My name is Kevin Donnellon, I’m approaching my 60th birthday [in November] and in the photo I’m the short but handsome guy on the left. I’m looking up at my wonderful family; my lovely wife Angela aged 44,* our beautiful ten year old daughter Daisy and our amazing son Oliver who celebrated his 5th birthday yesterday. We all live in Liverpool, England. My wife was born in South Wales [near Newport] but has lived here for over 20 years, but still retains her lovely Welsh accent.
As you have undoubtedly gathered, I am physically disabled. My impairment was caused by the drug Thalidomide ~ which I’ll write more about in later articles here. All you need to know now is that the drug caused extensive damage whilst I was in the womb. I was born without arms or legs. On my shoulders are attached short ‘arms’ with two fingers on the left side and three and a half fingers on the right. I’m typing this with one finger from my right ‘hand’. Attached to my ‘hips’ [I write the word in parenthesis as x-rays of my skeleton shows that I don’t in fact have hips, at least I don’t have any ball and socket joints] I have perfectly formed, albeit small, feet; one big toe and four small ones on each foot, an arch, a heel and ankle. I can’t actually walk on my feet though as the left foot is bent upwards and the right foot is bent inwards. But from an early age I could draw with them and pick up objects from the floor. You should also know that no single thalidomider is identical with any others. We were all born within a myriad of shapes and sizes — the majority were affected in their arms, but I was one of the rarer ‘four limbers’. Many of us are deaf [I’m deaf in my right ear] and some were born blind. Many of us have internal damage as well — lately i’ve been having problems with my kidneys. But my health has taken a dramatic downturn since I was diagnosed with type 2 Diabetes about seven years ago.
Other than that I’m tickety boo! In fact most of the time [pre-diabetes diagnosis] I’ve been extremely healthy and I’ve lived a full and actively adventurous life, probably more so than many non-disabled people.
This is the first time I’ve written anything here and you’ve probably gathered I’m not a professional writer — but hey, we all have to start somewhere! So please be kind! :) I’m writing here now because I want to write my autobiography. The working title is ‘Looking Up’ — I chose this as for most of my life I was looking up at people, as I would hop around on my bottom on the floor. But also I’ve always been a very positive person and generally optimistic. Obviously being disabled isn’t always a bed of roses and I’ve hit rock bottom sometimes — but this hasn’t been the norm. As I say it’s only a working title until/if I come up with anything better.
So, I’ve been trying to finish my autobiography [I began it many years ago] — I’ll be publishing bits of it here from time to time for your honest [and hopefully constructive!] criticisms. Also, on my personal website kevindonnellon.com I will soon be uploading many more photographs and videos etc. and you can read some of my earlier ramblings and political thoughts, not all of which will be in my biography. On my site is a PayPal tab and I will be eternally grateful, if you can afford it, for any contribution towards me finding an editor and publisher etc to get my book out there.
I’ll leave you now with a short excerpt from ‘Looking Up’, where all of my Mother’s predictions about me were proved to be completely wrong!
Love & Peace, Kevin
Excerpt from Chapter 1 BIRTH
“Some others were left to die of exposure, while others still were suffocated. One doctor recalled seeing the midwife, out of sight of the mother, push a four-limb damaged baby, who was in a small box and not breathing, underneath the delivery bed.
The doctor inadvertently kicked the box with his foot, and the baby started crying and survives to this day. The shame of being party to this stayed with that doctor until his dying days.
The baby in the box was Kevin Donnellon, who went on to achieve an education to postgraduate level, become a university lecturer, a campaigner against cruise missiles and a father.”
from: The Thalidomide Catastrophe: How it happened, who was responsible and why the search for justice continues after more than six decades. Copyright © Martin Johnson, Raymond G. Stokes, Tobias Arndt (2018) Publisher: Onwards and Upwards.
…… One thing we all experienced though was being written off as failures when we were born. In the 1960s society had a very negative attitude towards any kind of impairment and in my Disabilities and Equality lectures I list in my PowerPoint presentation a variety of negative words that were frequently used to describe me in the media, or even used by professionals in the medical, educational or social services fields.
As this negativity towards disability was so widespread within society, it isn’t surprising that even my own mother also reflected this attitude.
Mother, being interviewed in the television documentary ‘World In Action — A Day in the Life of Kevin Donnellon’ ITV Granada (1972)
Interviewer [Sue Woodford]:
When you look at the future for Kevin, what do you feel that it holds for him?
Well he’ll never be able to get married, he’ll never be the father of children. These things worry me a bit, they may worry Kevin I don’t know. He might think of these things, but he’ll never get married, that would be a physical impossibility anyway. I can’t see anybody marrying him!
He is in fact sterile?
Yes, he is yes, he’s damaged down below. *
Do you think he’ll ever work?
Well I have my doubts at this point, but I’m hoping this is where the government will step in to do something. This is what I want the government to do. I mean if an employer won’t take Kevin, which I doubt, I’d like the government do something for these children, like workshops or something. But not a boring job, I want him to be able to use his brain. I don’t want him to pack little things in boxes for instance, that’s just a dead end. I want him to use his brain at a job. And I think this will have to come from government level with these severely handicapped children at least.
Almost ten years on, her pessimism regarding my future prospects, diminished little. ‘World In Action — Kevin at the Crossroads’ ITV Granada (1981):
Interviewer [Jenny Rathbone]:
Do you think that Kevin will eventually earn his own living?
I’d like him to, I can’t see it, no. No, because you see, whoever employs Kevin, if there is such a person around, would also have to employ a helper for Kevin. Well they don’t go into business for sentimental reasons so they’re not going to employ two people, instead of one. I can’t see it, I really can’t. I know it sounds awful pessimistic but you have to face reality I suppose.
I don’t completely blame Mother as she was just a product of all the medical advice that she had been given and she wanted to protect me. Nevertheless, she was totally wrong on everything she said about me.
However, I am more than grateful for everything that Mother did for me. She was the one who took on the lawyers and doctors et cetera. I remember when the court case was about to be settled, she told me that when I grew up I would ‘probably vote Conservative’. I asked her why and she said that one day I would be very rich. She expected the compensation money to be far higher than it eventually was. I was shocked by her statement and I came to the conclusion, at that young age, that the Tories must therefore be a party that was only interested in rich people and were very selfish.
In the end my award settlement was £22,000. When I turned 18 it was time for the money to be released by the court. The final amount I received was just over £19,000. While the money was in the control of the Law Courts, it had actually gone down! If the money had been put in a building society or a bank from the late 1970s it would have earned a damn sight more interest and I certainly wouldn’t have actually lost money! This only happened to a handful of us Thalidomiders.
I suppose it is hard to quantify the value in monetary terms of missing both arms and both legs. No amount of hard cash can really replace these limbs. Nor can every aspect of the barriers and discrimination — both physical, social and emotional — can be adequately or accurately calculated. But I would think that most rational people would agree that 19k is a paltry, derisory and quite frankly insulting amount.
But it was pointless remaining bitter — I chose instead to live my life in the fullest way possible. I was angry though; but mostly for my parents. Especially Mother, who suffered the anguish and exhaustion battling with lawyers — as well as caring for me and my five siblings.
I could have chosen to lock myself away and wallow in self-pity and bitterness, fruitlessly pondering on what might have been in a more just world. But instead I counted my blessings, being brought up by loving parents with supportive siblings.
- this turned out not to be true, as I tragically learned when my first steady girlfriend got pregnant! [I explain more in a later chapter]
- I’ve just edited my wife’s age — she isn’t 46 :) she wasn’t happy!