New year honours: Glennie ‘humbled’ by Companion of Honour award

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A world-renowned solo percussionist, a mental health campaigner, a digital inclusion expert and the founder of a travel review website are among the disabled people recognised in the new year honours list.

The honours for non-sporting disabled recipients were swamped by nearly 60 awards for the ParalympicsGB team that brought back 64 gold medals from last summer’s Rio Paralympic Games.

But the highest-ranking honour was awarded to Dame Evelyn Glennie, the solo percussionist who was made a Companion of Honour, for those who have made a lengthy and major contribution to the arts, science, medicine, or government.

She said she felt “deeply honoured and humbled” to receive the award, for services to music.

Dame Evelyn, who is profoundly Deaf, was the first person to successfully sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist, and so far has amassed more than 80 international awards, including two GRAMMYs from the US music industry.

Past Companion of Honour recipients include the writers Vita Sackville-West, Graham Greene, and E M Forster, composer Benjamin Britten, the actors Sir John Gielgud, Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith, politicians Denis Healey, Ken Clarke and Paddy Ashdown, and the disabled physicist Stephen Hawking.

Dame Evelyn (pictured) said: “I count myself blessed to be amongst such an eminent list of recipients for such a distinguished award.

“As a musician, I am proud to represent the arts in this way. I also hold dear the responsibility of such a respected title, which I take very seriously.

“I will do my best to ensure my work and legacy continues to help empower people around the world to truly listen.”

She told Disability News Service (DNS) that the award would not change how she viewed her work, and that her “aims and goals remain as stalwart as ever, with clear determination to reach far and wide”.

Dame Evelyn said the award would not make her part of the establishment, but instead would have the “complete opposite” effect.

She said: “The freedom and creativity has always been at the heart of what I do, no matter what comes my way or what challenges arise.

“I respect the establishment, as it opens up unexpected possibilities and new avenues of exploration.”

Another recipient of an award is mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin, best-known for his successful social media quest to find the stranger who convinced him not to end his own life.

Benjamin, who receives an MBE, said he was “in complete shock”, but was “delighted” to be recognised.

He told DNS that he had considered rejecting the honour in protest at the government’s welfare reforms and cuts to disability benefits.

He has spoken out publicly about disabled people whose lives have been lost as a result of those reforms, and against the cuts of £30-a-week to new claimants of employment and support allowance placed in the work-related activity group, cuts that are due to take effect in April.

He said he thought the MBE might help him access contacts in the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education for campaigns he is planning around the need for reform of mental health support in schools and prisons.

He said that 90 per cent of prisoners have a mental health issue, while suicides in prisons were the highest ever recorded last year.

He said: “There’s a suicide every three days in prisons in England and Wales now.

“We’ve got a crisis in our prisons that needs urgent attention.”

He added: “I hoped, perhaps naively, that the MBE might bring more credibility to my name when trying to set up meetings and make a difference. Perhaps I’m wrong. Time will tell.”

And he said he still had the option of handing back the MBE if he was proved wrong.

He had earlier paid tribute to Neil Laybourn, the man who persuaded him not to take his life nine years ago, and who he said he feels “forever indebted to”.

He said: “I hope this accolade may give some hope to others who might be struggling that there is life after a diagnosis of mental illness and that such a diagnosis should never put limitations upon anyone.”

Robin Christopherson, a founding member of the disability charity AbilityNet, is awarded an MBE for services to digital inclusion.

He said: “I’m hoping that receiving this award might help get the message out and inspire people to think about the needs of everyone around them and make sure they can all benefit from the power of technology and the internet to change their lives for the better.”

Christopherson, who is blind, won the special award at AbilityNet’s Tech4Good awards last July, in recognition of his two decades of work as a “digital inclusion evangelist”.

He said: “I’ve had the privilege to be AbilityNet’s ambassador for technology for many years, giving me the opportunity to demonstrate to audiences across the world how tech has the power to change and even transform people’s lives regardless of any disability or impairment they may have.

“AbilityNet’s mission is to help people to reach their full potential. Over the last few decades we’ve seen a revolution that has almost infinitely expanded opportunities for people with disabilities and I feel very fortunate to have played a small part in spreading the word.”

Jacqui Dyer, who was vice-chair of the government’s Mental Health Taskforce, and is a trustee of the Mental Health Foundation, an elected councillor in Lambeth, a health and social care consultant, and a mental health service-user, also receives an MBE.

Dyer is a member of the ministerial advisory group for mental health, is the mental health equalities lead for NHS England, and co-chairs the process of developing the mayor of London’s mental health roadmap.

Michael Holden, who founded the user-led accessible travel website Trip-ability, is recognised with an MBE.

He is also an active member of Belfast Centre for Independent Living, a member of the European Network on Independent Living, and deputy chair of a patient working group at the Royal College of GPs Northern Ireland.

Holden said: “I received a letter about the MBE but my wife Jennifer told me about it over the phone when I wasn’t at home and I immediately began to tremble with excitement.

“My wife and I took our children to see the royal wedding of Prince William in London, which the children really enjoyed; my wife Jennifer and I cannot wait to see the look on their faces when we tell them we’re going to see the Queen.”

Sarah Banks, who chairs the Ministry of Defence’s Civilian Defence Disability Network, which works to ensure line managers and disabled staff know where to go for advice on workplace disability issues, receives an MBE.

Other disabled recipients of an MBE included Cath Caskie-Khan, chair of the Scottish Wheelchair Dance Association, and Rhona Elliot, founder of the MS Borders Racing Club, which raises money for the MS Society and awareness of multiple sclerosis by entering horses in the charity’s colours in races in the Scottish borders.

Among Paralympians recognised were Lee Pearson, who receives a knighthood, Sophie Christiansen and Sascha Kindred, who receive CBEs, and Anne Dunham and Jody Cundy, who receive OBEs, while Tim Reddish, chair of the British Paralympic Association and himself a retired Paralympian, receives a CBE.

Another receipient, with an MBE for services to education and disability sport, was Mike Spence, a former GB wheelchair rugby international, who coached the British team at last summer’s Invictus Games in the US, is a trustee of Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby, and is also a teaching assistant and former governor of a primary school in Gloucestershire.

Picture: Dame Evelyn Glennie, in the BBC’s Living Shakespeare series

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