The needs of disabled children are well-known, if not always well-served, but what about their sisters and brothers? A new National Children's Home survey shows that most of these children have been bullied or teased at school, and half had their sleep regularly disturbed and felt tired at school as a result. All those interviewed helped care for their siblings, and regarded them as valued members of the family, but nearly half admitted to feelings of isolation.
Yet, teachers are often unaware of their situation. Almost half of the 29 young people aged eight to 16 interviewed at an NCH Action For Children Siblings Support Group had not told their teacher about their brother or sister's special needs, or the difficulties they were experiencing. They did not want to be conspicuous or feared embarrassment. "Of those that had told their teacher, 73 per cent felt they had been helpful. A few felt that teachers did not know how to address the problem and therefore had ignored it," says the report, All in the Family: Siblings and Disability.
Many of the children had trouble finding a place to do homework.
The children were often torn between their love for and loyalty to their disabled sibling and resentment at the responsibility they carry and jealousy at the time and attention they require.
"This study shows that many children who have a brother or sister with disabilities are taking on a responsible, caring role and in doing so experience emotional stresses similar to their parents' which are going unrecognised by professionals and perhaps even parents," said NCH Action for Children chief executive Tom White. "At the root of the problem is the lack of support services provided by government, health and local authorities which recognise the needs of all the family."
He said teachers had a responsibility to watch for bullying and teasing. The report also calls for a programme of disability-awareness education for children.
Siblings of disabled children are often mature. "Though many of the children were still very young, they had a remarkably mature insight into the issues facing their disabled brother or sister and what that meant for the family as a whole," says the report. They often had a limited social life. Seven out of 10 felt jealous and sometimes angry because of the disproportionate amount of attention their brother or sister received from their parents, and 40 per cent were angry or upset because family outings were infrequent or restricted. Many of the children had felt embarrassment at their sibling's behaviour in public.
A free information guide for parents and siblings of children with disabilities, sponsored by Bisto, is available from NCH Action for Children, 85 Highbury Park, London N5 1UD. The survey is available free of charge from NCH Action for Children May Lodge Family Resource Centre, 25-27 Filey Road, Scarborough, North Yorkshire YO11 2TW