Sir Bert Massie: Tributes to ‘a life committed to disabled people’s liberation’

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Tributes have been paid to Sir Bert Massie, the chair of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) throughout its seven years, who made a “fundamental” contribution to disabled people’s liberation, and who died this week.

His other appointments included time as a founding commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), as chief executive of RADAR, as commissioner for the Compact, and as a long-serving governor of the Motability scheme, and of Liverpool John Moores University.

He also served on the National Disability Council, the Disability Rights Task Force, and the Independent Commission on Social Justice.

But tributes this week focused not on his CV but on his personal warmth, his sense of humour and generosity, and the decades he spent fighting for the rights of disabled people.

Many mentioned his significant role in helping to secure civil rights for disabled people through the first Disability Discrimination Act in 1995, following years of campaigning by disabled people and their organisations.

Professor Tom Shakespeare said on Twitter that “few people did more to promote disability rights and inclusion in UK”; former minister for disabled people Anne McGuire described him as “a man of courage, conviction, vision and optimism”; and Liz Sayce, who worked with him at DRC, said, also on Twitter, that he was “a giant of disability rights who made a massive difference”.

McGuire told Disability News Service (DNS) that Sir Bert (pictured) was “one of the most impressive people I have ever known”.

She said: “He showed personal courage as he dedicated his life to working to improve the lives of disabled people.

“He was an activist who never flinched in the face of opposition, yet he also knew the importance of being able to work with politicians to get change.”

She regularly turned to him for advice when she was minister, and praised his willingness to make a contribution in the early days of the new EHRC, even though he thought it had been too soon to abolish the DRC.

He was, she said, “fun, mischievous and amusing and laughed easily”, and added: “I will remember Bert for his humanity, vision and energy. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him.”

Disability Rights UK (DR UK), which was formed from the merger of RADAR and two other disability organisations, also paid tribute to his work, and said: “On occasions, he courted controversy from sections of the disability movement for not being radical enough but no one can doubt the enormous contribution he has made to enhancing our rights.”

DR UK said that Sir Bert had been “educated the hard way” in Liverpool, having been “completely failed” at school by the special education system.

He caught polio at three months old, and spent the first five years of his life in Alder Hey hospital, before being sent to Greenbank School for Rest and Recovery, and then a special school.

He would tell his local paper, the Liverpool Echo, that it was only when he mixed with the middle classes for the first time, at the age of 11, on a holiday organised by the British Polio Fellowship, that he “at last had an aspiration for education”.

He left school without qualifications, and started work at a Liverpool disability organisation, but received tuition at a local convent as none of the evening classes were accessible to a wheelchair-user.

He gained O-levels, then A-levels from the specialist Hereward College in Coventry, and a degree in social studies, as well as a social work qualification, before joining RADAR in 1978.

Baroness [Jane] Campbell met him briefly when she began studying at Hereward as a teenager when he was about to leave, and then met him again at RADAR when she was a 22-year-old recruit, and he was deputy chief executive.

He sacked her six months later, on the orders of the chief executive, George Wilson, because she was unable to use a manual typewriter.

For years, she refused to speak to him, and “gladly joined calls to denounce RADAR and him”.

But she later made peace with him, after he apologised and said he had deeply regretted what had happened, and she realised that they had been “caught in the same oppressive culture”.

In later years they became good friends.

She said this week: “I understood he was biding his time for the right time, to take control of the organisation and change it.

“I don’t think this ever really happened there, but his appointment as chair of the DRC allowed him to show us the real Bert. The radical, uncompromising Bert.

“This never meant he took to the streets or got arrested. Not his style. He preferred to fight from within the establishment, especially the corridors of power in parliament, which I feel should be recognised by all disabled people more than it is.

“For the first two decades, radicalism and direct action were my primary driving force.

“Bert took the other road of negotiation and at times necessary compromise with the establishment.

“You choose your strengths but the fundamental principle of equality for disabled people is the same.”

David Buxton, who first met Sir Bert as a young activist campaigning outside parliament for disability rights legislation in the 1990s, said he was “one of the great inspirations, a kind, funny and modest disability rights leader who kept us kicking and alive”.

He was, he said, one of the few who could “pull everyone together, engendering a sense of great belief in ourselves that we would see a new disability rights law”.

“Life has been a battle… but I don’t do bitterness or hate,” Buxton remembers him saying in later years.

He said Sir Bert had “intellect, humour and humanity and an ability to listen to both sides of the political and disability movements from the local to the international level”.

And he remembers Sir Bert telling him at a London dinner that he had enjoyed “both wonderful and difficult times leading DRC”.

Leadership could be “lonely”, he told him, but the key was “to find a few close friends in your circle, find one or two great mentors to guide and support you all the way”.

He said Sir Bert should be remembered as “a great Scouser”, for “a life lived well in the service of others”, and as someone who had made “awesome contributions to disability rights”.

Buxton, now chief executive of Action on Disability, added: “We have lost one of the supreme disability rights campaigners with an indomitable fighting spirit and today disabled people are better placed because of him.”

Disabled campaigner Kaliya Franklin met Sir Bert for the first time at the Labour party conference in 2011 where she said she “completely fan-girl’ed him”.

After the Spartacus report was published by the new grassroots network she was part of, he “took me out for lunch, taught me his history of the disabled people’s movement and asked what he could do to help.

“‘I don’t know what to do,’ I told him. ‘We’re making it up as we go along.’ With his Sir Bert twinkle, he smiled and said, ‘You’re all doing a great job, but I’ll see what I can do.’”

He later asked Franklin to join the commission on disability and poverty that the Labour party had asked him to chair.

She said: “The best part of disability rights campaigning is the incredible people I’ve been lucky enough to meet, and the worst part is losing so many friends.

“Disabled people and the disability movement would not be where we are now without the strategic influence and vision of Sir Bert.

“He really did encourage us to look up to the stars and not trip over any rugs*.”

Tom Hendrie, head of policy and communications at Cheshire Centre for Independent Living, first met Sir Bert in the 1980s when he had come to speak to a small, newly-formed user-led group in Barrow-in-Furness.

He said: “He will be remembered for the big things like [campaigning for the]mobility allowance and the Motability scheme but he was a very active supporter of grassroots disability organisations, always willing to travel to an AGM or to chair a meeting about a local issue. 

“He came under some criticism of being too close to the establishment later in his life but his legacy is still very real and positive in the lives of disabled people.”

Lord Sterling, chair and co-founder of Motability, said: “Over the last 50 years, Sir Bert worked with a great number of disability organisations, tirelessly campaigning for the rights of disabled people, and many of us here had the pleasure of knowing him over these years.  

“Sir Bert became a governor of Motability in 2002 and his incisive knowledge and wise counsel played a key part in our constant endeavours to improve the Motability scheme.  

“Taking account of his own disability, his energies never ceased to amaze me.

“He was a real ‘doer’ and always prepared to challenge and fight for what he believed in.”

Neil Crowther first met Sir Bert when he was at RADAR and later worked with him at DRC.

In a tribute on his blog, Crowther describes how they worked together again when Sir Bert asked him to join the commission on disability and poverty.

He described Sir Bert as a “consummate negotiator” and political operator who “secured countless commitments from some of the most senior and influential figures of the past 50 years”.

He said: “He never gave up imagining the world could be a better place for disabled people.”

Among his many achievements secured from years of negotiating and influencing, Sir Bert drafted the amendment to the transport bill in 1984 that led to the setting up of a statutory Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), and was a DPTAC member for more than 15 years.

His arguments later helped stave off attempts by the Liberal Democrat transport minister Norman Baker to abolish DPTAC, and replace it with unpaid disabled advisers.

Sir Bert said at the time that the government appeared to believe that improvements to society can only be made by paying million-pound bonuses, except with disabled people “who are the only people in society who work for free”.

He spoke out, too, on attempts to legalise assisted suicide, arguing in 2015 – after new research showed an “explosion” of cases in which greedy relatives were committing fraud by targeting members of their own family – that some relatives were not “wonderful” and caring, but have “other motives”, which could put “enormous pressure” on many disabled people if assisted suicide was legalised.

“Not everybody is a saint,” he said.

He campaigned also to improve wheelchair services, and served as chair of the assistive technology organisation CECOPS (Community Equipment Code of Practice Scheme).

He once told Disability News Service how he had applied for a new wheelchair through his local wheelchair service in February, but would not receive it until October, which he said was “just a little bit faster than making a baby, which I suspect is more complicated”.

Brian Donnelly, executive director and founder of CECOPS, wrote this week: “Bert was a true campaigner, but he was never a complainer. He only asked for what was right and nothing more.

“He had a wonderful art of guiding conversations in a way that made others feel that they had made decisions themselves.

“Bert’s view was that a good cause is always worth fighting for.”

As a member of the Baring Foundation’s Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector, Sir Bert raised concerns about the “sinister” impact of new lobbying laws, which he suggested showed the government wanted “to close down debate”.

He said in 2015: “In the 1980s and 1990s, I was involved with several charities that criticised government policy – think of the battle for the Disability Discrimination Act – but at no point did government seek to silence charities.

“It is very frightening, it is very sinister. I always believe a strong government should be able to take it on the chin and come back with robust arguments.”

Despite being a Labour member, he would criticise his own party when necessary, perhaps most notably when it commissioned him to chair the disability and poverty commission and then refused to publicise its conclusions.

He was also critical of the EHRC under the leadership of its first chair, Trevor Phillips, resigning as a commissioner after two years over concerns with his leadership, a step Baroness Campbell also took.

He later explained that Phillips had failed to stand up to the Labour government, which had put too many of its own supporters onto the commission’s board.

Crowther was one of several to point out this week that many activists saw Sir Bert as being too close to the government, but he was “always driven by one thing only – the wellbeing of disabled people”, which was why “when some disability activists saw him as the enemy, many more regarded him as a folk hero”.

Baroness Campbell said Sir Bert taught her how to survive within parliament, how “to play the game and sometimes win.

“Unlike me, he never personally criticised me because he completely understood and respected where I was coming from. Such maturity is rare.”

She added: “Bert’s contribution to our liberation is fundamental. He was a man of his time, fighting from within a very oppressive culture.

“In many ways this was so much harder, but he never wavered. He worked harder and longer than any disabled person I know.

“Bert rightly deserved the credit afforded him by the establishment and he deserves our credit as disabled people now engaged in the continuing struggle for disabled people’s equality and human rights.”

*Sir Bert once said that disabled people “have been invited to look up to the stars while having the rug pulled from beneath them”