50 pieces of poetry and short prose by Peter Limbrick
This is collection of short pieces about people of all ages who have learning disabilities and about the conditions they experience in any country. The collection spans the period from the1970s, co-inciding with the gradual closure of some of the big 'mental handicap hospitals' in the UK.
The poetry and prose pieces, written in a variety of voices, are offered as a monument to adults and children who have lived and died or are living now in inhuman situations. The first piece, ‘Letter’, is from an imaginary hospital manager to a national newspaper. It sets the context for this In Mind collection.
Some poems mention One-to-One and the One-to-One book. This was a 1970’s project in the USA and then UK to raise awareness of adults and children condemned to institutions.
Some of Peter's other poems are published in recent issues of Scintilla, the journal of literary criticism, prose and new poetry in the metaphysical tradition.
Please contact Peter if you would like to use one or more of these pieces in some way.
Amal stayed in hospital for several weeks after birth until
well enough to go home. Doctors needed to run tests,
establish medication for his fits and resolve the issue of
milk going into his lungs.
When they took him home, his parents were given
detailed instructions about what to do, day or night, if they
saw any of the many listed danger signs. Parents were
forewarned of significant learning difficulties.
At home, parents felt their role was to nurse their little
invalid. They were caring, nervous and watchful.
After about nine months a teacher came along to help.
While talking to Amal’s parents and listening to their
story, she lifted him from his beanbag and propped him
between her knees so he was sitting on the floor against
her. He had never sat like this, said his mother.
While the conversation continued, the teacher improvised
a tea-tray in front of Amal over his legs. She asked for one
of his toys and learned that they were all in a box upstairs
in a wardrobe because he had not shown interest in any of
The box was brought down and the teacher put a ball on
the tray and one of his hands near it. He knocked the ball.
An accident? She replaced the ball and he knocked it again,
and then again.
Amal was playing!
Both parents were delighted because he had not done
anything like this before.
The teacher had used only basic skills on this first visit but
the parents felt their little patient had become a child.
Now they could be a proper family.
42. Mother Found Guilty
We need to talk to you about your baby.
We could not do everything we wanted to do in
the examination because he was crying so much.
But we think we have the picture now and, I have
to say, it is as we expected.
His weight and growth are both well below what
they should be, but we appreciate feeding is
difficult because of his swallowing problems. He is
becoming a bit stiffer than he was last year as we
told you he would.
To answer your questions about the fits, they will
continue now that they have started. The
medication we can put him on today might help
control them. Time will tell. His reflexes are
immature. We have checked his eyes and ears as
best we can in the circumstances. We think he can
hear and see but we can’t be sure how much. You
should assume he can understand very little of
what is going on around him. Altogether, it is not a
very promising picture.
If you remember, when he was ready to be
discharged from the neonatal intensive care unit
we tried to explain to you that the difficult birth
had starved him of oxygen and caused brain
damage. We told you then he would not develop
normally and what we have seen today has
confirmed all of that.
You young mums always think you know best, that
you know more than the doctors. We cannot
agree with you about the progress you think you
have seen. His smiles are not proper smiles and we
do not think he stops crying just because your
husband has come home from work. There is
probably another reason.
It is good you are singing to him and playing those
games you have told us about, but please do not
imagine he is taking them in like a normal baby
would. We told you then you could leave the baby
in hospital but you would not hear of it. You didn’t
want to believe any of the things we were telling
you about what the future would hold. I have to go
to a meeting now. We have given you much more
time than we give the other mothers.
I will get someone to bring you a cup of tea. If you
decide you want to leave the baby with us, just let
the nurse know.
We both thought her baby was beautiful.
How can a baby not be beautiful?
When the suspected Down’s Syndrome
diagnosis was confirmed
the baby was still beautiful.
Now she had to sort out her beliefs.
She told me, she had always had only
negative thoughts about people
she saw in the street who had the
From now on, she knew, she would not
have that prejudice.
Or, at least,
when she saw negative thoughts arising
she would be able to deal with them.
Come on, mum and dad, there’s time
to show you round before your long journey home.
Shall I push you, Mary-Ann?
We are such a happy school.
The children love it and never want to go home.
Why so sad, Mary-Ann?
Here’s the bedroom for the young ones.
They’ll be so excited to have a new girl tonight.
Ten new friends, Mary-Ann!
We are just one big family.
Staff will be real mothers and fathers for you.
A home from home, Mary-Ann!
Its bath time now for the juniors.
Give mum and dad a kiss. They’ve a long drive home.
Where’s your smile, Mary-Ann?
They’ll be back before you know it.
In a month or two when you are properly settled in.
Why the tears, Mary-Ann?
Her best time was sitting in the garden with Lenny on
a warm afternoon. Only a small garden with a patch
of grass and a short path to the tumbling greenhouse.
She and Lenny were devoted to each other, she took
great care of him. Lenny was her third child coming
after a gap of fifteen years. The older siblings had
moved away but stayed in touch. On a warm day she
would get her jobs done in the morning, promising
him they would go out into the garden after lunch.
Lenny’s lunch would be from the short list of things
he most liked, she would help him eat it with all care
and patience, a clean tea towel under his chin for
dribbles and bits that escaped his mouth.
Getting into the garden was a difficult manoeuvre
requiring two stages. There were steps and a corner
to negotiate, not easy at her age with a growing
young man in a wheelchair. She would push Lenny
out onto the grass and then go back into the kitchen
for his tray, drink and drawing things. Ever since
Lenny had been too small for a proper wheelchair he
had loved to draw. There were thick wax crayons
and tape to fix the paper to the tray. When each
piece was finished she looked for bits of green that
she would call a tree or a circle with lines coming
from it that she would call a man. Lenny liked this
approval of his efforts - all part of the afternoon’s
gentle pleasure. She loved this quiet time. It was an
escape. It was life-affirming. Her god was looking
down into the garden and smiling.
Most of the time, though, there was something to
worry about; his stomach upsets, the leg operation
he might need. The biggest worry was about what
would happen to Lenny when she died. This was too
big and frightening to talk about with anyone. Kind
people had tried to discuss it, suggesting Lenny
could start going to some sort of home on occasions so
that, when the worst came to the worst, he would
have somewhere familiar to go, somewhere with
people who knew him.
This idea was always rejected. No one could ever
look after her son as well as she could. This was her
job and hers alone. The idea of him going away was
unthinkable. Years later Lenny was able to draw a
man with a head, body, two sticks for arms and two
for legs. But this was after she had died.
Being clever or
or smart are valued
qualities in children
at school and in all
in our daily life and
Being not clever, not
bright, not smart is
On the scale
clever and not
it is hard to think of
before getting into
the strongly negative
dull, dim, thick,
It seems we have
built prejudice in to
the English language.
47. Away to School
In time, I lost all certainty about what the residential school
was for, about the purpose it served for children, families and
When I joined the school as a teacher, I understood it was
providing very specialist education for a group of exceptional
children who were part of a very small national population.
Because of the rarity of these children, it would be
uneconomic for local education authorities to cater for them.
A small number of residential schools taking children from
across the country made unarguable economic sense.
This was my starting point.
Eventually, I realised the school’s purpose was to give term-
time homes to children of desperate families.
The children were certainly exceptional; all used wheelchairs,
nearly all were incontinent, only one or two could speak,
most had feeding problems, epileptic fits were common. All
were harder to manage as they neared adolescence.
It became obvious that the reason for admission was
recognition by their local council that a child’s parents were at
their wit’s end.
Education was a legal requirement but it was not the main
reason for the child being sent away from home.
Merryn’s mother held my original view about the purpose of
the residential school. She was a single parent totally attached
in every way to her four-year-old daughter.
She wanted the best education possible to give her child
maximum opportunities to overcome her disabilities and have
the best possible start in life.
For this she made the extremely difficult sacrifice of sending
Merryn to school nearly two hundred miles away.
When her daughter died just over a year later, she drove up
with a large cardboard box to take Merryn home for her
I feel such deep anger when I look at Mrs Donohue.
We have to call her Mrs Donohue because Mary would be much
too familiar for us lowly Adult Day Centre staff to call an ex-
headmistress. Just like we have to call Mick Michael when she is
And she is around all the time now since she started staying at the
Centre with Mick instead of just dropping him off like she used to.
‘Just want to help out’, she said, but we all know it is so she can
keep an eye on Mick and watch what we are letting him get up to.
The best times were when Mick came on the Centre bus. She put
a stop to that when she found out he always sat next to Mavis.
They had a great time together.
Mrs D. did not approve of that. No way was her beloved Michael
going to have a girlfriend!
Then she announced ‘Michael does not want to be in the
pantomime anymore’, when she realised his Robin Hood had to
kiss Mavis’ Maid Marion in the finale. We tried to talk to him
about it but she hovered over him, putting her words into his
All of this was discussed at our last staff meeting. We all agreed
Mrs D. was terrified of the prospect of her son wanting to sleep
with Mavis. He was still her little boy and sexual activity with
Mavis or anyone else was definitely off the agenda.
Someone made the point that Mrs D. was widowed and Mick was
her only child, that she might be lonely and unable to endure long
days on her own while Mick was at the Centre or unable to
contemplate life without him if he should opt to live somewhere
It was agreed one of us should try to talk to her about all of this.
We felt we had a clear duty because Mick wasn’t enjoying himself
anymore at the Centre. It would not be an easy conversation.
And she might decide to stop Mick coming altogether.
A new game for little Hana,
clapping hands to ask for more.
In the game she is picked up,
spun round, turned over, set down.
She is shown how to clap
when she wants it again,
learning to take control
of one small part of her world.
Being totally blind and deaf,
it will take some time.
Mark, thirty, rescued from an
institution, is welcomed into
a small caring community.
He comes with a habit of
screaming when approached.
In this new home,
respected, not forced, given
choices he can manage,
this habit will surely fade but
it will take some time.
50. In Mind
Countless people have
lived and died,
are now living and dying,
in institutions around the
Babies, children, adults, old
Even outside those
being simple or defective
can mean a tough
existence with everything
to be afraid of
- a hard life struggling
without respect or
dependent entirely on the
kindness of others,
having no way to make
hopes and dreams come
My fellow human beings,
I must keep them in mind.