New Year Honours: Campaigner celebrates OBE… and success in thalidomide quest


newslatestA disabled campaigner – recognised with an OBE in the latest new year honours list – has finally secured a location for a memorial to those affected by the thalidomide scandal.

Author, broadcaster and disability consultant Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds said she was “totally astonished” by the OBE, which was “a huge surprise and a huge delight”.

But she also revealed that her six-year campaign to recognise those affected by the thalidomide scandal had finally proved successful.

Her autobiography, Four Fingers and Thirteen Toes, intersperses her own story with the history of thalidomide, the drug that caused her impairment.

Thalidomide was used in the late 1950s and early 1960s to treat ailments such as headaches, coughs and colds, but was also used by pregnant women with morning sickness.

It was finally withdrawn in 1961, but by then at least 2,000 babies in the UK had been born with impairments brought about directly by thalidomide, and more than half of them died within their first year, while estimates suggest that for every live birth, at least five foetuses died in the womb.

Moriarty-Simmonds said: “It has been an uphill struggle. Every single door there was in London has been slammed shut. Apparently all the parks are completely full.”

But she used her Welsh connections to secure permission for a memorial in Cardiff, which should be installed by the end of the year, and will be funded by herself and her husband.

Although it is too early to announce the exact location, she said there would also be a website on which people could post messages, find useful impairment-related information and learn about the history of thalidomide.

She said: “It has been a long time coming, and really something that should have been supported by the government, but sadly wasn’t.”

Moriarty-Simmonds receives her OBE for services to the equality and rights of disabled people, and campaigns alongside many Welsh disability organisations, such as Disability Wales, Diverse Cymru and Disability Arts Cymru.

She runs her own equality consultancy, RMS Disability Issues Consultancy, and was a founder member of Cardiff and Vale Coalition of Disabled People.

She is also a disability adviser to Cardiff High School and a governor of Ty Gwyn, a Cardiff special school.

She said she believed that the disability movement would need many more of the kind of disability rights protest that was held this week about the planned closure of the Independent Living Fund, in which disabled activists marched on Downing Street.

Moriarty-Simmonds said she was particularly “incensed” by the court of appeal’s decision last month to over-turn a county court ruling that wheelchair-users on buses should have priority in the use of dedicated wheelchair spaces over parents with pushchairs.

She said: “In the early 90s, bus-loads went from Wales. Our voice needs to be heard again. It just seems that we are last on the agenda and our voices are not being heard or are being ignored.”

She said she was “quite vocal”, even as a child, and comes from “a family of strong women” who have “always fought for the underdog”.

She said: “In the early years, I was trying to get a decent education, and if places were not accessible I would have something to say about it, as far back as I can remember.”

She thinks her first experience of face-to-face discrimination was when a manager of a clothes store screamed at her mother, and her – when she was about 12, in the early 1970s – to get out of her shop because “your pram is dirtying my carpet”.

She remembers telling the woman that “it’s not a pram, it’s a wheelchair”, that she needed it to “get from A to B”, and that she had a right to use the store, just as non-disabled people did.

“I remember thinking: ‘That’s never going to happen again, and if it does I am going to do something about it.’”

7 January 2015