Breathe, an indie film I found on Netflix this past weekend, tells the remarkable story of Robin Cavendish and his family.
Cavendish was a British businessman who contracted polio in Kenya in 1958 at the age of 28. Paralyzed from the neck down, he could not breathe without the aid of a mechanical respirator and was initially given three months to live.
That was revised later to one year, but after a year in hospital, alive, but not really living, his wife Diana springs him from the hospital in a dramatic scene that involves a showdown with a rather entitled and surly physician.
I’m not sure if that’s exactly how it went in real life, we must allow for dramatic licence in a biopic, of course, but he did go home and incredibly lived another 36 years.
During that time, he, his wife Diana and an inventor friend, Oxford professor Teddy Hall, developed a wheelchair with a built-in respirator that freed him from confinement in his bed. They also refit a van that made it possible for Cavendish to travel.
In one particularly poignant scene in the film, the family is on vacation in Spain when Cavendish’s brother-in-law David accidentally shorts out the electrical systems of both the respirator and the van.
Being the only person who would be able to fix it was Hall, David rushes to nearest village and calls Hall in from England. For 36 hours the family kept Cavendish alive using a hand pump.
It turns into an impromptu party with villagers coming out meet them bringing food and guitars. A priest also shows up and gives them a blessing.
Filmmaker Jonathan Cavendish, Robin’s and Diana’s only son, says this is exactly how it happened with the exception that the van broke down at a roundabout just outside Barcelona and not in the idyllic Spanish countryside.
A wise cinematic choice, I think.
In any event, the technological advancements, combined with Cavendish’s outspoken advocacy for persons like himelf, would prove to be the foundation for technology that would eventually help untold numbers of people.
As I was watching, I started to get an uneasy feeling about how often progress, both technological and social, is associated with privilege.
Cavendish was not an outrageously rich person, but if it had it not been for his relative wealth and position, it is unlikely he would have ever gotten out of hospital, much less accomplish all the things he did.
Of course, I had to examine why this would make me feel uneasy. I haven’t fully formulated an answer to that, but the gist of it is that it seems to me we could do much better at addressing societal inequities rather than leaving it to chance and philanthropy.
That’s not to say I’m not grateful there are those people, who, having accumulated great wealth, turn their energy and cash toward noble pursuits, but it’s not enough.
“They [people with disabilities] need society to get its act together in terms of access and travel and resources and all of that,” Jonathan said. “Every disabled person I know wants to work, and almost every disabled person I know can work. Society hasn’t delivered yet to disabled people, but it’s better than it was. It’s really the normalization of disability that’s beginning to happen in a very good way.”
He also said his father’s mantra was “quality of life.”
And that is something every human being deserves.