Sophie Partridge: Friends mourn activist and performer of ‘wit, wisdom and kindness’

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Friends and fellow campaigners are mourning the loss of Sophie Partridge – a disabled performer, writer and activist of wit, wisdom and “genuine kindness” – who died last week.

She was best-known for her work as an actor, performing in the London 2012 Paralympic Games opening ceremony, and in a string of Graeae Theatre Company productions.

But she also played a leading role in high-profile disability rights and anti-austerity campaigns, fighting the closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF) and cuts to the Access to Work programme and other government support.

Her close friend and fellow performer Mik Scarlet said Partridge was “super talented, warm-hearted… and improved the lives of everyone she came in contact with”.

Other friends and fellow campaigners also paid tribute this week to her talent, her kindness and her commitment to disability rights.

The disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell, said she would be “sorely missed by many”, while Eleanor Lisney said Partridge was an “untiring” campaigner who had “a ready smile and encouraging words for everybody”.

Scarlet said he first met her when he was at the BBC’s Disability Programmes Unit (DPU) in the early 1990s and she was playing the part of a personal assistant-user in a piece for the magazine programme From The Edge.

He said he was “immediately struck by her talent as an actor”, and added: “She was word perfect every time and had the most amazing comedy timing.

“It wasn’t just me that was struck by her talent, the whole DPU was too and Sophie was soon a regular on the show.

“She was the go-to actor whenever we wanted an ‘every person’ type who could play straight in the silliest of situations.”

He later worked with Partridge again – and they became close friends – when they were both part of the Rhinestone Rollers Graeae production.

He said: “This show was amazing, and Sophie was a star.”

They also worked together on the Paralympics opening ceremony, with Scarlet remembering her “dry wit and ability to make everyone else laugh while appearing to not be joking”.

He later worked with her again on a news report for Channel 5 on the legacy of the London 2012 Paralympics, in which “she described why so many felt so let down by the supposed legacy of 2012.

“The whole news team were thoroughly impressed with her, and she made the item.”

Baroness Campbell said: “Sophie brought a sense of fun, satirical genius and genuine kindness to every occasion, whether social or campaigning.

“I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed being teased so ruthlessly, as I did when I was by Sophie.

“Her sharp wit was particularly welcome when we were campaigning together on issues that frighten so many disabled people to their core – regression on independent living and assisted suicide, being our mutual top two.”

But she said she also enjoyed her talents away from the “battlefield”.

She said: “As a consummate actor, she also enthralled me, in plays like peeling in 2002 and her solo performance in Song Of Semmersuaq.

“For someone so small, she was a giant on stage and on the barricades.”

Lisney said Partridge never talked about herself and her achievements, and was “a lovely person, very unassuming, [with]a great sense of humour and a caring person.

“She had a ready smile and encouraging words for everybody. She cared for people beyond her own circle of friends.

“As a campaigner, I remember her best in her untiring work for the ILF. She was very effective in her message.

“She fought for disability rights, whether as a creative practitioner or as an activist.” 

In a statement, Graeae said the company was “devastated” to hear of her death.

The statement said: “Sophie’s talent has been woven through Graeae’s productions and workshops since 2000 and many of us feel privileged to have called her our friend.

“We feel her loss deeply but she leaves behind a legacy of delighted audiences of tens of thousands who were lucky enough to have seen her perform.”

Partridge had trained in Graeae’s Missing Piece programme, and went on to take one of the lead roles in Kate O’Reilly’s play peeling, which Graeae said was “inspired by Sophie’s wit and warmth”, and appeared in Graeae’s George Dandin, Flower Girls, the Rhinestone Rollers and The Limbless Knight.

But she also led workshops and residencies for Graeae and was part of its outreach team over the last 17 years.

Graeae said she was a “tireless advocate campaigning for the need for an inclusive society”, and a “brilliant spokesperson for the rights of Deaf and disabled people”.

Partridge was one of the most prominent of the disabled activists who spoke out against the planned ILF closure.

In an interview recorded by campaigning journalist Kate Belgrave in January 2013, she described how she had written to the then prime minister David Cameron, and told him: “It’s not my impairment which makes me vulnerable, it is your cut. It is your policies.

“You know, you give us decent resources and we will add to your economy, we will contribute to your blessed, blinking Big Society, we will play our part but we have to have adequate resources.”

In the film, she said it was “too scary to contemplate” the thought of disabled people being forced into residential care as a result of the ILF closure, and added: “One way or another we have to ensure that that does not happen. We can’t go back 30-odd years.”

In a parliamentary meeting attended by Labour MPs John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn in January 2015, several months before they became Labour’s leader and shadow chancellor, Partridge said she could not imagine life without ILF.

She told that meeting: “Younger people who are in situations that I was in when I was 21, wanting to live independently, wanting the same opportunities as any other young person… I cannot see how that is going to be achievable without the ILF.”

She also campaigned against other government austerity measures.

In October 2013, she attended the 10,000 Cuts and Counting memorial event in Parliament Square, held to remember disabled victims of austerity.

Alongside fellow speakers, including Corbyn and McDonnell, she read extracts from the emails, blogs and other posts of Karen Sherlock, who had died the previous year after fighting the injustice of the government’s “fitness for work” assessment regime.

She also supported the StopChanges2ATW campaign, describing in 2014 how she had suddenly encountered problems when applying for Access to Work support so she could appear at the DaDaFest International 2014 festival, where she was to perform Song Of Semmersuaq.

She said at the time: “It just seems to be one assault after another on disabled people, it really does.

“It is undermining our status in society every day, bit by bit.”

She was also a prominent campaigner on disabled people’s right to life issues, including supporting Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK) in its opposition to legalising assisted suicide.

In another film, for NDY UK in 2015, as part of its Assist Us To Live Not Die! campaign, she said: “I’ve been dependent on people my whole life so what kind of statement and judgement is that on my life, and also what if anybody that acquires an impairment becomes disabled, what kind of a message is that to send to them that it’s all completely hopeless and they might as well kill themselves?”

Her last message on the social media platform Twitter was to express her support for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, six days before the general election, telling her followers: “How could anyone NOT vote for Jezza?! :-)”

Scarlet said Partridge was “one of the wisest people I have known, super talented, warm hearted and a massive loss to everyone who knew her.

“She fought for disabled people’s rights, shone on stage and screen, was an amazing friend and improved the lives of everyone she came in contact with.

 “She may have been pixie sized, but the hole she has left in the universe is too big to measure.”

Picture: Sophie Partridge in Flower Girls. Photograph by Patrick Baldwin