by Laurence Clark
BBC Ouch 5th January 2005
Almost a year ago to the day, my wife Adele and I walked down the aisle at our wedding to the sound of Baby I Love You by The Ramones. At the time I never dreamt how prophetic that tune would be!
Adele and I have the same impairment – cerebral palsy. I think we’d both been conditioned by society’s all-pervading assumption that disability and human reproduction don’t go together. So when we decided to start trying for a baby, we both automatically assumed that we’d need some sort of fertility treatment. In fact we even booked an appointment at the clinic, which we subsequently had to cancel once we discovered that Adele was already pregnant.
At this stage I should point out that, contrary to what I claim in my stand-up act, this baby was actually planned. You see, I normally tell this story about going on honeymoon and discovering at the airport that we’d forgotten Adele’s contraceptive pills. At the time, the airport pharmacist refused to serve us, citing the fact that they weren’t a “disability chemist” (whatever one of those is!). Whilst that did actually happen, it didn’t directly contribute to us conceiving, as we eventually found another chemist willing to serve us.
Probably just like every other man in the world, I was insecure about my ability to conceive because I’d never actually tried to do it before. Indeed, this was something I’d hitherto actively avoided. My particular fear stemmed from GCSE Biology lessons at school, where I was taught that testicles are situated outside the body in order to keep them cool, and thus aid the production of sperm. Now as a wheelchair user, I spend a large part of the day sat down. According to my logic, this ought to raise the temperature of my testicles by a few degrees and potentially impair my ability to conceive. However, with the benefit of hindsight, this was quite clearly a load of b*ll**ks!
But if I was surprised by how quickly we’d conceived a baby, the rest of the world seemed equally amazed that we’d managed it at all. Sometimes, when we tell people we’re expecting, you can see the cogs turn in their head as they think: “How the hell did they manage that then?” It’s as if they’re mentally twisting our bodies into some sort of weird Kama Sutra position!
Quite early on, a young woman behind the checkout in Boots blurted out to Adele: “I didn’t know people like you could have babies!” To compensate, the store gave Adele her purchase of vitamins for free, though somehow this seemed a poor recompense for the injury to her feelings.
Similarly, the majority of nursing staff at our local hospital seem to struggle with the idea of two disabled parents. On her last visit, Adele was given a spacious side room instead of going on the ward, in order to give me more space as a wheelchair user when visiting. One nurse was particularly vexed by this ‘reasonable adjustment’. Whilst I was there, she told Adele that she should really be on the main ward, but there was no room for “The Chair” (meaning me!). I only hope that the ensuing heated discussion will cause her to think more carefully about how she refers to people – particularly in their presence!
After long discussions over baby names, we eventually compromised by agreeing that Adele could choose the girl’s name and I’d choose the boy’s name. We’ve since discovered we’re having a son, meaning that I get my wish to name him after the person I most admire in the world – actor and all-round great British eccentric Tom Baker! I love telling our friends who Tom will be named after, as it makes my wife cringe with shame!
Although rarely stated, another thought that crosses people’s minds when we tell them our good news is: “Will Tom inherit our impairment?” The hospital doctors have asked us several times whether cerebral palsy is hereditary. They’ve called us “irresponsible” for refusing to have amniocentesis tests to detect potential impairments, despite the fact that such tests aren’t accurate and increase the chances of miscarriage. They can’t comprehend why the prospect of bringing another disabled life into the world isn’t a problem for us.
I suppose such attitudes aren’t surprising when, nowadays, scarcely a day goes by without a news story about assisted suicide to relieve our ‘suffering’, or doctors trying to pull the plug on yet another disabled baby. Disturbingly, I believe such stories demonstrate how little our lives our valued by today’s society. This is why I’m proud to have presented an item for Newsnight on BBC TWO on the inequality in the current abortion law for babies with impairments, including disabled people’s views as well as those of the medical profession.
You see, I’d like our son Tom to grow up in a world where disabled people’s lives are valued as equal. Sadly I think we’re a long way from achieving such a dream.