Monday, 16 March 2015

Our experience :: living in NC with a disabled child (part two)

So this is the next part of our adventures on a French Pacific island with wheelchairs and walkers. As I write now we are watching the category 5 tropical cyclone Pam leave a path of destruction in nearby Vanuatu as it heads past the south of New Caledonia. The adventure never stops!

If you didn't catch part one, this series of posts is my attempt to impart a bit of firsthand knowledge of what it's like to have a normal life as an expat in New Caledonia with two small children, one of whom has cerebral palsy. It's the type of insight I searched for but failed to find when I did my own research before we embarked from Melbourne, Australia in 2012.

On y va...

Jack with his second aide Cynthia
Going to school (part 2)

Another hurdle we overcame, at least partly, was access to the school cantine - about 20 steep steps. The French school system has the option to enrol for a canteen lunch, which most families do. The alternative is to pick up your children at 11.30am, home for lunch and then back at 12.30. No lunch boxes here, which is probably not a bad idea given the climate (cheese sandwiches and bananas do not do well in a hot school bag, I still have vivid memories.....). 

It took over 6 months to convince the school director that we needed a ramp to enable canteen access. My inquiries up to this point were usually met with typically French shrugs and mumblings of "n'est possible". Unfortunately, even with the new ramp, Jack needed to be taken out the front gate, down the street a short distance where there was no footpath, and then pushed across a sports area to the canteen. A few months later the marie (council) finally paved a footpath as well. So now, although the long route to lunch, it is mainly paved although still quite a bit of muscle-work for his aide.

Sitting outside to listen to a book at school

Jack loves being able to stay at school for cantine. He sits with his class and is served a hot lunch. His aide eats lunch with him and helps where neccessary. After lunch he plays with his friends until classes restart. It's an opportunity we wouldn't have in Australia and we didn't want him to miss it.

The experience  of asking for and finally getting access to a school lunch highlighted the fact that our adopted community had not considered the possibility that wheelchair access might be needed at their school. Many Australians today would find that unusual. I think the resistance we felt in this instance was the rationale that building infrastructure for one child wasn't economical, although of course accessible ramps and paths are for the benefit of all and economics shouldn't come into it when discussing such a basic thing. We also see it as having helped to provide access for not just our child, but future children in the community with mobility difficulties.

This is not the case in all schools here. Two newer schools near the neighbouring town of Koné both have much better accessiblity, including lifts and handicapped parking spaces. My battle to find a carspace at our school to unload and reload the kids and the wheelchair is a weekly lesson in creative parking and muscle-building. It's a private battle that I'm not going to take further. I really can't see a handicapped parking spot being built. Some things just need to be endured!

First day of school this year
Despite the challenges, the sleepless nights, the disappointments and steep learning curves, being brave enough to tackle the French/New Caledonian school system is paying off. Jack speaks French with an accent that melts my heart. His marks in maths are great. He writes in a beautiful cursive that he wouldn't be taught in Australia but which belies his fine motor skill difficulties. He's a wonderful role model for his little sister Nellie who started at the same school last year at the age of 3. This year his reading of French has blossomed, adding to his wonderful English reading skills that we've fostered at home. And he has many friends who love him and greet him each morning with kisses (this is France, people) and cheers.

The next post in this series will be able how we've tackled therapy and medical care in the province nord of New Caledonia. Please feel free to message me any questions or your own similar experiences, which I'd love to hear, below or on the France has Coconuts Facebook pageÁ la prochain!

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