Zoe is going to university, and her parents are behaving as all parents do. “It’s come around a bit quick, is all I can say,” said her father, trying to keep his emotions in check. “Zoe’s going to enjoy it but we’re not. Her mum’s going to be in bits.” Later, we caught up with Zoe, who was enjoying her newfound independence by going to lectures in her pyjamas, testing her cooking skills by putting a pizza in the oven, and reluctantly using a washing machine.
In all of these respects, Zoe was like any other teenager leaving home for the first time. But she was also special, as one of the children followed for nearly 20 years as part of Channel 4’s series, Born to Be Different. All were born with disabilities.
As with the 7 Up series and the BBC’s Child of Our Time, the programme has checked in with its subjects at regular intervals. For anyone who had not seen the previous instalments, this episode supplied us with their back stories and provided the context for the latest stage in their lives as they move into adulthood. What shone out was the strength that they and their families have shown, a refusal to be held back by physical limitations or gloomy prognoses.
The extent of their disabilities ranged on the scale. Zoe was born with arthrogryposis, which restricted movement of her limbs. The doctors told her mother that Zoe might never walk, but she did. At 18, we found her embarking on a law degree in Cambridge, turning down offers of a carer because she was determined to be independent. Her mother admitted to feeling “really excited and absolutely terrified” by the prospect of leaving her alone.
Also making their way through university were Hamish and Emily. Hamish was born with achondroplasia (commonly known as dwarfism). A sad piece of footage showed him as a young boy in the playground, being teased by other children over his size. But he discovered swimming, and is now a Paralympian. Then there was Emily, born with spina bifida and left with a stoma in her abdomen, studying for a degree in nursing. More cautious about striking out on her own, she had chosen to remain living at home, but joked that she was more than happy to choose the comforts of her bedroom over student digs.