Disabled activists have paid tribute this week to Sian Vasey – a much-loved, “multi-layered activist” who played a “pivotal role” in the disabled people’s movement for more than 40 years – who died last week.
A stream of messages on social media mentioned her contributions as a disabled activist, a pioneering member of the disability arts movement, a BBC producer, a writer, a campaigner on issues such as accessible transport and independent living, and as a Labour party and union activist.
Many mentioned her wit, her contribution as a role model for other disabled people, and the part she had played in protests as an activist with the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN) and Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK).
Several described her as a “warrior” as well as a friend and an inspiration to many other disabled activists.
Mandy Colleran described Vasey (pictured) as “the warrior queen of the disability movement”, and “a role model, a thinker, a leader, an activist, a writer, and a great friend”, and said she was “irreplaceable”.
Another disabled campaigner who knew her well, Mary-Ellen, described her as “incredible, irrepressible”, with an “infectious smile and laugh”, and said she had “worked tirelessly for a better, more just and equal, inclusive world”.
Vasey’s activism with NDY UK often intertwined with her campaigning on independent living.
In November 2014, as NDY UK prepared for its latest protest outside the House of Lords to demonstrate opposition to a bill that sought to legalise assisted suicide, she said: “Many of us need support with our daily routine, washing, dressing, continence and going to the loo but this in no way affects our well-being, or diminishes our dignity.
“We get the help we need, but we have had to fight hard to get it.
“Those who develop terminal and disabling conditions later on in life often find it impossible to grapple with the social care system.
“It is a tragic fact that this is a primary cause of such people wanting to end their lives prematurely.”
Vasey was also a member of the pioneering Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) in the 1970s, and played a key role in setting up another pioneering disabled people’s organisation, London Disability Arts Forum.
In the late 1980s (PDF), she wrote of the importance of disability culture and of making links with other oppressed groups.
She predicted the future importance of the disability arts movement, writing: “In time we will have our own body of artistic work about or informed by the experience of being disabled in the same way as there is already much work created from the point of view of women, people from ethnic cultures and from lesbians and gay men.”
Through the arts, she wrote, disabled people can “make discoveries about what we have in common and place the emphasis on those things rather than on our differences, thus countering the traditional charitable model of Disability that has historically kept us separate from each other”.
She was later director of Ealing Centre for Independent Living (ECIL) and was awarded an OBE in 2009 for services to disabled people.
Broadcaster, campaigner and access consultant Mik Scarlet first met Vasey at the BBC in the early 1990s, where they both worked at its Disability Programmes Unit (DPU), she as a producer and he as a presenter.
He said: “Sian was so important to my career, as she guided me through developing a more rounded approach to presenting.
“She was a stickler for language, and she spent many hours helping me develop my presentation and voice-over technique.
“As I voiced over most episodes of the later series of From The Edge and Sian was the voice-over producer, we spent many hours together and became firm friends.
“She helped me learn more about disability politics and the concept of disability pride.
“After the DPU was disbanded, we remained in touch and worked together on several equality campaigns.
“I also compered the ECIL Christmas parties on many occasions, where Sian always did a turn and was the life and soul of the party, with her dry sense of humour.”
He said: “The disability movement owes so much to Sian.
“Her ability to hold her ground with people from all walks of life, especially with those with the power to make real change, led her voice to be one listened to by all.
“She played pivotal roles in many of the advances in equality we disabled people have experienced, and was a hardened campaigner right up until the end.
“Most recently we worked together through NDY UK, making sure the voices of disabled people were heard in the campaign against assisted suicide.
“I’ll miss Sian the campaigner, Sian the creative, Sian the raconteur but most I’ll miss Sian’s cheeky smile and dry, wicked sense of humour.”
Dennis Queen, another NDY UK activist, described Vasey as “an iconic disabled woman and a multi-layered activist” and said it was a time of “deep grief” for those who had known her.
She said: “From grassroots peer advocacy, to writing, protesting and sitting at the top table, Sian was at home in every environment and generated admiration in them all.
“I had the privilege of protesting with Sian on many occasions in Not Dead Yet UK and previously, the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN).
“Sian’s presence and media representation in our campaigns at NDY UK will be sorely missed.”