My latest binge-watch has been the BBC’s Call the Midwife, conveniently brought to my iPad via Netflix. I skipped over it a few times while looking for something to watch during those times when it seems the only thing I was capable of doing was parking it on the recliner with a heating pad, (basically the last 2 weeks) until finally, bored to tears with anything else I saw, I decided to see what it was all about and was instantly hooked. Hooked because I am fascinated with social history. Seriously, I should have made a career out if it.
Set in England in the late 1950’s, it’s a drama about midwifery and more. It touches on medical advancements and social issues of the time. I loved it. I loved the language – British English as opposed to American English – word choices, dialect, diction. I loved seeing the styles and trends of the time. It was fascinating to ‘see’ post-workhouse, post-war London.
One particular episode really sticks with me and frankly without this episode, as much as I enjoyed the series, it would have passed through my memory into non-relevance pretty quickly. This episode in particular focused on children born with birth defects, genetic disorders, what we would call today Special Needs; a topic very close to me. During the time frame of the drama, institutionalization was still the primary means of caring for Special Needs individuals. In the episode, the institution they showed was clean and friendly and well run. The residents seemed happy and well cared for and there seemed to be an emphasis on being independent and as able as possible.
This as a very different idea of the institutions as we know most of them to be from that era – places of filth and mistreatment where residents were treated as less than human. I can’t say how accurate the producers of the show where in depicting this institution but it would be nice if it were mostly accurate. Surely all institutions weren’t hellholes. One can hope.
Even with the positive portrayal of this institution, my chest was tight as I watched. Most of the residents showed in the scenes were individuals with Down syndrome and the thought of those children, young people, not being with their family – being shipped off to live in a hospital, tore me up. Any one of those people could have been my Kiddo or one of his friends. At one point, the parents of a newborn with Spinal Bifida (the main event of the episode) were in the facility discussing placing their son there when the father asked one of the residents what it is like living there. This young man, Jacob, tells him it’s not bad and in his slow, slurred speech says,
“There’s a biscuit factory next door. We get the broken ones.”
I bawled. Great, convulsing, sobs came out of nowhere. I had to pause the show and back up because I missed some of it trying to control the sudden grief that overtook me. We get the broken ones.
I’m not typically an overly emotional person. I do not easily succumb to moments of compassion or sympathy. Empathy I’m good with. Every one has their own version of ‘a hard life’ to live and frankly, it’s typically our own choices that make things difficult either by the circumstances it puts us in or the attitude in which we deal with it. I can empathize with your situation and I’m happy to help if I can because I realize sometimes things just happen to us but I’m too busy struggling with my own version of hard to wallow in yours with you.
But when bad or unpleasant or just plain miserable things happen to those who are truly innocent of mind or do not have the ability to control, or affect change in there own life, that – that gets me. Grief and anger and compassion are never lacking in those circumstances.
I thank God for the pioneers in medicine, and social justice, and those with a great big Godly heart who worked to rid this world of institutions. Our current system isn’t perfect and many more changes are needed but our small group homes are a vast, vast improvement. They cannot truly replace the love and care of a real home but when done right it’s an acceptable alternative.
I’ve been in some of the group homes in our area doing ministry and I must say we are blessed with a fabulous Special Needs community. Our Rec department runs programs for individuals and families and getting to know the people personally who run these programs has been a blessing to our family. These are people who have a true heart for this community.
I cannot imagine my Seth not being with me, at home, everyday. Who knows what he will grow up to be. Maybe one day he will move into an assisted living home. I’m glad he has that choice and a choice it will be because of our wonderful community that offers such places and my love for him that will always keep the door at home open for him. He will have that choice and I pray as he grows up he’ll grow up with the mental ability to make that choice.
And maybe, just maybe, he’ll grow up to be an actor. Because it has not escaped my notice that as this episode of Call the Midwife was portraying an institution for mentally and physically disabled people, an institution that our history tells us were places used to house these folks because society deemed them incapable of contributing, they were actually employing these very people to act in the episode. Actors with Down syndrome and other special needs.
Even as I grieve for our past and for so many in the present who still suffer prejudice, ignorance, or indifference, I smile still, gladdened at the progress we have made. And as a member of this human race, a contributing part of this society, and a parent of a Special Needs child, I am part of this progress whether I want to be or not. I choose to be one who fuels this process, not one who tries to stem it.
If you do, let me know what you think by commenting below.