Mary Wilkinson was Editor of the campaigning newspaper, Disability Now, for over 20 years, until 2005. With a team increasingly composed of disabled people, she developed Disability Now into the UK’s leading pan-disability newspaper. Her new book, Defying Disability, tells the stories of nine disabled leaders who, by force of personality and concrete achievement, have made us think differently about disability.
Editing a national disability newspaper for over 20 years brought me into contact with many disabled people who had fought through hardship and discrimination to become leaders in their field and were now determined to improve opportunities for others and change public attitudes to disability. One or two of them, like Jack Ashley, the deaf Labour politician, or Peter White, the blind broadcaster, had written autobiographies, but by 2005 these were quite out of date. Much had been written about disability from a medical, academic or social science stand point, but no one had looked at disabled leaders as a group, told their stories, shown how they came to achieve what they did and how the modern history of disability has been played out in their lives.
I chose nine people who had come from different directions in terms of disability, social class, education and career decisions. Varied as they were, they also had much in common. Discrimination, for example, was no respecter of persons: Tom Shakespeare, the aristocratic dwarf, was as stared at and ridiculed as Bert Massie, hobbling on his crutches in the backstreets of Liverpool. But they all met it head on. Massie, a quick-witted Scouser, learnt to get what he wanted through knowledge, diplomacy and humour, which eventually took him to the Disability Rights Commission as its chair. Shakespeare has played on the negative attention; he became a juggler, of balls and ideas, a maverick academic and an accomplished communicator. Mat Fraser, with his short arms and flipper hands, chose to highlight the ‘freak’ label as a rock musician and performer before becoming an actor, while Phil Friend turned his disability into an asset, building a training and consultancy service that promoted the business case for employing disabled people. Andrew Lee, helped by his parents and self-advocacy, overcame the bullying and low expectations associated with learning difficulties to become the director of a voluntary organisation and a prolific spokesperson.
When Rachel Hurst took to a wheelchair, she little expected that the wheelchair would become her identity; the injustice spurred her to become a campaigner for disabled people’s human rights, first in the UK and then in Europe and at the UN. Similarly, Lord Ashley, when he became the first deaf MP, turned his attention to social injustice, campaigning for many causes, such as thalidomide compensation, vaccine-damaged children, deaf people. His parliamentary pressure group, he believes, ‘gave disabled people access to the corridors of power.’ Peter White and Tanni Grey-Thompson responded differently. Both high achievers, they never allowed their disability to stop them reaching their goal. White became the BBC’s first blind broadcaster and Grey-Thompson was (until Beijing) the UK’s most medalled Paralympic champion.
Limited as the sample may be, these leaders show the diversity of views and approaches in the disability world. Their common achievement is that they have helped to mainstream disability, influencing policy and thinking.
Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2009
Mary Wilkinson is the author of Defying Disability: The Lives and Legacies of Nine Disabled Leaders. See the below link for more details.