Deacon, Joseph John

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Deacon was born with severe cerebral palsy of the entire body. His mother died when he was six and he went to live with his grandmother. When he was eight, after a number of operations, he was admitted to Queen Mary's Hospital, Carsharlton, then transferred six months later to St. Lawrence's Hospital, where he remained for the rest of his life. During the first few years he gradually lost contact with his family.

He is remarkable because in 1970 he, with three friends, began to write his autobiography. One of his helpers, Ernie Roberts, had been in hospital since the age of 10, also with severe cerebral palsy, and was the only person able to understand Deacon, because of his severe speech impairment. The third member of the team, Michael Sangster, had been in hospital since he was 16.

Roberts listened to Deacon's dictation and repeated it to Sangster, who wrote it down in longhand. After proof-reading by hospital staff it was typed by the fourth member of the team, Tom Blackburn (who had been adopted by his aunt and admitted to hospital when he was 18). Blackburn could neither read nor write, but he taught himself to type in order to help.

The resulting 44-page book took the four of them 14 months to write and is a major achievement by four severely handicapped men, two of whom had been in hospital since they were children, while a third was an adoptee.

The four men formed an inseparable family in the hospital for decades, and their relationship was the subject of two British television documentaries. Royalties and donations raised enough money for the four to move to a bungalow in the hospital grounds in 1979, where they were able to live more independently. After Deacon died, Blackburn and Roberts moved to an ordinary house on an ordinary street, where they lived with support from carers.

None of these men should ever have been admitted to hospital in the first place. The fact that they were illustrates the old "dumping ground" philosophy of long-stay hospitals for people with mental handicaps. The fact that their voices were finally heard is a testimony to some enlightened staff and changing attitudes, but most of all to their own indomitable spirit and tenacity.


Deacon, Joseph John. Tongue Tied: Fifty Years of Friendship in a Subnormality Hospital (London: National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children, 1974) (Subnormality in the Seventies; 8)
Philpot, Terry. "Tongue Tied," The Guardian [London], 19 December 1997


Uk/great Britain
20th Century
Poor Educational Opportunities, Self-taught
Mental Handicaps, Learning Difficulties
Physical Handicaps
School-age Years, Adolescence
Child's Illness or Handicaps
Unmarried Mother, Single Parent (Mother or Father) Unable to Cope
Institutional Care
Parent(s) Died, Disappeared or Became Incapacitated
Contact Suspended or Stopped
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