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In a staggering miscalculation of the nation's youth, a British kids TV programme called Blue Peter ran an article in 1983 about a Cerebral Palsy sufferer called Joey Deacon.

Rather than being inspired by this heartwarming tale of a disabled man who had struggled all his life to come to terms with his disability and managed to write a book about it, British children for the next few years could be heard screaming 'Jooooeeyyyyyy' at each other, hitting the backs of their hands together, and generally rolling around in playgrounds in an attempt to imply Cerebral Palsy amongst their peers.

To this day, the word 'Joey' is still used by children to mean 'disabled', 'handicapped' or just as a general insult.

If you were British and born sometime between the mid 1960s and the mid 1970s you would be of the 'Joey generation', and you would have heard of Joey Deacon even if you weren't quite aware of who he was.

Joseph John Deacon was born on the 24th May 1920 at Camberwell in London, but unfortunately for Joey, since his mother had fallen down a flight of stairs when she was pregnant, he was born severely disabled. In his time (and indeed mine) he would have been described as a spastic, although these days it would be more politically correct to say that he suffered from cerebral palsy. In Joey's case his condition was quite severe as he could neither walk nor indeed use his arms, whilst he couldn't talk either.

His mother then died when he was six, after which his extended family looked after him until it all (presumably) became to much for them and on the 16th February 1928 Joey was admitted to Caterham Mental Hospital. Although it was later determined that Joey was of normal intelligence, since he could neither speak nor communicate with anyone by any other means, it was simply assumed that he was mentally subnormal or, to be blunt, a vegetable. This remained the case until the year 1941 when an Ernie Roberts was also admitted to Caterham. Although Ernie also suffered from cerebral palsy, in his case it wasn't as severe, and it seems that Ernie could understand what Joey was saying and could therefore translate his apparently meaningless combination of noises into something approaching plain English.

Then sometime around the year 1970 Joey decided to write his autobiography. Naturally Joey lacked the necessary motor skills to put his own thoughts down on paper, whilst Ernie (the only person who could understand what he was saying) was also illiterate to all intents and purposes. Ernie therefore related what Joey was telling him to another patient named Michael Sangster who wrote it all down, and passed it to fourth patient named Tom Blackburn who then typed it all up. By this labourious process, and at the rate of four or five lines per day, the foursome spent some fourteen months creating a forty-four page book.

Naturally there were certain limitations inherent in the process of transcribing what Ernie thought that Joey was saying, and the outcome may not have been exactly what was intended. Joey for example, claims to have born at "Ottington Street, Wolling Road, Camberwell". Since there is no trace of either Ottington Street or Wolling Road in Camberwell, either Joey couldn't remember exactly where he once lived, or whatever he was trying to say became garbled somewhere along the line.

In any event Tongue Tied by Joseph James Deacon, subtitled Fifty Years of friendship in a Subnormality Hospital, was published in June 1974 by the National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children as number eight in the series Subnormality in the Seventies. Having checked on Amazon UK, it can be reported that it had three copies available "from £141.67", which just goes to show that if you had picked up a few copies at the £1 cover price you would now be showing a healthy profit. However the publication of a book by someone previously regarded as a incapable of rational thought attracted a certain amount of publicity, even if it was only forty-four pages long, and Joey also featured in his own documentary as part of the BBC's Horizon series which later won the Prix Italia in 1974 for its makers.

That might have been the end of Joey's brief fame were it not for the fact that 1981 was designated as the International Year of the Disabled, and the BBC decided it would therefore be appropriate that the annual Blue Peter Christmas appeal for 1980 featured the disabled as its beneficiaries. Thus was born The Great Bring and Buy Sale, with the funds raised being used to finance the building of bungalows for the disabled, one of which was scheduled for the grounds of St Lawrence's Hospital in Caterham (as the Caterham Mental Hospital, formerly the Caterham Asylum had been rechristened). Blue Peter's researchers were aware of the Horizon documentary featuring Joey and thought what better way to promote the Appeal than to bring Joey on to the programme as an example to the children of a man who had overcome such odds in his life. Naturally this was done with the best of intentions, whilst demonstrating a complete lack of any understanding of practical child psychology.

At this point it is worth reminding ourselves that in this pre-Internet age when you could count the number of available television channels on the fingers of one hand, at least half the children in the country between the ages of eight and sixteen would have likely watched Blue Peter on the day that Joey was featured. The sight of what one account bluntly describes as a "drooling, grunting spastic" on prime time television did indeed inspire them, just not in the way that Blue Peter had originally intended. Rather it inspired every child in the country who had witnessed Joey's appearance to perform their own imitation of his behaviour in the playground on the following day. So popular did these displays become that thereafter any child who betrayed the slightest sign of any lack of physical co-ordination or mental capacity would be greeted by their peers with cries of "You Deacon!" or "You fucking Joey!" Joey thus became a cultural phenomenon and part of everyday life for a whole generation of British schoolchildren. Fortunately or unfortunately, Joey never lived to see his name venerated in this manner as he died on the 3rd December 1981.

Of course we are now in the Internet age and the underground is now overground and therefore Joey has not been forgotten. Having become such a potent symbol for many people during their formative years, there are a number of websites dedicated to his memory whilst there are apparently a raft of groups on Facebook with a similar intent. Sadly much of this coverage is not particularly sympathetic but that's human nature for you.


SOURCES

  • JOEY DEACON http://www.disappointment.com/old/joeydeacon/joeyback.htm
  • BBC I love Blue Peter
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/classic/bluepeter/simonpetersarah/trivia.shtml
  • British Film Institute http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/24767
  • The law of the playground: "the least coherent encyclopaedia of playground insults on the internet" http://www.playgroundlaw.com/perl/browse.pl?sid=424
  • A dictionary of slang http://www.peevish.co.uk/slang/index.htm
  • Damon Rose The s-word BBC News 12 April 2006 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4902432.stm
  • Index of English and Welsh Lunatic Asylums and Mental Hospitals http://www.mdx.ac.uk/WWW/STUDY/4_13_Ta.htm

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