Joseph "Joey" Deacon was born with severe cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that left him with a neuromuscular "spastic pattern" that particularly afflicted his arms and legs. Deacon's condition resulted in a tendency for significant muscular Tonus in the form of a significant tendency for muscular flexion of arms and extension of legs. This prevented fine motor control in hand, arm and leg movement. Although Deacon could walk with assistance, he mostly used a wheelchair. Deacon's speech was also unintelligible to most people.
Deacon was institutionalised as a child and later made shoes in sheltered accommodation. As he was unable to communicate freely, he was perceived to be "mentally subnormal" by some peers, though he was not. However, with the help of his friends, Ernie Roberts, Tom Blackburn and Michael Sangster, Deacon was able to write an autobiography, entitled Tongue Tied, that was published by Mencap as part of their Subnormality in the Seventies series. The book provided insight into the lives of those with physical disabilities. With royalties raised from book sales and donations, Deacon and his friends purchased a home that they would reside in.
Always believing him to be mentally normal and intelligent, his mother would ask him to count the motor cars passing at the front of their house, to which Joey would respond by blinking for each car that passed. During his childhood in the hospital, he proved his intelligence several times in tests, using non-verbal communication such as blinking or pointing with his nose.
Deacon had a number of leg surgeries at St. Childe's Hospital when he was around four, but these were not successful. When he was six, his mother died of tuberculosis and Joey was then raised by his grandmother. At eight, following several more operations, he was admitted to Queen Mary's Hospital, Carshalton, then transferred six months later to Caterham Mental Hospital (latterly St Lawrence's Hospital), where he remained for the rest of his life. He remained in contact with his father until his father's death in 1939.
In 1970, Deacon began to write his autobiography with three friends. Ernie Roberts (who also had cerebral palsy), had been in hospital since the age of ten, and was able to understand Deacon's speech. Roberts listened to Deacon's dictation and repeated it to another patient, Michael Sangster, who wrote it down in longhand. After proof-reading by Chris Ring, a student who visited the team each week, it was typed by a fourth member of the team, Tom Blackburn, who was initially unable to read or write but taught himself to type in order to help. The forty-four page book took fourteen months to write. BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour ran a feature on Joey and his manuscript and the resulting publicity led to the BBC TV documentary.
The four men formed an inseparable group of friendship in the hospital for decades, and in 1974 their relationship was the subject of a Prix Italia and BAFTA award-winning drama documentary for British television's Horizon written by Elaine Morgan and directed by Brian Gibson, entitled Joey. This was followed by a second documentary made for Blue Peter.
As soon as 'Tongue Tied' was completed, the team started work on a second book. Joey wanted to write a work of fiction: a novel about a disabled man who was desperate to learn to walk so that he could walk up the aisle and marry his girlfriend. It was never published.
Royalties from "Tongue Tied" and donations raised enough money for the four to move to a bungalow on the Caterham hospital grounds in 1979, where they were able to live more independently. After Deacon died two years later at 61, Blackburn and Roberts moved to a house outside the grounds, where they lived with the assistance of support workers.
Blue Peter and cultural impact
In 1981, the last year of his life, Joey Deacon was featured on the children's magazine programme Blue Peter for the International Year of the Disabled. He was presented as an example of a man who achieved a lot in spite of his disabilities. Despite the sensitive way in which Blue Peter covered his life, the impact was not as intended. The sights and sounds of Deacon's distinctive speech and manner had a lasting impact on young viewers, who quickly learned to imitate them. His name and mannerisms quickly became a label of affectionate ridicule in school playgrounds across the country.
To this day the term "Joey" is used as a relatively mild form of insult, in the category of "Mong" and the rather more offensive "Spaz", accompanied by the gestures and mouth movements of the original Joey himself. Given the high proportion of 7 to 13 year-olds who watched Blue Peter in the early 1980s familiarity with Joey Deacon is surprisingly prevalent amongst a cohort which has now reached its early to mid-40s. However, amongst anyone outside that relatively narrow age band there can be total bewilderment as to the original inspiration for the Joey "brand" of humour and insult.
In 1982, Deacon's story was the subject of a paper by D. Ellis in the journal Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, describing how after fifty years' residence in an institution for the mentally handicapped, a new strategy was devised by which Deacon's intelligence could be assessed; the strategy showed that he had a normal level of intelligence.
- Deacon, Joey (1974). Tongue Tied. Fifty years of friendship in a subnormality hospital, Nat. Soc. for Mentally Handicapped Children, ISBN 0-85537-017-3
- Deacon, Joey (Reprint). Tongue Tied. Fifty years of friendship in a subnormality hospital, Mencap Publications, ISBN 0-85537-077-7
- "Judascow copy of Blue Peter 18th Book article, includes photographs". Judascow.com. Retrieved 2011-10-22.
- Log (12 February 1928). "Extracts from 'Tongue Tied'". Disappointment.com. Retrieved 2011-10-22.
- "The Imbeciles Asylum, Caterham". Retrieved 10 July 2014.
- Rose, Damon (12 April 2006). "UK | Magazine | The s-word". BBC News. Retrieved 2011-10-22.
- McAlpine, Fraser (11 October 2011). "Fraser’s Phrases: ‘Throw A Wobbly’". BBC America. Retrieved 2014-11-27.
- "Dev Med Child Neurol. 1982 Aug;24(4):485-8". Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. 3 October 2011. Retrieved 2011-10-22.
- Section from Law Of The Playground on Joey; it also cites variations on the playground rhyme
- Site about the history of Caterham Mental Hospital
- Contents of 'Tongue Tied'