First published on my old website verso.me.uk back in 2004
Back in the very early eighties perennial kids TV favourite Blue Peter unwittingly started a playground craze that was to last for years. The year was in fact 1981 and was the national year of the disabled. BP used this as their basis for their annual appeal. Each week they updated the appealometer and showed us, the eagle eyed viewer, a little video explaining where our money was going. This is where the spastic Joey Deacon comes in. You see back in those days we could say words like spastic as it was an adjective the politically correct hadn’t hijacked.
Joey was a spastic and a bit later on this page I will retell the story of his life. Anyway back to the spastic. Blue Peter failed to take into account the underlying sense of spite and general malevolence that is present in 99.9% of all kids when faced with someone who is a bit `different`.
Within twenty four hours playgrounds and classrooms the length and breadth of the country rang out to the cries of:
Often these shouts were accompanied by quite breath taking impersonations of Mr. Deacon`s contorted face, claw like waving of hands, his cheery grunting and occasionally an ad-libbed stumbling walk from the more advanced `Deaconists`, of course the stumbling walk was pure fiction as Joey was always safe within the confines of his trusty wheelchair.
Some may argue that this article is in bad taste but the point that’s being made here is about harking back to more innocent times, before political correctness was a twinkling in the eyes of the marketing men, when you could have a laugh at the misfortune of others without being judged too harshly.
Joey Deacon forms part of the very glue that holds together the memories of a certain age group, things like rounders, The Empire Strikes Back, Ethiopian/Cambodian jokes and discovering wanking. Memories are precious things and should be cherished, hopefully this article has brought some of yours flooding back; even if it`s just being called a `Deacon` for letting in a goal during a five-a-side game or acting as the class `Joey` during a particularly boring maths class.
Below is Blue Peter’s take on the life of Joey Deacon. This text was taken from the 1981 Blue Peter annual……………
We first heard of Joey way back in 1979. A friend, who was a reporter on the Surrey Mirror, told us about an important ceremony that was going to take place in the grounds of St. Lawrence’s Hospital at Caterham in Surrey.
They’ve been built especially for handicapped people who’ve spent years and years living in hospital wards, and they’ve all been paid for by one of the patients, who’s so badly handicapped he can’t use his arms or legs, and he can’t even talk, either!”
How on earth could someone so badly disabled raise over £160,000? We found it very hard to believe. So we borrowed a copy of Joey Deacon’s book from the library (Very generous; surely the BBC could have stretched to buying a copy) and took Blue Peter film cameras to Caterham to film the opening ceremony of the bungalows and to meet the man who’d made it possible for them to be built.
Joey’s handicaps were the result of his mother having a very bad fall just before he was born. Her baby boy turned out to be a spastic – unable to use his hands, arms or legs, and as he grew from a baby into a toddler, his mother realised Joey couldn’t talk either. But in spite of watching her son grow up with these dreadful disabilities, Joey’s mother was convinced he was perfectly intelligent. Sometimes she’d sit Joey in a chair outside the front door to watch the passers-by and the traffic, and when she said “How many cars have driven by?”, Joey would reply by blinking his eyes – once for each car that had passed. Then the second tragedy in Joey’s young life occurred. His mother became ill with tuberculosis and died when he was only six years old. By then Joey had a brother called Peter, and try as he might, Joey’s father just couldn’t carry on going to work and look after his two small sons. So when he was eight years old, Joey was sent to a hospital, where he spent the next fifty years of his life.
The doctors and nurses were kind, and his relations came to visit him, but of course, it wasn’t a bit like home, and all the time Joey suffered the frustration of not being able to make people understand what he wanted to say. He could only make grunting noises, and most of the hospital staff thought he was very simple-minded. But in 1941 an amazing thing happened. A new patient called Ernie Roberts, who was also a spastic, joined the ward, by some miracle, Ernie could understand exactly what Joey was trying to say.
At first the doctors and nurses thought Ernie was making things up. But a few simple tests proved that Ernie really could interpret Joey’s grunts. Now, at last, after twenty years of being thought of as nothing more than a cabbage, Joey could show the world he was as intelligent as any normal person.
He and Ernie became friendly with two more patients, Tom Blackburn and Michael Sangster, and the four helped each other as much as they could One day, as a bit of a joke really, one of the nurses said: ‘You know what, Joey, you ought to write a book about your life!” And that’s exactly what Joey did – with the help of his three friends. First of all Ernie would translate Joey’s grunts and very slowly Michael would write the words down. Once Michael had done this, Joey read them back, letter by letter, and as Ernie translated, Tom typed them out. Tom couldn’t read or write, but he’d taught himself to use a typewriter, using one finger of each hand. They made the most remarkable team – although it took them a whole day to get three lines typed and the book of Joey’s life took them a year and a half to complete. But Joey, Ernie, Tom and Michael were determined to finish it, and when they did, and the book was published, it caused a tremendous stir. It was translated into French, Dutch, Swedish, Italian and Japanese. No one could believe that people with such enormous handicaps could achieve such a thing, and donations came flooding in from all over the world, including £50,000 from Holland as the result of an Appeal. Joey had two ambitions. One was to travel and the other was to live not in a hospital but in a proper home. With the royalties from his book, Joey and his friends have had holidays in France, Switzerland and Holland. As a result of his book, Joey achieved his two greatest ambitions – to travel and to move from hospital into a proper home.