She never owned a house or drove a car, wrote a book or made a film, passed an exam or won an Oscar. Even most Christians have never heard of her. Yet the lives of thousands have been touched by hers and hundreds have become Christians because Rachel Potter lived.
Rachel was born on 13th August 1963. It was quite a day for her parents, David and Madeleine – first a baby and then, on the same day, a call to the pastorate of an East London church. Their course in life seemed clear, but it did not turn out as they expected. Soon after their GP told them that their daughter had Down’s syndrome.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s learning disability – or ‘mental handicap’ as it was then called – was still under the shadow of negative attitudes and practices. While Rachel was still only a few months old her mother was advised by the Medical Officer of Health to ‘put her in a home and forget you ever had her’. The ‘home’ would have been a large, isolated institution where hundreds of people with learning disabilities were ‘warehoused’, virtually imprisoned for life. Not that the Potters were aware of this or of much else relating to Rachel’s condition; they marvelled at the precious life entrusted to them.
Parenthood is demanding at the best of times; where the child has a disability it is doubly so. Rachel was a contended baby and a loving child, but when help was needed there were then few resources available to young parents. Help and encouragement came from other parents with experience of learning disability. David and Madeleine discovered a sub-culture of families seemingly over-looked by society where the common bond was a child with learning disabilities. What struck them powerfully was that so many of these parents were elderly yet still cared for adult sons and daughters dependant through learning disability. For them the overwhelming concern was who would continue to care for their son or daughter when they were no longer able to do so. Being much younger this was not an issue for the Potters – or so it seemed.
Rachel was able to spend some years at a Christian residential school near Edinburgh. There her love of books found fulfilment when she was taught to read. While at the school Rachel became a Christian and put her new-found reading skill to use by daily Bible reading – a discipline she maintained on her own initiative until her abilities declined decades later. However, David and Madeleine discovered that, apart from Algrade School, there was almost no tangible Christian response to people with learning disabilities. They also discovered that, to their knowledge, there were scores of Christian parents desperate to find a Christian home that could provide a secure Christian environment for their learning disabled sons and daughters. Almost before they were aware of it the Potters were on course to spearheading a response to this need.
‘A Cause for Concern’ – since renamed Prospects – was formed in 1976 with the goal, at first, of providing support for people with learning disabilities to live in Christian homes. Its first home opened in Aberystwyth. The second was then to be Helena House in Reading within walking distance of the Potter family home. Seeing and sharing in the development Rachel saw an opportunity for herself and asked to live at Helena House. She enjoyed living with her peers, her warm and cheerful disposition making her popular with staff and residents alike. After 10 years there Rachel looked for a change: she asked to live with a family of similar age to herself. Her dream coincided with another – on the part of her link-worker and her husband. Alice and Mike Stott both worked for Prospects and felt that they should share their home with a person with learning disabilities under the adult placement scheme. So Rachel stayed with them for a week or two – and then for 20 years! She was able to continue using the Prospects day service, thus remaining in touch with her friends.
Rachel’s personal faith also raised another issue for her parents: what of the spiritual needs of other people with learning disabilities? Their limitations are such that traditional Christian ministry does not reach them. How could they become disciples of Jesus? Madeleine began a Bible group to help the residents of Helena House. It was movingly effective and led gradually to an expansion of this ministry, first into the town and then more widely across the country. As a result thousands have heard the Gospel who had never done so before. Hundreds have been saved and become valued members of their local church.
A few years ago Rachel began to have health problems which can now be seen as the onset of dementia. Gradually she became less able to do things she had done for years, until in the autumn of 2011 she suffered a very rapid decline into complete dependence on her carers. It seemed she would barely live into 2012 but she rallied and enjoyed better health for a time. On her 49th birthday in August she was able to recognise family and close friends and respond to the day, but a few days later she lost the power to swallow and gradually lost strength. She died on 30th August 2012, still in the home she shared with Mike and Alice and their children, loved, admired and respected by all who came to know her.
Life for people with learning disabilities has changed almost beyond recognition in the near 50 years since Rachel was born. If they come to birth – which for babies with Down’s syndrome is made less likely by abortion policy – they will not be consigned to institutions like those of the past. Social attitudes have become more accepting of their presence in the community. Families receive greater support from statutory and voluntary bodies. Children with learning disabilities may even find a place in mainstream education. Churches are less likely to ask families with a person with a learning disability to stay away – it was not uncommon. Over 200 churches run ministry groups in partnership with Prospects specifically for people with learning disabilities. And Prospects now supports over 360 people with learning disabilities in their own homes or homes owned by Prospects, throughout the country.
Things are so much better, but still far from perfect! People with learning disabilities still experience widespread hostility and discrimination. As Panorama’s expose of Winterbourne View Hospital showed in 2011, people with learning disabilities may still suffer abuse in the very places which are supposed to be providing care, not to mention what may happen in the community. The majority of churches still make no provision in their ministries for the hundreds of people with learning disabilities who live in their local community. And the number of Christian families still looking for long term support for a learning disabled son or daughter where the main carer is over 70 years of age runs into thousands! Prospects is committed to continuing Rachel’s legacy as it harnesses Christian compassion to reach out to and provide for more and more people with learning disabilities in the UK, and beyond.
Rachel was about six weeks old when David and Madeleine were informed about her condition. Their pastor, the late Harold Owen, visited and shared with them a verse of Scripture: ‘the God of all comfort comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.’ (2 Cor 1:4) Who could have anticipated how richly that promise would be fulfilled.
(A celebration of Rachel’s life and the work of Prospects which it inspired will be held at Carey Baptist Church, Reading on 6th October 2012 at 3pm. If you come please wear something red – Rachel’s favourite colour!)