“One Born Every Minute”: learning disabilities, babies and marriage

Picture of Steve and Trish McHale from the show "One Born Every Minute", with Trish holding baby ElizabethOne Born Every Minute is a series on Channel 4 (UK) which features women giving birth, and the nurses and midwives who attend to them. They feature two women (or couples, if the man is around) every week, and last week they featured Steve and Tricia McHale. Tricia uses a wheelchair and has cognitive impairments which stem from a head injury she received when hit by a hit-and-run driver when she was 13 (she is 40 now). The couple have been married for 20 years, and this was the first time she had carried a pregnancy to term — they had suffered two miscarriages and had trouble conceiving for reasons related to Tricia’s disability. You can watch the programme here if you’re in the UK, and there are some clips here and there is an article on the Daily Mail’s website about them.

I’ve heard suggestions that Steve must have learning difficulties of his own, otherwise he would not, and should not, have been allowed to marry or have a sexual relationship with Trish because she would be deemed a “vulnerable adult”. Having seen the interviews with him, I do not know where anyone gets this impression — he has a job in IT and seems well aware of the challenges facing the family and his own responsibility in caring for a wife who cannot work. Trish was very frightened of having her baby taken away and was shown asking the midwives if she’d be allowed to keep the baby (a girl named Elizabeth); they told her that there was no reason why she shouldn’t. She was worried about this after reading about this happening to another woman with learning difficulties in the paper (this may have been Kerry Robertson/McDougall). In the event, according to a post by Steve on the show’s Facebook page, the midwives did inform social services (as was their duty), but further inquiries revealed that they were satisfied that Trish was competent, or at least well-supported, and were not interested.

As for the question of Steve and Trish’s marriage, nobody can tell how severely mentally impaired Trish is simply by seeing her on TV. It could have been prevented at the outset had anyone who worked with them thought Trish could not make valid vows, and they would hardly have been allowed IVF (several times) if she would have been considered an inevitably unfit mother. It’s possible that she may be more intelligent than her speech (she clearly has some difficulty with speech due to her injury) indicates, and despite her problems with short-term memory (hence the pictures showing her how to prepare the baby’s bottle), she did eventually learn how to do this without them. She suffered a head injury at 13, and had doubtless learned a fair bit about the world by that time, so it is not the same as someone who had been impaired all their life. She also has some insight into her condition, as we see when she talks of the frustration of not being able to remember things, and on another occasion says she hopes her child has her husband’s brain and not hers, otherwise she would feel very sorry for them (she also remembers how the accident happened).

Those of us who’ve seen them on TV do not know much about Trish’s history other than what they have told us, so we do not know if she progressed at school or took exams at all, or what she has managed to do with her time since the accident or since her marriage. We do know that it was Trish who made the first move in their relationship and Steve admits that she is more confident than he is and does the talking when they are out. Clearly, her cognitive impairment was not judged to be so severe that anyone saw fit to prevent their marriage, and possibly it is not as severe as her behaviour (at a very emotional time for both of them) might suggest. Who are we to judge?

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