‘I believe that in future the biggest danger to support for disabled people will be in those areas of public provision which are under great pressure.’ A sentiment I agree with, but this is not a quote from me.
This is one of the closing reflections of ‘A life without limits’ the memoir by Sir Bert Massie, one of U.K.’s first UK disability rights ‘big hitters’, who died in October 2017.
His memoir charts the highs and lows not only of his personal life but, most importantly, his involvement in the disability movement from when it first emerged to when it was at its height. Bert became engaged in a 40 year battle for key statutory rights which began to breakdown decades of discrimination against disabled people. He was one of the early pioneers who managed to infiltrate and influence the establishment at the top. This becomes evident as you turn the pages. He liberally names and describes those with power who he worked tirelessly to influence – an outsider on a mission, who came from the world of the disempowered and disenfranchised. This approach set a precedent for those activists like me who came along later.
Those of us who knew Bert (and he was part of my working life for nigh on 30 years) will recognise many of the national issues and events he talks about in each chapter. From the challenges of getting resources for disabled people to escape a life of segregation, to the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission, which heralded a new frontier when it came to enforcing disabled people’s equality and human rights.
But you’ll also recognise the smart, pragmatic and sometimes mischievous man who was always more interested in talking about solutions and fairness, rather than just identifying problems – a trait that served him well in both his personal and professional life.
The early parts of the book concentrate on his early life and his attempt to get an education despite his long stays in hospital due to the ravages of polio. There were other challenges too – no cushy middle class upbringing for Bert, one of a number of children born to a Liverpool dock worker and a part time seamstress in a deprived part of Liverpool.
His humour comes through as he details the slog to adulthood, with stories of getting caught with a fellow student girlfriend from college in his one-occupant-only Invacar, to being turned away from a restaurant when he was told: ‘We don’t serve wheelchairs.’ Naturally, he responded: ‘That’s OK, I don’t eat them.’
These qualities served him well as he developed his career and began campaigning on disability issues, firstly in the charity sector at RADAR, which gave him access to the ‘Great and the Good’, including parliamentarians in both Houses. As Chair of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) from 1999 to 2007, the memoirs confirmed my belief that Bert ‘had arrived’. It was here he felt free from the constraints of working within a charity, to realise his more radical dreams and demonstrate his canny leadership skills.
It is no secret that we were not on the same side in the early days of the disability movement. I was in the thick of the growing radical disability movement. Whilst we demonstrated outside Parliament, stopping traffic, Bert was in the establishment networking to negotiate the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act. This inevitably included compromises, some of which the radical activists disagreed with. Of course, as history shows us, with most liberation movements, both were an inevitable necessity.
Nonetheless, at the DRC Bert and I made our peace and it was there that I began to appreciate his exceptionally hard work and fine negotiating skills. The organisation made great strides as a result and the legislation began to take off and bite. Disabled people began to feel and see in practice that they had civil rights and things were changing fast.
There were inevitable setbacks. The closure of the DRC was ‘a hammer blow’ to Bert, and he was distraught that the DRC was one of the casualties of the Tory ‘bonfire of the quangos’. He was right to be, as he and other disability campaigners struggled to get their issues onto the agenda. He found this galling as our lead Commissioner on its successor body, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, where he tried to maintain the impetus for change on our rights. Here he saves some of his sharpest criticism in the book, especially on the working practices of the EHRC under the founding Chair, Trevor Phillips. Bert’s analysis, in my view, was pretty accurate and that’s why he eventually decided to join the five commissioners (including myself) who resigned in the space of a few months.
Whilst Bert laments some of the losses for disabled people in recent years, the book is a celebration of the fact that the lives of disabled people are so much better than when he was a young man. He signs off the book saying ‘Disabled people have arrived’. Yes we have and Sir Bert Massie – activist, advocate, advisor, writer, thinker and leader – played a central role in making that happen. He may have left us, but he also left an enduring legacy that others will continue to realise.
Baroness Jane Campbell sits in the House of Lords as a cross-bench peer. She was a Commissioner at the Disability Rights Commission from 1999 to 2007, and then at the Equality and Human Rights commission from 2007 to 2009.