Tributes have been paid to Margaret Hickish, an “unstoppable roller-coaster for inclusion” who played a significant role in “waking up the transport industry to the benefits of accessible transport and inclusive design”.
Although Hickish’s name was not widely-known among disabled people, she played a key and influential role in access and inclusion at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and later at Network Rail.
Following news of her death this week, fellow disabled campaigners who knew and worked with her spoke of her strength of will, her kindness, and the legacy she will leave behind.
With a background in engineering, Hickish (pictured) began working as an access consultant with the consortiums that produced the London 2012 “masterplan” in early 2007 before later joining the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) as its accessibility manager.
She spent years consulting with disabled people, including local organisations in east London, to ensure that the London 2012 stadia, including the Olympic Park, were as accessible as they could be.
The ODA’s efforts were widely-praised by disabled people and their organisations for ensuring an accessible environment for both Paralympians and disabled spectators.
She later worked as a consultant for both ODA and LOCOG, the London 2012 organising committee, and was appointed as Paralympics adviser to London mayor Boris Johnson.
She also worked on projects outside the Olympic Park, taking responsibility for access improvements to the South Bank, and access arrangements at Heathrow and the capital’s London 2012 Live Sites.
But she quit her post with the mayor and LOCOG less than a year before the games, in part because of “misgivings” about pressures on its access budget, concerns that were borne out by the access problems experienced by some disabled visitors during London 2012.
In 2013, she began to work with Network Rail, and later became its permanent access and inclusion manager, giving her responsibility for access and inclusion issues across Network Rail’s huge estate of depots, offices and 17 of Britain’s largest stations, including Paddington, Liverpool Lime Street, Glasgow Central, Charing Cross and Waterloo.
It was, she admitted at the time, “an enormous task” but also a “wonderful challenge”.
Mik Scarlet, who worked with her at London 2012 and for her at Network Rail, said she had been “a powerhouse of knowledge and passion”.
He said: “So much of the forward motion the UK’s disabled community has seen on the rail network and wider built environment was due to the work and absolute commitment of Margaret Hickish.”
He said she had had a “dogged commitment to leaving a real legacy of change for disabled people”.
But he said she was also “the life of the party”.
He said: “She loved life and lived it well. She wanted others who didn’t have her strength of will to be able to live a similar life if they wished, which I think lay behind her passion.
“I have had a few hugely influential people in my life and Margaret was one of the most important.
“A friend, a colleague, an unstoppable roller-coaster for inclusion and a truly lovely person, Margaret will be sorely missed and living up to her memory will drive all of us she took under her wing to continue her work and build on her legacy.”
Scarlet added: “Many disabled people won’t have heard the name Margaret Hickish, but they see her work every day.”
This week, he took part in an online Network Rail meeting on improving access, and realised that “every person in the meeting was brought on board or trained by Margaret”.
Her legacy, he said, “will carry on”.
In 2014, Hickish received an honorary fellowship from the Royal College of Art for her contribution to inclusive design, and she received an MBE in the 2016 new year honours.
At Network Rail, she introduced its built environment accessibility panel (BEAP) to advise on access issues, with most of its members disabled people, a development she had also championed at ODA.
She said in 2016 that Network Rail soon began to reap the benefits of the panel, which proved that projects affecting disabled people work better if you involve them right from the start.
She told Disability News Service at the time: “We have changed a lot about the way Network Rail looks at inclusive design.
“More than anything else, what we are talking about is putting people at the heart of the design process.
“That is basically the human condition: throughout everyone’s life from birth through to death, and everything that might happen in between.”
Sue Groves, a BEAP member and a friend of Hickish, said she had been “one of a kind, a force to be reckoned with but also an extremely kind and caring woman”.
She said: “Her work in the access and inclusion field is a legacy that will benefit many for decades to come.
“She recruited me to the Network Rail BEAP when it was first set up and when I was worried about being able to hold my own against a raft of experts, she told me not to focus on the qualifications of others as I brought the common sense of lived experience.”
Hickish told Groves that her role on the panel “was to state the bleeding obvious to the experts who may well understand what the regulations required them to do, but had less understanding about how they worked for disabled people.
“I never forgot that valuable lesson.”
Another member of the BEAP, Tanvi Vyas, a disability equality consultant and trainer, said it had been “an absolute privilege” to work with her.
She said: “Margaret was instrumental in waking up the transport industry to the benefits of accessible transport and inclusive design.
“She had such an impact on me and many others as I saw her living life as a successful, professional, disabled woman.
“Margaret leaves a great legacy that goes so much further than many of us can appreciate.”
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