Tributes have been paid across the disability movement to Lord [Jack] Ashley, the UK’s first deaf MP and a hugely committed campaigner for disability rights for more than 40 years, who died on Friday (20 April).
Many spoke of his fearsome campaigning skills, his commitment to the rights of disabled people, and his personal charm, while he was once described by Labour’s Gordon Brown as “a shining beacon for honour and decency”.
Others highlighted his vital contribution to breaking down the barriers to disabled people’s participation in public life.
Jack Ashley lost his hearing in 1967, soon after being elected as a Labour MP, and would have resigned but was urged to stay on by the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson.
Ashley learned to lip-read, and rebuilt what had been a promising political career – with the support of his wife, Pauline – working as a profoundly deaf MP for 25 years, before partially regaining his hearing through a cochlear implant after he had retired as an MP and been made a Labour peer.
Jack Ashley was prominent in a string of high-profile campaigns on behalf of disabled people over four decades, both as an MP and later as a member of the Lords.
One of the most successful was his parliamentary and public work to fight for compensation for people born with impairments caused by their mothers taking the drug thalidomide while pregnant in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Guy Tweedy, a thalidomide survivor and a leading disabled activist himself, said: “He was a great inspiration for disabled people and for thalidomide victims in the UK. He was one of my heroes.
“Jack Ashley has a special place in our hearts because he brought it to the attention of the nation. He put pressure on the government and on Distillers [the company which marketed the drug thalidomide in the UK]. His contribution was massive.”
Tweedy points to a parliamentary debate in November 1972, which opened with Ashley describing Distillers’ efforts to avoid paying decent levels of compensation for 10 years as “a shocking example of man’s inhumanity to man, not to mention this firm’s inhumanity to the children”.
The MP went on to describe the company’s behaviour as “a grave national scandal, a display of moral irresponsibility which has seldom if ever been surpassed”.
As a result of working on Alf Morris’s ground-breaking chronically sick and disabled persons bill, Ashley had set up the all-party parliamentary disability group (APPDG) in 1969, which he continued to chair until 2009, then becoming its president.
He was the first MP to raise the issue of domestic violence in parliament, and campaigned for subtitling of television programmes, and for winter fuel payments for disabled people under 60 with high support needs.
He also played a leading role in pushing for disability discrimination legislation, introducing his own private members’ bill in 1983, paving the way more than 10 years later for the first Disability Discrimination Act.
More recently, he twice introduced another private members’ bill in the House of Lords, this time to try to guarantee disabled people a legal right to independent living. The bill won support in the Lords, but failed in the Commons because of government opposition.
Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, which provides administrative support for the APPDG, and supported the independent living bill, said Lord Ashley had “transformed politics and placed disabled people’s right to choice and control at the very heart of the political debate”.
Lord Ashley’s fellow disabled peer, Baroness [Jane] Campbell, said she was “deeply saddened” to learn of his death and would “miss him very much”.
She worked with him for more than 25 years on numerous disability rights campaigns, and took over from him as co-chair of the APPDG in 2009.
She said: “He always understood what we were trying to achieve and did everything in his power to push our agenda hard in parliament.
“He was the most effective MP – and then Lord – I have ever met. I suspect this was due to his combination of personal experience of disability, political astuteness and wonderfully persuasive manner.
“He inspired me to take my knowledge and experience into the belly of the beast to fight alongside him and supported me every step of the way.”
She and Labour MP Anne McGuire, her APPDG co-chair, said later in a statement: “By speaking out powerfully against discrimination and neglect and campaigning for an equal society, Jack changed the lives of many disabled people and enabled them to lead fulfilling lives.
“Thanks to his efforts, human rights and non-discrimination legislation and measures to end disability poverty were introduced, whilst he raised a greater awareness of disability equality across the whole spectrum of government policy.
“As a deaf parliamentarian he paved the way for disabled people to become leaders and spokespersons in our democracy. He demonstrated that it is often a matter of attitude to break down barriers to political participation.”
Disabled activist Nick Danagher first met Ashley when he was visiting one of the first “integrated” schools – at which Danagher was a pupil – and said he made a “huge impression” on him and remained a “massive influence”.
He said: “We were used to having the great and the good visiting the unit but he would talk to people on an equal basis, telling us that our school was really important because of its modern approach.”
In later years, Danagher met Ashley several times as a disabled activist and found him “really charming and a really good communicator”.
“He could talk to disabled people with great credibility but he also got listened to by ministers. He was a great orator and sometimes great orators will appear very insincere, but you believed that he really truly believed what he was saying.”
He added: “He was on the inside of the establishment but still very much one of us. I think he was part of the movement. He brought that sort of statesmanlike authority to our messages about the need for legal rights, and not just for people to be nice to us.”
The disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg said it was the example of Jack Ashley that convinced her that she could become an MP herself.
Ashley, she said, was “a trailblazer” who had convinced the Commons authorities that he needed things done differently and that “there was not just one way of doing things”.
“I thought that if he and David Blunkett could do it, I could do it.”
She said that Ashley “would not take no for an answer”, but was also “a lovely, lovely man”, and someone who managed to build a cross-party consensus on the need for disability rights legislation.
She said it was his personal experience of disability that gave him the “edge” over other MPs who campaigned on disability rights, such as Alf Morris and Tom Clarke.
Lord Ashley was also vice-president of the National Deaf Children’s Society. The charity’s chief executive Susan Daniels said he was “a passionate advocate for deaf and disabled people” and an “inspirational figure”, and had left behind a “truly great legacy”.
25 April 2012