Can Do Attitude

Posted on Thursday 9th February, 2012

We may well now be in the Year of the Dragon, but I'm hoping that, for me, this will be the Year of the Book - my book.  After much procrastination, my autobiography is being taken off the backburner and the gas is being turned up full.  I'm hoping at least to have a finished manuscript by the end of this year. 

Don't Tell Me I Can't

As part of the research for writing about my half century, I've been reading a lot of biographies and autobiographies, especially those written by fellow thalidomiders.  Few have engaged me quite so thoroughly as Leigh Gath's Don't Tell Me I Can't.  I read the entire book in a day - admittedly it was a day spent travelling, so there were few distractions. 

My time as chairman of the BBC's Disabled Staff Forum had already alerted me to the fact that attitudes to disability on the other side of the Irish Sea were and are slightly out of step with the more enlightened attitudes that prevail in places like London.  But Leigh's story provides a vivid account of what it was like to grow up in Northern Ireland, against the backdrop of 'the Troubles' and with more than a few disadvantages in life. 

As she so succinctly puts it:

Back then, many people had low or no expectations that kids with disabilities would grow up to become working, tax-paying citizens, enjoying the same lifestyles as their non-disabled counterparts.

Many members of my extended thalidomide family have, I believe, done a great deal to change attitudes, to knock down barriers and to force society to accept that disabled people have the same needs and aspirations as everyone else.  And people like Leigh have done more than most to to break the mould. 

She grew up in a nationalist area of Newry, the daughter of an alcoholic mother who struggled with her demons to bring up her children single-handed.  As Leigh grew up, like me, she was sent away to special schools and the holidays were a somewhat lonely experience because she had little or nothing in common with the other kids on the block. 

Leigh Gath

She recalls that even her sister, Phyllis, seemed to be embarrassed by her, being reluctant to bring her boyfriends home and, one day, even crossing the road in order to avoid her. 

In late adolescence, Leigh fought and won battles to study back home in Newry and even engaged her local MP, the infamous Enoch Powell (who was Minister of Health when the thalidomide scandal broke and did very little to help the families) to improve the accessibility of the built environment of her home town. 

Enoch Powell

In common with many disabled people, she felt that her impairments would reduce to zero her stakes in the dating game:

I believed I was ugly and would have to live life alone.  I had little self confidence and didn't even know how to approach a boy.  I didn't know what way to react if they were fooling around.

Probably because of this - again in common with other thalidomiders, myself included - her first proper relationship was disastrous.  Our access to funds from the Thalidomide Trust also made many of us targets for unscrupulous individuals in search of a meal ticket.  She met Declan at the Thalidomide Trust's holiday hotel on the Island of Jersey, where many a teenage romance was spawned.  Like Leigh, Declan was Irish, and like Leigh's mother, he was an alcoholic.  It just took her a while to gauge the depth of his addiction and even after this, it took a super-human degree of strength to have the confidence to get rid of him. 

Not surprisingly, the young couple couldn't see much of a future in Northern Ireland and managed to get green cards to emigrate to the US.  Leigh moved her family - her drink-dependent husband and a young baby - to Austin, Texas.  It was a world away from the turmoil in Newry but also a world away from her support network.  Ever resourceful though, Leigh quickly struck up friendships with Texans who became her new, surrogate extended family. 

Once she'd summoned the necessary inner reserves to banish Declan from the family home, Leigh threw herself into community life in Texas, found herself a job and had to look after two small children.  The description of her daily routine sounds punishing by anyone's standards, let alone someone whose arms and legs were shortened by thalidomide impairments:

In the evenings I would race over to collect the kids, bring them home and feed them.  We ate a lot of fast food because I didn't have the time or energy to cook proper dinners for Karl [her elder child].  Aisling was only two months old, so still on bottles.  After I fed them, I would play with Karl for a little while and then put on a video tape of Barney for them while I cleared away, put on laundry, ate a little myself and opened the mail.  Then I would get them ready for bed, give Karl a sponge bath and put him in his pyjamas.  After he was asleep, I would give Aisling her last feed and put her down.  Then I would pay bills, dry and fold the laundry, sterilise the bottles and make up eight for the following day.  I would eventually fall into bed myself at around midnight.

Leigh Colour

Leigh's story - and I'm not going to spoil the ending by telling you what happens - is a reminder to everyone that determination - an iron will in fact - will often overcome obstacles and open doors that other people assume are insurmountable or closed. 

Writing the book back in Ireland, she reflects that she hopes to have made a difference for future generations of disabled people, especially in the job market:

I hope that just by employers getting to know me and learning that you can't always judge a book by its cover, that it opens doors for others with significant disabilities.

Leigh seems to have spent most of her life laying down challenges - for herself and others.  In this case, her challenge to me is to produce something equally captivating and inspiring: something that will help to tell the history of the thalidomide generation long after we've said our farewells to the world.

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