The disability movement united this week to mourn the loss of David Morris, a hugely respected campaigner, artist and pioneer of the independent living movement, who died suddenly in the early hours of Monday.
The UK Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC) said his passing left a “major gap in our landscape”, while other leading activists paid tribute to his passion, commitment and “incredible contributions” to equality and human rights.
There was a two-minute silence in his honour on Tuesday at an election hustings hosted by Inclusion London, the new pan-London Deaf and disabled people’s organisation that he helped develop.
Liz Sayce, chief executive of RADAR, said Morris had “helped shape the independent living movement in the 1980s”.
In 1989, he founded Independent Living Alternatives, which supports disabled people who need personal assistance. On its website, he described how disabled people have “an inalienable right to independent living”, but added: “In essence, independent living is a misnomer: as disabled people we should be able to just think about living as anybody else.”
Morris played a leading role in nearly every major development around disability equality in London over the last 10 years, including both Liberty – London’s annual disability arts festival – and the mayor’s Disability Capital event.
He had recently played a key role in the lead-up to the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, as the organising committee’s external access and inclusion coordinator, on secondment from his job with the Greater London Authority.
Last September, he told Disability Capital that 2012 was a chance to leave “a real legacy for generations to come” and that London in 2012 would see the largest ever number of disabled and Deaf people in any city at one time.
Kirsten Hearn, who chaired the Inclusion London event, told the audience of disabled activists that Morris would be “the most enormous loss to our community”.
She worked with him after he was appointed senior disability adviser to the then mayor, Ken Livingstone, and said he helped deliver Livingstone’s vision around access to transport, leading to the current fleet of low-floor, “talking” buses.
She said: “Some of the changes and differences that were made in London for disabled people were made because Dave was dogged and persistent in all that he did.
“He was a quiet but vociferous man. He didn’t make a lot of audible noise but he never shut up. He would simply persist. I personally will miss him hugely and I am sure that many of us will.”
Some also knew Morris as a talented artist and film-maker with his own production company, who was about to complete a short film for UKDPC on the importance of disabled people working together.
The disabled artist Ju Gosling said: “Although David was best known as a campaigner, he was also an artist of formidable talent.
“In the last two years in particular, he created a body of arthouse film work which brought together his personal memories and philosophy with music, poetry and art.”
Julie Newman, acting chair of UKDPC, said Morris was a “great networker” who loved the cultural and arts aspects of the disability community, “thrived” on diversity, and was a “strong and articulate supporter” who would “leave a major gap in our landscape”.
Tara Flood, chief executive of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, said: “Dave was not a nine-to-five activist. There was no divide between his personal and professional view when it came to his passion and commitment to inclusion and equality.”
And Anne Novis, another leading activist, said Morris had been a great personal support, advocate and campaigner, and added: “His sense of humour and the way he was really interested in disabled people’s experiences made him easy to work with and share about personal issues.”
Sue Bott, director of the National Centre for Independent Living, said Morris had been a “powerful advocate for all disabled Londoners” but would be best remembered for his “untiring commitment to independent living”.
Liz Sayce, speaking for the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s disability committee, paid tribute to his “incredible contributions to independent living, human rights and the disability movement”.
She said he had also made a major contribution to persuading the government to agree that there should be “portability” of support for disabled people.
Sayce remembered how Morris had told a meeting of the all party parliamentary disability group how he could not move from one London borough to another for fear of losing his essential social care package, “noting wryly that his human rights were being sacrificed on the altar of local discretion”.
Morris was also a vocal campaigner against the legalisation of assisted suicide, and Sayce said he had spoken out “quietly and powerfully on the equal value of disabled and non-disabled people’s lives and the risk that legalising assisted suicide would re-enforce unequal value”.
He also challenged disabled people to be “more serious” in addressing accessibility issues for people with neuro-diverse and mental health conditions.
Sayce said Morris had “the courage to press for change, the thoughtfulness to do so effectively, the humour to engage people positively”, and added: “David was astute, reflective, humane – and also hugely supportive to many friends and colleagues who will miss his intelligence and his spark.
“We are the poorer for his passing – but so much the richer for his contributions to equality and human rights in this country.”
Several other activists who paid tribute to Morris were also his friends.
Tara Flood first met him when he was director of Hammersmith and Fulham Action on Disability and said he became “a friend, great source of advice and support and an excellent drinking partner!”
Ju Gosling described how Morris would host regular “salons” in his apartment in Limehouse, bringing together other musicians, artists and poets.
She said: “He was also an experimental and innovative cook, and loved to hold dinner parties looking out over the Docklands skyline that appears in much of his visual art.”
She had been working with him on a joint project to bring together disabled artists and athletes around 2012.
But she said her “abiding memory” of him would be singing Beatles songs together on a weekend away at Holton Lee, Dorset. “David made it clear to the whole world that love is all you really need.”
Julie Newman added: “As a friend, I can’t imagine passing Limehouse without remembering times that we spent together.
“Eating splendid food that he had cooked with thought and love. Watching films and talking about art. Listening to poetry and meeting wonderfully talented people. Singing songs that were reminiscent of times gone by and laughing at silliness. Talking politics and dreaming of idealised worlds. Reconnecting with the fire of activism.
“Just chilling out, drinking beer and watching the sun set on the rich panorama of London skyscapes. As my partner says, at this moment in time, the music has stopped.”
21 April 2010