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How Sir Bert proved them all wrong

IT’S against all of the rules for book launches to take place at the House of Lords.

But if you have a book that deserves this very special start in life, how do you get round the problem?

Easy. Hold a Lords’ party, invite a few bigwigs, and say it’s all to celebrate the good work of a pioneering and highly respected charity (Local Solutions), of which the author was a trustee and to which all royalties would be directed!

It was a plan the late Sir Bert Massie would have greatly approved of… and a tale he would undoubtedly loved to have told in one of his hugely popular columns for All Together NOW!

Bert, who lived all his life in Liverpool, was one of the country’s greatest disability campaigners.

Born in working class Liverpool in 1949, he contracted polio at just three months and was to spend the rest of his childhood and teenage years kept hidden away in special schools.

Leaving education at 16, and just about

able to read and write, Bert’s careers officer described him as unemployable.

To say that 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.

The first time I heard of him was way back in the bitterly cold and snow-filled winter of 1963.

I was just 10 years old and had taken a shine to two sisters living in a terraced house in Tweed Street, Liverpool, just opposite White Rock Street, where I lived.

“I’m going to play for Everton,” I told them.

“Oh, yeah, 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.”

It was 20 years later, in the autumn of 1983,  that I heard his name again – 10 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 Liverpool Echo – to be called I Can Do That!

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!”

Bert knew the real value information was to disabled people.

“It’s vital,” he’d say. “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.”

And wasting time and energy were just not part of Bert’s psyche.

Sir Bert Massie: A LIFE without Limits, Mereo Books, £10

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