Friends and fellow activists were this week coming to terms with the loss of Rowen Jade, a “gentle warrior” and “force for change”, whose death has drawn tributes from across the disability movement.
Jade’s career spanned direct action protests, youth work, lesbian and gay rights activism, disability equality training and research, and work at the very heart of government as chair of Equality 2025.
She was also a close friend and trusted confidant of many veterans of the movement, and fellow disabled activists were this week united in praising her personal qualities, her radical disability politics, her diplomacy and her remarkable intellect.
Baroness [Jane] Campbell, had been planning to spend the weekend with Jade, one of her closest friends, and attend the Liberty disability arts festival in London together, when she heard of her sudden death on holiday on 2 September.
She described Jade as “unassuming”, “generous” and a “gentle warrior”, with “the most remarkable intellect, insight and commitment”.
She said Jade could “say the most radical things in the most gentle way” and by chairing the government’s disability equality advice body she entered the “heart of the body of the beast”, where she communicated “radical disability politics in a way that people could not only hear it but do something about it – even the most hardened politicians”.
Baroness Campbell said she did not know anyone else in the movement who would be able to fill the gap she had left.
She said Jade “never moved from her fundamental principles” and had been influencing the government’s 21st Century Welfare benefits reforms through meetings with work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and disabled people’s minister Maria Miller.
Jade told them of the importance of a disability impact assessment of their plans and warned of the risk that some reforms could “end up with disabled people losing their lives”, said Baroness Campbell, but also congratulated them when they got things right.
Fellow activist Julie Newman said Jade was “a very good friend to a lot of people”.
“She lived her life by human rights and civil liberties,” she said. “That was her, every aspect of her life.
“She was one of the most diplomatic of people: gentle, but also extraordinarily strong. She could pull diverse groups of people together and was a firm believer that we should work together for the greater good. She was extraordinarily skilful in that respect.”
Singer-songwriter Johnny Crescendo, who founded the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN), said Jade was a committed campaigner, a highly effective organiser of protests, and “a very, very strong woman, a feminist, a very good trainer, very skilled, very intelligent”.
He remembers Jade’s concerns about being arrested at a DAN public transport protest in the early 1990s, when she was lying on the trolley she used in front of a bus. She was one of a number of protesters subsequently arrested by police.
He said: “She didn’t like the idea of going to jail, but she overcame her fear and she never looked back.”
Another leading activist, Rachel Hurst, had known Jade since she was a teenager, and said she had been “a very great force for change all her life”.
“She’s just a great loss. I think also that her presence sent a tremendous message to people because lying down on a trolley all the time was a very good way, without saying anything, of showing people that you can do anything, however impaired.”
Jade was part of the advisory group that helped set up Equality 2025 in 2006 and had been a member since it was established, becoming its chair in 2008.
Maria Miller, minister for disabled people, said her death was “a huge loss not just to Equality 2025 but for the disability movement as a whole. For many years Rowen has been a great advocate for disabled people and she will be sorely missed.”
Tim Cooper, director of the Office for Disability Issues, said Jade was an “inspirational leader” with a “tremendous personal style”, and that her death “leaves a great void which it will be impossible to fill in the same way”.
As well as co-editing Bigger than the Sky, an anthology of writing by disabled women on parenting, Jade was a freelance disability equality consultant for many years and had worked for the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), where she co-authored Whose Voice is it Anyway?, a hugely influential report on the experiences of young disabled people in special and mainstream schools.
Tara Flood, ALLFIE’s current chief executive, said the report had been a “guiding principle” for the organisation from the moment it was published, in 1999. “It’s what our commitment to young people’s participation is based on,” she said.
Flood, who also knew Jade through her membership of Equality 2025, said: “I can’t begin to imagine the loss. She was an incredible woman. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say a bad word about her.
“Her diplomacy skills knew no bounds when it came to working with civil servants. When James Purnell got the job [as work and pensions secretary], I remember him meeting Rowen and being pretty blown away by her and hearing the message about disabled people’s lives. I think it hadn’t hit him until he had spoken to Rowen.
“I think she had the most incredible skills in being the link between the absolute frontline activism, right through to the mainstream influence with civil servants and ministers.
“She was able to manage those of us who were wanting the frontline radical stuff and getting us to understand how you build that into stuff that a civil servant will understand and listen to.”
Jade had very close links with Bristol, where she lived with her partner Jaz and daughter Olivia, and was a member of the West of England Centre for Inclusive Living (WECIL).
Jayne Carr, WECIL’s chair, chaired the interview panel that gave Jade a job as an independent living advisor on a groundbreaking project for young disabled people in 2001.
Carr said she had “enormous spirit and determination and knowledge and skills” and was “a great thinker and strategist”, and said her death was an “enormous loss” to Bristol’s disabled community, who knew her well.
She added: “Her actual physical presence was small but she had an enormous emotional impact and was an inspirational force to any disabled person who met her, and she will be greatly missed.”
Her funeral will take place at noon on Wednesday 15 September at Westerleigh Crematorium, Westerleigh Road, Bristol BS37 8QP. Those attending are asked to wear bright colours.
8 September 2010