It is more than 35 years now since the thalidomide tragedy struck — when some 540 babies in Britain were born with deformities because of a sedative drug that had been prescribed to their mothers. The scandal of thalidomide was what finally swung. The balance in favour of the legalisation of abortion in 1967: for, while the public that at the time would not have accepted, abortion-on-demand as a "choice" or as a method of contraception, there was general outrage that abortion was not immediately available for women carrying afflicted children like these.
There were terrible stories about desperate women flying to Sweden , begging for an abortion because they were so alarmed at the thought of giving birth to a "monster."
Human life is unpredictable; and the human spirit has an indomitable capacity to triumph against adversity. Those thalidomide babies are now adults, and they certainly don't feel like "monsters." They just feel like normal people who happen not to have arms or legs.
"If I could have an arm transplant now, I don't think I'd bother," says Tom Yendell an accomplished artist who drives, skis, travels and rides horses, although he was born without arms. He says that his life has been no different than any able-bodied counterparts, except that he has had to adapt to do every day tasks with his mouth, feet or chin.
Personality and attitude that counts
Tom Yendell was born with something possible more useful than arms: a cheerful disposition, a positive attitude and a warm family life and a sense of trust in the Lord. He is the living breathing example that is personality and attitude that count in life. He was the youngest of five children: his father was a baker, his mother a nurse, and when he was born in 1962 without arms his elder brother said: "Oh well, he won't play rugby for England , but maybe he'll play football for Tottenham."
Understandably the shock was tremendous for the family, but they met a wonderful American, Dr Wilke, who happened to be born without arms himself — "through a freak of nature" — who showed them that it was possible; none the less, to lead a fulfilling life. Example is vital: if you see that other people can accomplish something difficult, it gives you the courage to try.
Never encountered emotional rejection
He has never encountered the emotional rejection that some thalidomide children went through some were fostered out, or virtually abandoned by their parents. Tom knows one man affected by thalidomide — a successful lawyer and solicitor — whose mother still says: "I wish I've been offered an abortion." And get, Tom says the man is terrific — well-adjusted and successful. There's no accounting for folks.
Tom finishing his painting
"Roses in bloom".
Tom Yendell is not only happy and fulfilled in his work, is blissfully married, has two young children, Joseph Oliver; a wonderful boy of eight and a new-born daughter, Holly — he goes so far as to say he is grateful for his handicap.
"Maybe if I hadn't been born like this, I wouldn't have had such a wonderful life. I've accomplished so much. I've been an influence on others. It's the way you look at life that matters, not what bits of your anatomy happen to be missing."
It is amazing to see him draw up in his specially modified Volvo, which he drives beautifully with his feet. The civilised response to handicap is not to eliminate the person with the handicap but to invent a method of helping the individual, and technology has risen to the challenge by computerising wheelchairs and devising power-steering in cars that can be manipulated by the feet. Money and technology have been a great help to those with disabilities caused by thalidomide, Tom Yendell says.
Not a victim
He carries out speaking engagements on behalf of the handicapped He doesn't like the word "disabled", because it is "negative". He hates the expression "thalidomide victim" because, he says, he is not a victim but a fully functioning human being.
One part of his life that Tom really enjoys and gets great satisfaction from is visiting different groups, such as Women's Institutes, schools, church groups and youth clubs, talking to them about his life and his disability.
"Give me somebody for an hour," he says robustly: "And I'll change their attitudes to the handicapped. You see, it's the able-bodied people who have the problem, most of the time, not the handicapped. In my own eyes I'm not 'disabled'. You still have the same emotions, whether you are able-bodied or not. That comes out in painting. What you paint is not what's in the hand, but what's in the heart."
In the early sixties Mr and Mrs Yendell moved with their family to Leighton Buzzard where Tom's father had a bakery. Tom started his formal education at Pulfords Primary school .
A cross between Metal Micky and an American football pro
He also at this time was fitted with his first pair of artificial gas powered arms which Tom says made him look like a cross between Metal Micky and an American football player. They were not very useful and could not replace the complex dexterity of the human hand. His second arms were cosmetic and had to be moved manually. On the day that Tom Yendell got these new arms he asked his mother who was bringing him back from picking them up, if he could go and show them to his friends at school. He was allowed and as he was walking down the road found that he could swing his arms backwards and forwards eventually finding that they would go round in a 360 degree circle. He was walking through the park playing 'helicopters' with his arms, when the bolt holding his arm on to his shoulder came loose and his arm left his sleeve at great speed and landed on the grass in front of a little old lady on the park bench, who nearly had a heart attack seeing the decapitated arm lying before her on the grass. Eventually when Tom got to about 14 he saw that he no longer had any use for his artificial arms as he was accomplishing everything that he wanted to do in his own way.
Great supporter of special education for the disabled.
Tom Yendell went to a special school, Lord Mayor Treloar College in Alton , Hampshire, which are the largest school and college for the disabled in the Britain . At Treloars he studied an 'able-bodied' syllabus. He was encouraged to work and is now a great supporter of special education for the handicapped.
Passed driving test first time
By this time he succeeded also in passing his driving test first time and was the proud owner of a new Mini Clubman.
"Being able to have mobility," says Tom "is one of the most important things that have happened to me. The independence that this has achieved has enabled me to travel throughout Europe ."
Then Tom Yendell applied and succeeded in getting a place to do an Expressive Arts Degree at Brighton University . After his first year at Brighton he felt he had not seen any of the outside worlds and decided to take a year out from college work. He was already working voluntarily as a youth club leader for Ringmer Physically Handicapped and Able-Bodied Club (Phab) and at an able-bodied youth club in Newick. He wanted to work in the Arts and took up a post of fund raiser for a newly formed charity Creative Young People Together (CRYPT).
Whist at Brighton Tom purchased his first home in Lewes and settled down to an independent life doing the cooking, cleaning and washing things which had previously been done for him. In the last year of his degree he met Lucy, the woman who was going to be his wife, in the process of taking her foundation course in Art at Brighton .
Tom Yendell is the proud father of two children.
Tom Yendell got the chance in the year he left Brighton to work in London for a company called Business in the Community, an organisation who developed the enterprise era. His job involved travelling around the country meeting people who had started their own small businesses. This encouraged Tom to finish in London , and start on his career as a self employed Artist.
Contacted by The Mouth and Foot Painting Artists
During, this time Tom Yendell had been contacted by The Mouth and Foot Painting Artists who said that they would like him to join their Association and in March 1986 he became a student artist with the Association. The association was founded in 1956 by a fine German artist, Erich Stegmann, who was crippled as a child. He was imprisoned by the Nazis, but escaped from Germany and established the partnership to sell the work of other handicapped artists.
Tom always fined time to carry on charity and voluntary work. It was for helping others that he was chosen as one of The Men of the Year in the November of 1986 which entailed travelling to the London Savoy to receive his citation with such well known figures as Frank Bruno, Bob Monkhouse and Richard Branson.
In the late 1980s he worked at the Alton and Treloar College for three years. Toms former Headmaster had seen the need to have disabled members of staff at the college and ask Tom to return and take the post of Activities co-ordinator. Meanwhile The Mouth and Foot Painters had been trying to get more work out of Tom Yendell but he felt that he could not work from home and asked if there would be a possibility of the Association purchasing a gallery which he could run and work from as resident Artist.
This came into fruition in 1991 when the Association brought a former antiques shop in the small tourist village of Selborne , four miles from Alton , Hampshire. Tom Yendell set about having the space converted into an Art Gallery , and on 29th August 1992 The Mouth and Foot Painting Artists Gallery was formally opened by Lord Selborne. Since then the gallery has been a terrific success, being visited by people from all over the world. The Gallery not only displays the work of Mouth and Foot Artists but tries to find other Disabled Artists who would like to show their work at Selborne.
Tom Yendell continues being connected with Treloar College as he only lives a short distance from the campus. He is Chairman of the College's Former Pupils Association and visits the College regularly.
Has a lovely eye for clarity and colour
Tom's paintings and drawings are enchanting. He is a good draughtsman and has a lovely eye for clarity and colour. He thinks he got his artistic gift from his father, who loved to decorate cakes. He must have got the cooking gift from his father too, because he loves cooking.
If you or anyone you know would like more information about Mouth and Foot Painting Artists or would like to visit the gallery, please contact Tom Yendell:
The Mouth and Foot Painting Artists Gallery
Hampshire GU34 3JQ
Telephone or Fax: +44-1420 51 1233
This text was extracted from an article by Mary Kenny which appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 24th December 1995 and from Tom Yendell's biography.
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