All Together NOW! editor TOM DOWLING’s special tribute to one of Britain’s leading disability campaigners, Sir Bert Massie . . .
THE first time I heard of Bert Massie was way back in the bitterly cold and snow-filled winter of 1963 when I was just ten years old.
I’d taken a shine to two sisters living in a terraced house in Tweed Street, Liverpool, just opposite White Rock Street, where I lived, and was showing off my dodgy footballing skills outside their front door.
“I’m going to play for Everton,” I told them, while trying, and failing, to juggle the ball from foot to foot.
“Oh, yeh, and our kid is going to be Prime Minister,” came the instant reply.
They were talking about their 14-year-old brother, Herbert.
“He’s handicapped,” said Audrey. “Polio.”
“And he’s in a handicapped school,” added Georgina. “He can’t play out.”
Bert had spent the first five years of his life in Alder Hey hospital, and for the next 10 years was carted off to residential schools for disabled children.
None of us kids ever saw or heard of him. It was as though he just didn’t exist.
It was 20 years later that I heard his name again – ten years after a bullet in the spine had left me disabled, too.
I’d been thinking of starting a new disability-focused column in the ECHO to help readers affected by disability.
To get some advice I phoned the boss of the country’s leading disability rights organisation. It turned out to be Bert …
“Hello, Bert Massie here,” came the cheerful response. “A disability column in an evening newspaper? Excellent idea – and I’ll help in any way I can!”
That was in in October 1983. And he has been helping me ever since.
Bert spent his life campaigning for a better deal for Britain’s 11m people with disabilities.
Leaving Sandfield Park school at 16, and just about able to read and write, his careers officer described him as unemployable.
To say he proved him wrong is an understatement.
O levels at 20, A levels at 22, a degree at 25, and jobs that took him to faraway places that most of us – including that careers officer – will probably never get to.
And that’s not to mention the OBE, CBE and a knighthood, which came in 2007, following his seven-year stint as chairman of the new Disability Rights Commission.
“Whether someone is disabled or not should not matter,” he’d say. “Everyone should be treated fairly, and be encouraged to fulfil their potential.
“It is so frustrating. Disability is just a part of life. If we live till 85, nine out of ten will have a disability of some kind.”
For the past few years Sir Bert has also been the main columnist for the All Together NOW! newspaper, which he encouraged me to set up in 2005.
“Information is vital for anyone affected by disability,” was his mantra.
“It’s all well and good creating new opportunities for disabled people, but if they don’t know about what’s out there to help them then it’s all a bit of a waste of time and energy.”
“All Together NOW! and I Can Do That! are the key that open a thousand doors.”
That was nice of him to say. But I’m certain that Sir Bert, too, has personally opened millions of doors for disabled people.
Thanks, Bert for everything – you will be deeply missed.
Our thoughts are with Maureen, who married Bert in 2007.
Sir Bert died on Sunday October 15 after losing a long battle with bladder cancer. He was 68.
He had spent his whole life campaigning for disability rights, serving on a large number of government and other advisory bodies, mostly concerned with disability issues but also on a broader canvas.
He was a member of the Labour Party Commission on Social Justice, and in 1984 he was awarded an OBE, and received a CBE in 2000.
During 2000-2007 he chaired the Disability Rights Commission, and was knighted at Buckingham Palace by Charles, Prince of Wales.
When the DRC closed, Sir Bert became a founding commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
In 2008 he was appointed Commissioner for the Compact to promote better relationships between the government, local authorities and the voluntary sector. He did this until 2011.
In April 2014, he was commissioned a Deputy Lieutenant to the Lord Lieutenant of Merseyside.
He was made an honorary Doctor of Laws (LL.D) by the University of Bristol on 14 July 2005.
In 2008, he was made a Freeman of the City of London and became a member of the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights.
Sir Bert was also a governor of the Motability charity, of Liverpool John Moore’s University, and a trustee of a number of other voluntary Liverpool-based organisations.
He received honorary doctorates by the Universities of Bristol, Liverpool, and Staffordshire, and was an Honorary Fellow of Liverpool John Moore’s University, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a Fellow of the City and Guilds of London Institute.