Last night BBC1 broadcast the story of Laurence and Adele Clark as their second son Jamie was born. Both Laurence and Adele have Cerebral Palsy. One of the early scenes shows them taking their older son Tom, aged six to the swing park.
Being taken to the swing park as a six year old by two parents in wheelchairs is one of my earliest memories too. But that was 58 years ago, so I wanted to see what’s changed in just over half a century. The wheelchairs are far more high-tech and the playground equipment is much more brightly coloured, but it’s still newsworthy when two people with disabilities decide to have kids. There was no TV to speak of in 1948 so my birth was only reported in “The People” and the “Sunday Express”.
Laurence was in the operating theatre when Adele gave birth to Jamie, but the presenceof any dad - let alone a dad in a wheelchair - in that room was unthinkable then. But just as Laurence was about to go in, a very embarrassed (male) midwife asked him if he would mind transferring from his power wheelchair into a hospital wheelchair – “it would be better for us”. I can’t imagine the reasoning behind this; Laurence very politely and firmly declined this request and the midwife’s body language showed that he was only going through the motions at somebody else's bidding. He was clearly relieved when Laurence stood his ground.
One scene showed Adele talking to Tom about the imminent arrival of his new brother, and it was very interesting to see how he understood and accepted his parents’disabilities in such a matter of fact manner. I can’t remember having these discussions with Kathy and Charlie at six, but I do remember that as a nine year old I accepted my parents’ disabilities in just the same way. It would be very interesting to see a follow up program in a few years time and talk to Tom again.
I felt for the two grandmothers who featured prominently in the programme. Their childrens’CP was of course the result of difficult births, so it must have been very stressful for them to wait for Jamie’s arrival, and the relief they must have felt when a healthy baby arrived was obvious.
I couldn’t help contrasting Laurence’s and Charlie’s working lives. They couldn’t be more different as Laurence is a stand-up (or should it be sit-down?) comedian, whereas Charlie worked on an assembly line. Charlie’s work was hard physical labour, but his hours of work and his level of income were far more predictable than Laurence’s. One of the most moving parts of the programme was when Laurence had to leave his young family to spend a month at the Edinburgh fringe. I was about to write that there were no opportunities for people with disabilities in the performing arts in the 1950s but then I remembered that one of the most popular entertainers of the time was Michael Flanders, a polio survivor like my mum and dad who performed in his wheelchair.
Towards the end of the programme Laurence and Adele mention that there are still people around who don’t think that parents with their degrees of disability should have children. Nothing new there then.Adele pointed out that her children will always get the love and attention they deserve. She didn’t think that her life should be viewed as “triumph over adversity”; all she was doing was leading a normal life. These are sentiments that my mum and dad would have agreed with completely.