, these days there are many reliable resources of information. Of course, ask any medical professionals your child is seeing, including consultants, physiotherapists and occupational therapists. However, I will say that not all children with the same form of muscular dystrophy will experience exactly the same symptoms or at the same rate. For this reason, I recommend talking to those directly affected, such as other parents and adults with muscle-wasting conditions who, like me, have a lifetime of experiences to draw from.
Always trust your instincts! As the saying goes, a mother knows best. This has certainly proved true in my case. My mother, noticing my delayed progression as a baby, sought medical help and was told she was an “over-reactive mother”. Thankfully, she persisted and met with a neuromuscular specialist who almost immediately identified my condition.
– Ensure your child receives the Flu vaccine EVERY year, as well as the pneumonia vaccination. You, as primary caregivers, will also be eligible for the Flu vaccine – take it!


Starting School

Some children are diagnosed well before they reach nursery age, whilst others like me, will have already started school when they learn they have a muscle-wasting condition.

– Starting school can be daunting for any child: Being parted from their parents, away from home and surrounded by lots of unfamiliar faces. But for a child with a disability like muscular dystrophy, this transition can be even more challenging.
– Particularly in this day and age, there is no reason why a child with a muscle-wasting condition shouldn’t attend mainstream school. However, you must consider your child as an individual and decide whether or not you feel this would be best for them. Indeed, your child may have a preference. Some would rather attend a school for special educational needs.
– I suggest making several visits to any nurseries or schools you have shortlisted. Check that everywhere is fully accessible. One visit is not enough as we often forget to ask certain questions and fail to spot things on first impressions.
– It is essential to ensure staff are fully aware of your child’s needs and abilities. Meet with the special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCo) well in advance and if possible, meet and introduce your child to their new teacher and *teaching assistant/support worker (*where applicable). This will help them feel more comfortable and confident when their first day of school arrives.
– Ask your child’s physiotherapist and/or occupational therapist to visit the school and meet with staff to share their knowledge and expertise.
– Be positive, be optimistic, be encouraging. BUT don’t make promises you can’t keep: As your child grows and interacts with other children, they will become increasingly aware of their differences. This will inevitably lead to questions. They may ask why they can’t stand, walk or run like their friends. Furthermore, if your child has a progressive form of muscular dystrophy, they may ask you if their symptoms will get worse as they get older.

For instance, I was able to walk short distances until the age of 10. We were never told if I would continue to do so as I grew. Therefore, I would often ask, ‘will I always be able to walk or will I have to use a wheelchair?’

I appreciate why many parents would be reluctant to overshare and reveal what the future may hold in terms of deterioration, in fear of scaring their child. However, I feel strongly that it is important to be honest and unambiguous. If you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know. Don’t try to comfort your child by telling them it will all be okay and things will not get worse. Knowledge and preparation is power!


Teen Years

– For most children with muscular dystrophy, the biggest changes occur during puberty.
– Growth spurts put extra strain on weakening muscles.
– If able to weight-bear, your child could lose this ability resulting in the need for a wheelchair.
– It is likely that your child will accept having to use a wheelchair more than you. Children are very adaptable. From personal experience, I can tell you that using a wheelchair is a great relief compared to exerting all your strength, energy and reserves on standing and walking. A wheelchair offers mobility and freedom. So please keep this in mind.
– Growth also leads to contractures becoming more severe. Regular physiotherapy (ie. stretching) will help maintain flexibility and movement.
– If untreated, spinal curvature (scoliosis) will increase resulting in asymmetry of the torso, a tilted pelvis, pressure sores and discomfort.
– Scoliosis, along with muscle deterioration, impacts on respiratory function. Should your child feel overly tired, nap during the day, or experience regular headaches, particularly on first waking, you must see a specialist respiratory consultant. It might be necessary to introduce noninvasive ventilation nocturnally.
Noninvasive ventilation (NIV) comes in the form of either a CPAP or BiPAP machine (usually the latter).
Bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP): a face mask is worn (many different styles are available) and air is delivered from a machine through a tube to support breathing.
– Other respiratory equipment your teenager may benefit from, especially when ill: Nebuliser and cough assist machine (seek advice and information from your respiratory consultant and respiratory physiotherapist).

BiPAP Machine
NIV Face Mask

 


Other Family Members

Some forms of muscular dystrophy are inherited. This can obviously be a concern if relatives are planning families of their own.

A few years ago, my brother and his wife decided they wanted to have children. Because of my condition, he asked his GP to refer them to a genetic counsellor. They took with them a copy of my medical record.

In their case, it was determined that my brother is highly likely to be a carrier, while his wife is highly unlikely. Once pregnant, they were offered a test which involved inserting a needle into the developing embryo to ascertain if the baby would have muscular dystrophy. They decided against this due to the invasive nature.

I’m happy to report they now have a happy and healthy baby boy.


How to cope

As a parent, it is understandable that you will focus all your thoughts and energy into your children. Raising a child with muscular dystrophy brings with it many more challenges and emotional turmoil. This can have a huge affect on you, your health and relationships. It is therefore crucial to take care of yourself too.

Remember, it is okay to cry, scream and shout! There will be times you struggle, lose your patience and indeed you will have to fight your child’s corner in different situations.

It’s good to talk: whether you choose to confide in relatives, friends, fellow parents of disabled children, or healthcare professionals – don’t bottle up your concerns and frustrations. This will ultimately have a negative effect on your wellbeing and your family.

Make time for yourself: ‘what time?!’  – I know, I know. I appreciate that caring for a child with any disability is a full-time job. But you must allow yourself some form of relief. Even if it is just dedicating yourself to an hour or two with friends for coffee each week. You need space. Your child needs space. It will be good for all of you – trust me!


If you have any specific questions, please leave a comment or contact me directly. I am more than happy to talk privately.

If you like this blog post, I would be grateful if you would share so that others may learn from it.

Thank you!