Whether a sibling is born with or acquires a disability, it inevitably impacts the life of the other siblings. AttitudeLive from New Zealand interviewed 5 sibling groups all of whom have at least one with a disability.
A sister whose brother acquired a spinal cord injury
Jump to 2:14 for the story of Siobhan, a sister who’s younger brother broke his neck and became a quadriplegic at age 18. Her brother Dan was injured in a rugby accident and talks to his sister about the impacts of his accident on her life. “It was a huge sadness that slowly lessened overtime,” Siobhan shares. For a few years, her family didn’t accept that Dan would stay paralyzed. “There was always this hope that things were always going to get better in terms of function and by the time we got over that, we’d all moved on.” Although Dan never regained function, his injury brought them close together. “Looking back, I realize that my family was probably hurting more than I was because they couldn’t do anything…whereas I had something to work towards,” Dan shares.
Triplets who care for their two brothers with a degenerative muscle condition
It’s a different situation for siblings who grow up with a sibling with a disability. Jump to 6:16 to see the story of triplet siblings who take care of their two brothers who have a degenerative muscle condition. “It’s really the sort of thing that will bring a family together or break it apart,” shares one of the triplets. “I think that every brother and sister if they were in our situation would do the same thing. It’s just a natural instinct to be there for one another.” The triplets work together to get their two brothers up in the morning and manage all the necessary responsibilities. “We’re quite mature for our age,” shares one the triplets. Looking in on the outside, people might think they have a lot on their plate, but there’s no space for pity for these siblings. “We’ve grown up a lot faster because of the situation, but it’s also made us much closer as a family,” one triplet shares.
The impacts of siblings with disabilities from a psychologist
“Siblings with a brother or sister with a disability, they learn really early on that life isn’t fair,” says Dr. Ruth Jennings, a psychologist. “They’re much more able to cope with life’s ups and downs…They’re less likely to get rattled by minor things.” These siblings don’t see anything worthy of pity, but many people make that mistake and assumption. “Mostly the feelings of siblings with a brother or sister with a disability, first of all for them it’s completely normal…the whole pity concept doesn’t occur to them because it’s just the way it is to them,” shares Dr. Jennings.
Growing up with a brother born deaf and has aphasia
Jump to 10:29 for the story of Judy whose older brother was born deaf and has aphasia. “Siblings of disabled people often feel a sense of guilt for many things,” she shares. “I’m a firm believer in each of us is here for a reason and we all have a path to tread.” She also credits her brother with why she considers herself a good communicator. “It’s made me more aware of other people’s struggles,” she shares.
“Sibling relationships are complex anyway,” shares Dr. Jennings. “They learn to be extra mature. They learn to be extra responsible. They don’t want to add to the family stress, so they take it upon themselves to squash down any issues they have…because they’ve been given the ‘gift’ of being able-bodied.”
Growing up with a sister with autism
Jump to 15:47 for the story of Sharn, whose sister has autism. Sharn, like many of the siblings, talk about the impact having their brother or sisters has had on their maturity. Whether it’s less interest in partying or taking leadership roles or wanting to have an impact in the world, they all credit it to the siblings in their life. “You can gain so much from working alongside people with special needs,” he shares. He’s also started his own organization to promote engagement with people with special needs.
Growing up with a brother with down syndrome
Jump to 20:09 to meet Jess, who has a brother with down syndrome. “That’s the unintentional spotlight,” she shares, “because your brother stands out so you stand out as well and sometimes that gets to you.” Most of the time, she isn’t bothered, but she is always ready to stand up for her brother. All she wants is for people to see Ben for who he is.
For families who are dealing with disabilities, Dr. Jennings recommends not to spend too much time thinking about it. “You acknowledge it, it’s painful, it’s difficult and you keep going,” she advises. “The more families can talk about that sort of stuff and be open about it…the better it is.”
Understanding the special relationships between siblings
Relationships between siblings are unique and special, but one common thread for these siblings are their worries for their siblings futures. “It’s also part of life and part of caring for your family. Who knows what’s going to happen to any one of us?” shares Judy. “That’s what families are for. We look after each other.” They also become their brothers’ and sisters’ biggest advocates in the face of any negativity directed at them. “I would take really personally and be really affronted. Any forms of discrimination against Dan or anybody else in a wheelchair or anybody with a disability, I took personally and got really angry about,” shares Siobhan.
“Reality does change. Your sense of what’s normal shifts by virtue of living with someone who has a disability,” shares Dr. Jennings. These siblings lives have been irrevocably impacted by their siblings, and they would argue for the better.
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