I was lazy and had no challenge,” says Leonard Wiles, a retired truck driver from Huntingdon, England. “That’s probably why I didn’t invent anything before.” “Before” means 1968, the year Wiles, 69, and his wife, Hazel, 49, began caring for a thalidomide boy whom they later adopted and named Terry. He was one of 8,000 children, mostly in Europe, who were born deformed during the early ’60s because their mothers had used the tranquilizer during pregnancy. “I had within me this power of imagination, and it took Terry to bring it out,” says Wiles of his son, who is now 18 and both subject and star of an International Emmy-winning BBC dramatization of his life, titled On Giant’s Shoulders. It will be shown on public television in varying time slots, starting March 12.
Illegitimate and abandoned at birth by his natural mother, Terry was “a little scrap of humanity,” Wiles recalls. The child had no arms or legs and was blind in one eye. Artificial legs offered cosmetic improvement but were painful because of Terry’s flipper-like feet. They allowed him to travel only a half inch per step.
Wiles, a grade-school dropout at 13 but a tireless at-home tinkerer, set to work at age 56 to improve the boy’s life. Scrounging from junkyards for parts that he could not afford on his $35-a-week salary, Wiles spent months developing a battery-operated, three-wheel fiberglass car that Terry could start with his toes and steer with his shoulders.
Still dissatisfied, Wiles next sought to add lift to Terry’s locomotion. (In a wheelchair, Wiles notes, “people are always talking down to the handicapped.”) To that end, Wiles has built 10 cars in eight years. The current Supercar is a four-wheel vehicle that can maneuver outside and in, over curbs and through doorways. Powered by two 12-volt car batteries, it travels four mph and hoists Terry from floor level to eye level in five seconds.
For Terry the cars marked a turning point in his life. With his new maneuverability he could lift himself into and out of bed, open drawers, reach the dinner table or a desk—and hold his own at school. Now enrolled at a business college, he takes shorthand at 50 words per minute and types 27 with his toes. He plans to become a mystery writer. “Terry was bitter at first and used his deformities to play on people’s feelings,” his father recalls. The cars have cost $34,000, which Wiles financed with loans and gifts.
Len also rigged a moving seat that lets Terry slide back and forth along the keyboard of an electronic organ—which he plays with his toes. For recreation he has a one-of-a-kind fishing rod, a palette that revolves as he paints, a telescope for bird-watching that focuses with an electric motor and even a telephone.
Wiles hopes that publicity from the upcoming TV show will interest others in his ideas. He observes matter-of-factly that “the British government hasn’t encouraged me at all,” but argues that his Supercar could one day supplement the wheelchair. Wiles has built a runabout for a deformed Viennese youth. “He has only one flipper,” says Len. “As long as something moves, that’s all I want. I can translate that movement into going up and down, forward and backward.” He may design a car for a Los Angeles boy with no limbs at all, but “if he can wiggle his ears, he can drive it,” Wiles says.
Most of the substantial settlement from the company that manufactured the thalidomide has been put in trust for Terry, but Len and Hazel used a portion to move from their drab rural cottage into a bungalow not far from Cambridge, which Len has outfitted with ramps, special doors, plumbing and a private den for Terry. “He’ll need someone to help him the rest of his life, but there’s no reason he shouldn’t get married someday,” professes Dad, who adds that he and Hazel have no regrets about their trials with Terry. (The young man recalls, “I hit it off with Len right away but Hazel not at first. I was quite awful to her—treated her like a servant.”) Hazel, born in a gypsy caravan to a bricklayer, was illiterate until she was 18. When she wed Leonard at age 36 in 1966, she had already been married three times. “I don’t know if our lives were misspent,” says Wiles, “but we were both looking for something, some guidance. Terry was sent for a purpose.”