‘Having four fingers and 13 toes never stopped me doing what I love’: Thalidomide campaigner opens up on her inspirational battle against the odds
Cardiff University’s first disabled student Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds chronicles her struggle for equality – and life as a successful graduate, businesswoman, writer and artist.
As the first disabled student at Cardiff University in 1985, Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds often had to write notes with her mouth.
Born with four fingers growing from her shoulders, she became adept at writing with her mouth – something that’s vital in her new job as one of only a few hundred people worldwide working as a mouth artist.
As one of thousands of children born disabled by pregnancy drug thalidomide, Rosaleen has spent her life determined not to let it stop her doing exactly what she wanted.
She’s got a degree, runs her own business, written her memoir, become a mother and is now working as an artist.
“My thalidomide impairment is to my arms and legs so it’s almost as if I have no arms and legs,” she explains.
“I have two fingers coming from each shoulder and my legs are foreshortened above where the average person’s knees would be with little feet.”
Born in Cardiff in 1960, she is one of more than 12,000 children disabled after their mothers were prescribed pregnancy drug thalidomide.
And in that time, she’s campaigned to be treated like everybody else.
Now 52, when the mother of one from Cyncoed, Cardiff, started school in the 1960s she wasn’t even entitled to the same education as her able-bodied friends.
“It was 1970 before disabled children had a right to education.
“But my parents always encouraged me to do what I wanted and be independent.
“I went to Ysgol Erw’r Delyn in Penarth then at 14 I went to Treloars School in Hampshire, the only school in the UK at that time that gave disabled children an academic education.”
After school, Rosaleen wanted to go to university but there were only a handful of disabled students in higher education at the time, she says.
She was shocked to be turned down by some institutions because the buildings were unsuitable for someone in a wheelchair but was eventually accepted by Cardiff University to read psychology.
Although she enjoyed her time there, getting a degree in 1985 wasn’t an easy undertaking.
“There were one or two disabled people at universities at that time so it was incredibly difficult (to get in).
“I was the first disabled person at Cardiff University to start who started as a disabled person and complete their degree.
“There were others who became disabled through accidents after starting but I was the first to start disabled.
“I made friends and went to wild parties but it was a big learning curve for me and the university.”
When she graduated Rosaleen applied for 400 jobs but got just four interviews.
Even the NHS turned her down, withdrawing a job offer at the now closed Lansdowne Hospital because they feared she wouldn’t be able to use the toilet alone.
Eventually she found a job as a civil servant but after seven years at Companies House, she left to set up a company advising on disability law.
Running RMS Disability Issues Consultancy from home she has advised local government, the National Assembly, Cardiff Council and other organisations as well as speaking at conferences around the globe.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 meant organisations had to do more to include disabled people and Rosaleen was ideally placed to advise them.
Away from work she was also busy getting on with life.
After marrying childhood friend Steve Simmonds, who was also born with thalidomide disability in his legs, the couple were keen to start a family.
But there were practical issues to overcome like changing nappies and racing around after an active toddler.
“After three miscarriages we were blessed with our son James and my uncle designed a baby changing table we could both use, but I delegated nappy changing whenever I could,” she jokes.
“I couldn’t run around after James so as he got older I used voice control.
“If he was about to do something dangerous I’d raise my voice three octaves. He seemed to understand.
“As a baby he also seemed to know instinctively not to struggle with me or Steve and he clung on to my clothes when I held him.”
James, now 17, is studying A-levels at Cardiff High School where he is deputy head boy and Rosaleen and former solicitor Steve couldn’t be more proud.
Not one to stop now her son is growing up, his mum has recently become one of a select group of mouth and foot artists working in the UK.
She’s one of 36 British artists among 800 artists worldwide producing paintings, cards, calendars and other products which are sold across the globe by self-help group AMFPA (Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists).
As a student artist with Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, part of AMFPA, Rosaleen gets a monthly allowance to pay for materials and a teacher.
“It’s brilliant. I try to paint every day and have turned a section of my office into a studio.
“I did Art O-level years ago and have always been a mouth painter because my fingers are so short.
“I use the longest brushes I can find to paint everything from sunsets to portraits.
“I always appreciated art but for many years I was too busy working to be able to dedicate time to my passion for it. I’ve also joined the South Wales Art Society.”
Painting like this can’t be done by computer as writing now can.
After penning essays with her mouth in the 1980s new technology meant Rosaleen was able to dictate her memoir into a computer 20 years later.
Her book, Four Fingers and Thirteen Toes, was published in 2007 and charts her struggles as well as the history of thalidomide going back to Nazi Germany.
At the time Rosaleen’s mother took the pregnancy drug in Cardiff, the medical profession had no knowledge of the terrible side effects.
Although foreshortened limbs are the most known about, Rosaleen points out thalidomide also affected people’s internal organs, hearing and even sight.
“No one knew about it at the time.
“I’m the youngest of three girls and when my mother was pregnant the second time a doctor came in with an article in a medical journal which made the association between thalidomide and disability.
“But I was always very much encouraged by my family to do what I wanted.”
And she says it was campaigns by people with thalidomide impairment and their families that have changed things for the better for all disabled people.
“We have been the protagonists for the disabled movement.
“We campaigned on things like education and access before any one else did. We were the forerunners.”
For her tireless campaigning work, Rosaleen was named the first ever winner of the Owain Glyndwr Seren Awards, created to reward those who have made a difference in the community.
She won the South Wales Echo-backed Cardiff council award in 2011.
Looking back, Rosaleen says attitudes have changed beyond recognition since she was born.
“I remember shopping in Cardiff and being the only wheelchair user, now we’re everywhere.
“One of the things I really enjoy is talking to young people. I give talks in schools, and to Brownie groups as well as book talks.
“People ask questions because they want to learn and I’m happy to answer them.
“It’s vital to be a role model. To me it’s important to answer questions; it’s an opportunity to be honest and that’s good for all disabled people.”