Cerebral palsy – the hidden disability

Posted: 01/02/2016


Cerebral palsy can influence a person’s posture, balance and ability to move, communicate, eat, sleep and learn. The parts of the body affected by cerebral palsy, the level of severity and combination of symptoms can differ for each person. For example, one person may have a weakness in one hand and find tasks like writing or tying shoelaces challenging. Another person may have little or no control over their movements or speech and require 24 hour assistance. People with cerebral palsy may experience uncontrolled or unpredictable movements, muscles can be stiff, weak or tight and in some cases people have shaky movements or tremors. Those with severe cerebral palsy may also have difficulties with swallowing, breathing, head and neck control, bladder and bowel control and eating, accompanied by dental and digestive problems.

One in two people with cerebral palsy has an intellectual disability. One in five people has a moderate to severe intellectual disability. Generally, the greater the level of a person’s physical impairment, the more likely it is that they will have an intellectual disability. However, there are people who have a profound level of physical impairment, who do not have an intellectual disability. Conversely, there can be others with a mild physical impairment who have an intellectual disability and in this sense, cerebral palsy can be a somewhat hidden disability.

We have represented a bright young man, who retained significant intellectual ability resulting in him developing a deep understanding of his condition. He recognised the implications of his own disability and the differences between himself and his peers. This caused our client to suffer complex emotional difficulties and distress as he struggled to come to terms with his situation. During his time at school, on a superficial level, he would appear steady and calm, but this was not the case under the surface. Children with hidden disabilities, who appear to have a lesser degree of physical impairment, can tend to experience more mental health problems and it is a common misconception for people unfamiliar with the individual to assume that he or she is fine.

Some young people with cerebraI palsy can go through a very turbulent time dealing with their body image and their distorted view of themselves, both physically and mentally. They may struggle to make friends at school and whilst it sometimes looks as though they have a level of maturity akin to young people of their own age, they probably don’t have the same emotional maturity, which greatly affects their ability to make long lasting relationships with their peers.

Alison Johnson, senior associate in the birth injury team at Penningtons Manches LLP, says: “These young people need significant support, perhaps more than may be appreciated, to protect their safety and wellbeing. It is a concern that unscrupulous people could try to take advantage of their vulnerability and often overly-trusting nature. I have worked with young people with intellectual or emotional vulnerability and my experience is that they often takes things very literally and feel a huge sense of personal rejection when things don’t go to plan. They need plenty of support to help them cope with those sorts of situations. In a context of a birth injury claim, it is therefore imperative to have fully investigated the nature of the care and psychological support such a person will need throughout their lifetime and particularly at crisis points as they arise.”


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