Saturday, 21 April 2018

Reflecting Upon Down Syndrome Decades On

I had not given Brian Philpott a thought for years, not until a neighbour recently spoke of her young brother, a Down Syndrome sufferer. We discussed the need for inclusion and how over decades society’s attitude toward children with disabilities has inexorably changed for the better. Later I found myself thinking about Brian and wondering about our attitude toward him as he grew up in Shepherd Street.

Back then we knew nothing of chromosome abnormalities and had of course never heard of John Langden Down who apparently had first described the condition in 1862. Because of the features of the affected children he called them Mongoloid and in 1949, some ninety years later so did we. My mother said Brian was a Poor Little Bugger and wouldn’t live long because children like him never did and that all them Mongols were slow. It wasn’t until 1961, long after I had left the district and pushed all memory of him from my consciousness that scientists began to suggest that the term Mongolism had misleading connotations and had become an embarrassing term. It was dropped completely in 1965 and those with a connection to children with the condition had to learn overnight to describe them as having Down Syndrome. To be fair it probably wasn’t nearly as hard for those with an afflicted family member as it was for the rest of us. Most of us, with the exception of course of the medical profession and those training to be social workers, continued to describe children like Brian as Mongols. This meant that we were treated to hostile and superior looks or as time went on, the error of our terminology was pointed out to us.

But when we were children it was still perfectly acceptable for Brian to be referred to as a Mongol. He was supremely unaware of all this and a more cheerful and chirpy child would have been hard to find. He lived at number 60 Shepherd Street with his grandparents, Annie and Albert Philpott. He called Them Mum and Dad and for a long time I thought they were indeed his parents until I overheard Old Nan saying that his actual mother had Scarpered and who could blame her. This may or may or not have been true because Old Nan was well known for jumping to conclusions and as my mother was wont to point out, getting the wrong end of the stick.
What Brian may have lacked in intelligence he made up for in enthusiasm and was always more than anxious to join in any group game being played and happy to take on roles that the rest of us discarded on account of them being monotonous. Brian never tired of the tedious and the repetitive and was simply delighted to be accepted as part of the crowd, guarding camps, searching for lost balls and inexpertly keeping scores without argument and with a cheerful countenance. He loved being with each and every one of us and did not seem to attempt to analyse why it was that although he was willingly included in group games, singly it was harder for him to find a playmate, especially among the boys. The only one of us always agreeable to playing with Brian on a one to one basis was Kathleen Draper who lived a few doors away from him. He called her My Kath and loved her dearly, following a step or two behind her and obeying her every instruction. And Kathleen looked after him like a mother although she was only a year or so his senior, ensuring that from time to time he got Proper Turns in games and prepared to put up a fight on his behalf if anyone argued about it. Even in more complex games like What’s The Time Mr Wolf when nobody ever really wanted Brian to be the wolf, Kathleen would take his hand when he got muddled and tirelessly explain that it couldn’t always be Time to Eat you Up which was his favourite part of the ritual. And with her beside him, holding on to him tightly, he rose to the occasion and managed to remember.

I can’t remember Brian going to school with us so perhaps he went to a special class somewhere in the neighbourhood along with Elsie Coppins from Buckingham Road who was in a wheelchair because she couldn’t walk, or maybe he wasn’t required to attend at all. My mother said there was no point anyway because if you were like him you’d never learn to read and write because you simply wouldn’t have what it took. It stood to reason and it was his poor grandmother she felt sorry for. Nevertheless Kathleen was making firm attempts to teach Brian to read and he could already recognize B for Brian and K for Kath. She said she didn’t mind how long it took because it had to be done. Brian wanted to be a train driver and he would need to be able to read at the very least the names of the local stations. Even as a ten year old I understood why he loved her so devotedly.

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