Humour and anger as Rix looks back on 60 years of Mencap

Brian Rix has been involved with Mencap since its early days, becoming chief executive in 1980 and later, president. Here he discusses with Maria Ahmed society’s changing view of people with learning disabilities

By the time Brian Rix applied to become the boss of Mencap, the UK’s largest learning disability charity, he had spent 30 years dropping his trousers for a living.

“People were suspicious because I was a farce actor,” he recalls.

Rix was initially turned down, but Mencap reconsidered and appointed him in 1980. Now, as the charity reaches its 60th birthday, Rix has moved on from making people laugh by throwing custard pies to become a voluntary sector grandee.

At Mencap’s head office, Rix, now Lord Rix and president of Mencap, is busy signing copies of his new history of the charity, which is dedicated to his daughter Shelley. There is a photo of her in the book, where her smile mirrors her father’s, showing a hint of what Rix calls her “ebullient personality, with a touch of theatricality thrown in”.

Printed above her photo are the years of her birth and death, 1951- 2005. When Shelley was born with Down’s syndrome, Rix and his wife Elspet were told to put her away, forget her and start again.

“That was the standard advice. We were desperately upset. We knew nothing about Down’s or learning disability,” Rix recalls, the anger still fresh, as he scribbles away with an energy that belies his 82 years.

“I phoned the ministry of health and received the most awful letter I had ever seen. We were told about private homes for high-grade imbeciles. It was unbelievable. The words idiot, imbecile, Mongol and cretin were the official terms to describe
people with learning disabilities.”

In his book All About Us!, Rix recounts how he appeared on stage soon after Shelley’s birth with a large slug of brandy to steady his nerves. With cruel irony, he played a “gormless” soldier in a play called Reluctant Heroes, who was insulted
about his lack of mental capacity by a bullying sergeant. “It was not a happy performance,” he recalls.

Mencap, in its first incarnation as the Association of Parents of Backward Children, had been founded by Judy Fryd, a parent of a child with learning disabilities, in 1946, just five years before Shelley’s birth. “Judy wanted to get parents together
to fight for their children to be treated as human beings,” Rix says.

In the early days of Mencap, Rix made his first public speech as the father of a child with a learning disability. He recalls the newspaper headlines the following day: “Brian Rix confesses… Brian Rix admits…” He believes those headlines summed up the “lack of regard” given to parents of people with learning disabilities that is still prevalent today.

It is a recurrent theme of All About Us!, which includes a history of learning disabilities and attitudes towards it, peppered with “bigoted zealots”. In ancient Greece and Rome, “idiot” children were left on mountains to die , while later church reformers Luther and Calvin said such “agents of the devil” should be drowned at birth. The Nazis simply exterminated people they viewed as “sub-human”.

In one of his lighter episodes, Rix recounts how the then health minister Enoch Powell “nearly choked on his coffee” after Rix asked him to write to health authorities promoting Mencap’s support for parents.

“The NHS is not a postal service,” Powell reportedly spluttered. Rix says society is “still behind” in its attitudes. 
Currently, he is angry about the exclusion of athletes with a learning disability from the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing.

“This disgraceful ban was imposed six years ago when members of the Spanish basketball team – some of whom had learning disabilities – allegedly cheated in the Sydney games in 2000,” he explains. He argues that learning disability policies like the Valuing People white paper of 2001 need legislation behind them to be implemented properly. He also believes that  language needs changing.

He recently amended a 120-year old voting law that said “idiots” could not vote and “lunatics” could only vote when they were well. The language was still being used as guidance to election officials until it was dropped from the Electoral Administration Bill 2006.

As a result, voters with learning disabilities will no longer have to prove their mental capacity. “I hope this marks an important change in public perception,” Rix says. He also feels passionately about the representation of people with learning disabilities in the media.

In the 1970s, he presented one of the first TV series for people with learning disabilities called Let’s Go! for the BBC. “I would take a topic each week, such as going shopping, and demonstrate how to do it. A supporting cast of people with learning
disabilities would show what to do.”

Rix and his cast had the memorable addition of a cartoon character called Goslet – an anagram of the title – who would also demonstrate the lesson for the day.

“It was groundbreaking then, although it would look a bit old fashioned now,” Rix says, remembering the “funny little figure” of Goslet with amusement. One episode where Rix showed people how to ride a bicycle, caused uproar from parents, he recalls.
“They all thought their children would go out into the traffic and get killed.”

Rix also fought to get learning disabled characters in soaps, succeeding with a character called Nina in the now defunct Crossroads. He is “a bit nervous” about the current story in EastEnders about Honey and Billy’s baby having Down’s syndrome.

“Honey’s feelings towards her child are negative, although it seems to be based on a true story,” he says. Looking back over Mencap’s history, Rix is most proud of changing the charity’s constitution in 1998 to give people with learning disabilities
more say in how it is run.

“Over 88 per cent of members voted to change the previous constitution, which did not specify the inclusion of people with learning disabilities. Now, over half of the people on Mencap’s national assembly – which makes decisions about how the charity is run – have a learning disability, “ he explains. Rix rejects the suggestion that Mencap is still controlled by parents at a time when learning disability policy stipulates that service users must be at the centre of everything.

“I believe we are light years ahead,” he argues, but defends parent power. “Throughout history, nothing would have been achieved without parents, most recently in the appalling case of Cornwall. The fact that we had to form Mencap is disgraceful
because people were rejected and treated with contempt.”

Rix believes that there are “still acres of ground to cover” for the future of people with learning disabilities, naming equal access to employment, social life and healthcare as priorities.

And would he bring back Goslet? “Yes, Goslet was fun,” he laughs, the comedian irrepressibly bubbling up beneath the president.

Contact the author
 Maria Ahmed


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