In Mind - a written monument to all people with intellectual disability. (Items 11 to 20)

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.

E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


11. Kindness

It might be that no one knew who the father was.

Perhaps, as the boy grew up, he had the look of one

of the other inmates, of an orderly, nurse or doctor.

Nor is it recorded how he was conceived.

An inter-ward romance? A cynical seduction?

A series of rapes?

What is certain is that there was a pregnancy, a birth

and a baby boy. Also, that the man who grew up

from the baby used to visit his mother in the


It is pleasant to imagine the mother always having

contact with her child, foster parents bringing him to

spend time with her, an exchange of birthday cards

and Christmas presents.

Perhaps, if it happened like this, some women on the

ward became aunties, enjoying watching him grow up,

buying him little things with their pocket money,

having something positive in their lives.

These imagined acts of kindness would have allowed

the boy and his mother to know each other.

We all know many pregnancies in mothers of limited

intellect have much less happy outcomes.


12. Minister

The publishers of the One-to-One book

had powerful connections and so, when

we held a small event to launch it, the

Minister of Health came along to make a

short speech.

In the preparatory conversation

backstage, it became apparent that he was

not aware of the difference between

people with mental illness and those with

mental handicap or that the UK had

separate institution for them.

He thanked us for our explanation.


13. Diatribe

People with intellectual disability are easy victims of

institutional cruelty. This persists in the UK even though

the big long-stay hospitals have been closed.

Western society ranks its members holding men above

women, white people above black and fit people above

those with a disability.

Amongst disabled people those who do not have

intellectual disability are held above those who do.

Institutional cruelty to people who are grouped

together as children or adults in some sort of home,

hostel or hospital has three legs like a dairymaid’s stool.

The first is their powerlessness.

People with intellectual disability are not equipped to

campaign for their rights in the way that many women,

black people and physically disabled people can.

The second is public apathy.

The average woman and man in the street is not aware or

concerned about people with intellectual disability,

especially when they are kept out of sight. Their interest

might be raised when a scandal is exposed but it is always

only temporary.

The third is the lack of status, training, inspection and

proper remuneration for the people employed as carers. 

There is a repeating pattern in institutional cruelty.

Each sequence begins when a new regime of cruelty

is exposed. In response, a government minister tells the

press and media how shocked she or he is and sets up an

investigation. In due course, a report is written with strong

recommendations and a promise that such cruelty can

never happen again.

Then a new regime of cruelty is exposed. And so on.

If you happened to miss the current scandal I am reading

about as I write this, do not worry. Another will come

along very soon.


14. Enclosure

Walking past the outside of wards

or houses or homes in long-stay

hospitals always reminds me

of being in a zoo.


There is almost always an

outside compound with a high fence

so inmates can wander outside

or inside as they wish.


Or they can be locked in

or locked out depending on

the needs of the staff.

Just like lions and bears in a zoo.


In one institution at bath time

men were put naked into the

compound to be hosed down

with jets of cold water.


My comparison with a zoo

breaks down now because

no keepers would treat their

animals so cruelly.


15. Politics

The men and women from two wards were joined

together for this new event. It was amazing! It was some

sort of circus group coming from the East End.

The other staff said we should leave them to it and use it

as time off but I went out to help them unload their van

and then stayed involved for the whole day. I was the

new young orderly and up for anything.

The people in the troupe turned the ward and the

outside compound into a sort of adventure playground

with ropes and ladders and boxes, even an inflatable

tunnel with a wind machine and lights. You could crawl

right into it!

Then a dragon appeared from nowhere. I never worked

out whether we were chasing the dragon or it was

chasing us but it was great fun. There were drums,

trumpets, dressing-up clothes and everything!

Mary did her usual thing, sitting in the corner telling

everyone to eff off but I saw her later sitting in the tunnel

looking as though she owned it. Jack, who I’d always

assumed couldn’t walk, was stomping around out of his

wheelchair banging a drum with Albert’s walking stick.

Of course, a few patients tried to keep away from it all

and nobody forced them, but the circus group had

brought the ward to life.

They came every week for a couple of months so I got to

know some of them pretty well. I did a weekend circus

workshop at their place in Bethnal Green and even went

on a couple of demos with them.

They got me thinking about people’s rights and the

injustices suffered by mentally handicapped people.

I suppose that’s what got me into politics.


16. Gate Man

No grass grows here

by the gate, under the tree.

This is where the boy stood

as his parents drove away.

This is where the boy stood

as the nurse helped him wave.

This is where the young man

is waiting, pacing,

by the gate, under the tree.

No grass grows here.


17. Put Away

Can you imagine being committed to one of these


If you come as a baby, you will not know how different it is

from a normal sort of childhood. You will grow up without

mothering or fathering, without emotional attachment to


The people who look after you will come and go in shifts

and will have a variety of cultures, languages and accents.

They will each have their own ideas about what to do with

you when you are naughty, about how much time to give

you to eat your meals, about managing your crying at


Your growing brain, hungry for stimulation, will turn to

finger-sucking, hand-biting, eye-poking, head-banging and

whatever else you might resort to in the absence of

parental love, caresses, songs and games. You will have no

chance of developing self-esteem or feeling that you are a

wanted and valued child.       

If you are admitted as an adult you might have had loving

parents, might have been known by a wider family, by

people on the street, in a club or centre.

You might have had a place in the world with familiar

people and routines, respect for what you wanted to eat or

drink, choice in clothes, favourite TV programmes, songs to

sing along with, and birds, fish, cats or dogs for pets.

Perhaps your parents could no longer cope as you grew

heavier, became more obstreperous, developed some

unwelcome sexual habits. Or perhaps they died.

One day you are at home with everything that is familiar

and the next day in an institution where everything is

unknown and frightening. No familiar faces, no one knowing

who you are, what you like to eat and drink, what you like

to do. No more bedroom of your own.

No one to come when you cry for mum or dad.


18. Terms

The term mental handicap

is discouraged now. It is left over from a

few decades ago, still used in some

English-speaking countries. In its place,

we use words about challenge, disability,

difficulty, difference.

Mental handicap was itself a new term

once replacing such words as defective,

subnormal, idiot - terms which were not

originally intended to be offensive.

Each term is changed when it has

become loaded down with the ever-

present discrimination and prejudice.

With each change comes a fresh

perspective on the people we are trying

to describe, a perspective more positive,

more respectful, more valuing. But it is

always temporary.

In twenty or thirty years’ time people

will be using a new set of terms that we

cannot imagine yet, new terms that are

destined eventually to sink under the

weight of pervasive public negativity,

lasting until they are also rendered

unacceptable, out of fashion, obsolete.


19. Girls and Boys

Valuing womanhood and manhood,

we reserve man and woman as terms

for those who, in our view, qualify.

Others, being subnormal or defective,

must remain as girls and boys,

but treated as no children should be.


So it is acceptable for a young

orderly to talk about an elderly lady

as one of her best girls

and for a gentle middle-aged man

to be chastised by a first-year

student as a very naughty boy.


Managers would like us to believe

the terms girl and boy reflect

a caring parental attitude.

We should not be fooled.

They are used only to separate staff

from inmate, us from them.


20. Schoolgirl

A sea of cots, a noise of unhappy babies echoing in a bare

room. Shuki did not expect volunteering to be so hard when

she offered to help at the mental handicap hospital. She turned

up on Saturday morning and was sent to the baby ward where

the nurse, cleaning two babies’ bottoms at the same time,

asked her to go and meet some of the babies until she had

time to talk to her, ‘But please don’t try picking them up’.


The first baby she approached was propped in the corner of

his cot biting his hand. Shuki’s instinct was to try holding the

hand to stop the biting but he jerked it back. When she tried

again, he screamed with irritation, turned his back on her and

continued biting his hand. The second baby was rocking

rhythmically back and to, smelling as though needing changing,

oblivious of Shuki speaking to her. Shuki tried a couple of

nursery rhymes she could remember then looked in nearby

cots for a teddy or a ball to distract her with but found none.

A boy, standing at his cot rails, grabbed her jacket and held

tight, not looking at her, making strange noises. With no

nappy she saw him wetting himself. Shuki pulled away, a little

frightened by now. A small baby was lying sucking her thumb.

Was she asleep? She would have liked to pick her up, give her

a cuddle. She was at a loss, close to tears. Her baby skills were

not working here.


Shuki moved from cot to cot, child to child. Why were these

babies here? What did mental handicap mean? Would these

babies be cured? She was out of her depth with nothing to

offer and by now did not have the confidence to ask the nurse

for help. Struggling to keep self-control, she crossed to the

medical room to thank the nurse then made a dash to the

door through the maze of cots. She ran along the drive to the

hospital gates and sat at the bus stop in tears. She would not

come back here, ever.


She wouldn’t answer questions at home. She hid in her room.

Shuki cried again on Sunday evening when her mother insisted

they talk. They decided it was best seen as an episode Shuki

should put behind her, an experience she had not been

prepared for. When it was time to apply to universities, Shuki

looked for courses in paediatric nursing, infant education, child

development and child psychology. The questions she had

brought from the baby ward were not forgotten. They were

demanding answers.

share your information  Cartoon © Martina Jirankova-Limbrick 2011