March 5, 2015

Rare Disease Day

Last Saturday was Rare Disease Day 2015, which I guess most people don't know about unless, like me, they have a child that fits the category and a Facebook feed full of people whose children fit the category. Sometimes I miss the days before we knew about Rare Disease Day, World Sight Day, Autism Awareness Month, Jeans for Genes Day, and so many other days... It used to be that Ron came back from school with a note saying we are having a red/blue/green t-shirt day for this or that cause. Please donate a pound. And all we cared about was how are we supposed to find a green t-shirt in the next 24 hours. Ron is a redhead - he doesn't look good in green.
Nowadays, I get emails and messages and requests to write about each and every one of these days, nowadays I don't understand why they didn't collect money in our school here for Rare Disease Day (or any day for that matter), nowadays I don't know how it is possible to not know about these days and their meaning for other people.
Nowadays I measure everyone and everything with relation to how they treat people, and mainly children with special needs.
And yet, today is Thursday and I am just now managing to finish writing about Rare Disease Day, because I can't seem to be ok with Albinism being part of Rare Disease Day. I have a really hard time with calling albinism a disease, because if albinism is a disease, that means Yon is sick. And Yon is not sick. On the other hand, every time I tell someone new about Yon's ocular albinism they take two steps backwards, like somehow it's or he or me are contagious. Like the fact that Yon's brain doesn't produce melanin can magically transport itself to the other person's brain and he will suddenly start growing blonde-white hair.
It took me all day (ok, I also got into a fight with my computer and couldn't fit the photo in the frame, which I knew I know how to do, and which eventually took me over an hour to fix) but I did join in the campaign, because at the end of the day I can't sit on the sidelines and not join something I support with all my heart just because I have a hard time with the labelling.
And I do, I have a hard time with labelling albinism as a disease, a condition or a disability. It doesn't make it any less true. I have a hard time getting the image of a sick child, or the meaning of a "diseased" child out of my head. But this is the point of Rare Disease Day - to make us understand that what we think of as a disease is not the only correct image.
For me Rare Disease Day is about two things -
It is about reminding us of the fact that medicine, like everything else, is a business. The Rare Diseases out there, or the "Orphan diseases" are the ones that gets dumped to the end of the line - there aren't enough patients to merit spending time and money and resources looking for a cure. But those "not enough patients" are people - dads, mums, children. It is so easy to look at numbers and statistics and say hey it's just 1:200,000 people... It is a very cold comfort for the people who has the condition, to their families, to the people who have to say once and again - no, there will be no cure for that, no one is even looking. Trust me, I say it often enough.
And most importantly - and the reason why I write about Yon so much in this blog, the reason why we tell people about albinism, the reason why I join in every campaign is that people are afraid and hateful and uncaring for what they don't know. Just today I read in Blind Children UK that new research shows that almost half the parents they asked would not invite a child with sight impairment or blindness to a party or a play-date. How many of these people ever saw a child with sight impairment? How many people do you know who has albinism? We have doctors treating Yon who never saw a person with albinism. All everyone knows is the mental image we have from the movies, from the books (like The De Vinci Code or The Heat), where to call what they depict incorrect will be an insult to the word. We are afraid of what we don't know, and the mental image we create of that thing. For the same reason watching the movie after reading the book is always a let-down (and not just because usually the plot in the movie sucks) - the onscreen image is always different than the one we created in our mind. The same is true for the real-life image. This is why we need days like Rare Disease Day, this is why we need inclusion, this is why we need to know.
I have a lot of people on my Facebook and in life who will not "like" or like this post or any post I write about Yon, who don't care, or don't understand or think I am putting him "out there" too much and flaunting his differences instead of being quietly relieved that he "doesn't look different", that I can hide his albinism, or the Asperger. It is easier to "like" a cute cat video, it is easier to share a photo of a cake, than it is to understand how hard it is for kids like Yon to fit in, and how the fact that he does is a miracle. How we can talk for hours about the fact that he decided to learn how to go down the stairs. How amazing it is every time he recognises us from afar, and how when I changed my coat the other day and he didn't recognise me it broke my heart.
It is so much easier to send our kids to a school where everyone "is like us", where they (and mostly we) won't have to encounter anything that makes us feel uncomfortable, anything that will force us to explain to our children about differences and specialness and other ways of life.
It would be so much easier for me to hide Yon's differences, to have him labeled a lot of other things, but not disabled, or blind, or Autistic. But I won't.
Because our children, my child, are not diseased. They shouldn't be hidden and banished to a dark corner or swept under the rug. They shouldn't be a dirty little secret to be hidden from the world. They should be celebrated and congratulated and embraced.
Because it is our children - the sick, the different, the Special - who makes society into humanity.


  1. Hear hear. Disease is definitely not the right word, or disorder, but it shouldn't really matter what we call it, they are all still just children, people. They belong here as much as we do. You are doing a great job as mummy, and you know I agree with your decision to speak out about it and not hide away - there is nothing to be ashamed of, no secret. You and you family are fab :)

  2. What a beautiful post and I too agree about the word disease. It took me a long time to get used to being out in an unfamiliar public place with my son (Autistic, now aged 27) but you are right, they shouldn't be hidden away because they are different. I've noticed a changed over the years and things do seem to be getting better with awareness, but there is still a long way to go. xx


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