Since his first Parliamentary demo in 1969, he’s been at the heart of the battle for disability rights. Yet there’s always been a tension between Sir Bert Massie and some other activists. Looking back on his career he tells Ian Macrae that he remains unapologetic in standing by his approach
When first approached about doing an interview for Disability Now, Sir Bert Massie engaged his characteristic self-depreciating but utterly Liverpudlian sense of humour, describing himself as “A fossil”.
Elaborating he explains: “I’m a bit out of it now. I’m still involved in disability organisations – I’m a governor of Motability – but I’m very conscious that time moves on. It’s now 12 years since I left RADAR, and it’s nearly four years since I left the Disability Rights Commission. So I’m slightly out of it all.”
Yet his commitment to the cause of disabled people, our welfare, rights and equality, remains undimmed. Perhaps just as well in this current climate.
“I really can’t recall a time”, he says, “when disabled people were under such attack.”
But he feels that, without a position, without an organisation behind him, his voice, even though it’s the voice of a long-term and credible advocate and activist risks being unheard or ignored.
“When I was at RADAR or the DRC, when I was fighting battles, there’d always been a process before the battle. So you went into battle with legitimacy. The difference about being an individual is that people say, ‘Oh, that’s just his view’. Whereas, when you speak for an organisation, the policy ought to have been through and tested with that organisation so that you’re speaking for a wider group of people than just yourself.”
Not that this stops him from taking up causes and responding to what he regards as misguided government initiatives.
“One of the bizarre policies the Government’s come out with is that disabled people living in social housing which they’re under occupying, i.e. there’s a spare bedroom, should move to smaller properties.
“Superficially, that seems a good policy. Let’s make the best use of housing.
“But the minute you begin to analyse it, it falls apart. First of all, there aren’t all these single bed dwellings for people to move into. Secondly, is it a good idea? I was a trustee at Habinteg [the housing association specialising in providing accessible homes], for 17 years. We always underlet because we knew that, even a fairly independent disabled person, one relatively small accident and they need someone with them. So they need a spare room.
“Also, disabled people have disability equipment. I have three wheelchairs. Other people have respiratory equipment or hoists, a whole range of stuff. You need to store that, so you might need an extra room.
“So this idea of the Government’s that we can just downsize, it doesn’t add up”
Sir Bert is also concerned at how the Government has been seen to be actively working against the public image of disabled people in what he sees as a rather insidious way.
“If you want a system of state social security, the only way that’s going to be sustainable is if it has full support from the public. So the social security system needs to be credible so that the public will support and pay for it. The way you start undermining the system is to start destroying that credibility and support. And that’s what the Government is doing. You’re getting press stories about disabled people being scroungers. They’re not coming from investigative journalists, they’re being fed in. That starts putting disabled people in the public imagination as scroungers. So when the Government starts making cuts, people think, ‘Well, these people should be working anyway’.
“We don’t want to go back to the days when disabled people were being pitied. But you do need an appreciation that if we are to be full citizens, these support mechanisms are necessary.”
As a student, Sir Bert was at college during the radical and turbulent years of the early 70s. But though it was at this time that his disability politics began to awaken and manifest itself, he was not a student activist in the traditional mould.
“When I was at Liverpool Polytechnic (now Liverpool John Moores University of which he is a governor), I was an activist in one way because I was a member of disability organisations and I was campaigning. But I wasn’t an activist in the student union field.”
He is not unusual among disabled men of his generation in having made the move into higher education later than non-disabled contemporaries. And this is because of the nature of the school system in which he found himself as a secondary pupil.
“I went back to education quite late because I left school with no qualifications.
“You’ve got to go back to the education system of the 1950s and 60s. If you were physically disabled like me and you passed the eleven plus, you could go to grammar school. That would probably have been Lord Mayor Treloar’s. if you didn’t do that, you went to an ordinary special school. By and large they were based on standard state secondary modern schools.
“People didn’t leave those with an education. Certainly at my school, if you were still alive at the age of sixteen, that was seen as quite an achievement.
“So you learned to read and write, and did a bit of geography – you learned that Rome was somewhere far away and warm. But there was no real sense that this was a group of disabled children who were being educated.“
The usual follow-up at that time to such an education was a job in a factory. But, as a disabled youngster, this was not an option necessarily available to Bert.
“I did spend a few weeks working for a company called Disploy, but I decided that life was too short.
“I went to see the Youth Employment Bureau. There I met a youth employment officer. She did some tests on me like picking up drawing pins as I recall. And she said I was basically unemployable, a point of view many people have since agreed with.
“I said I needed some money because I came from a large working class family where money there wasn’t. She said the only job they had was as a lift operator and I said I’d take it.”
Getting that job did two things. It gave him the opportunity to explain to people that a job driving a lift “had
its ups and downs”, and it gave him quite a lot of time to invest in developing other income streams.
“I set up a company selling foreign stamps and I also had a printing machine on which I produced personalised stationery, so I was trebling my salary.“
There followed a short spell at a vocational college and then a return to Liverpool and work in a number of jobs in the commercial sector. Then he was asked to do two things. First he became chair of a PHAB (Physically Handicapped and Able Bodied) club, and then became involved with the Disabled Drivers Association.
“I was campaigning against the invalid car and trying to get it replaced by a Mini. That campaign eventually led to the Mobility allowance and the establishment of Motability.”
Sir Bert strongly believes that his disability politics arose out of his personal campaigning.
“The campaign against the ‘Noddy car’ was because I had an invalid three-wheeler and you couldn’t take your girlfriend out in them, not legally anyway. And so I thought how nice it would be to have a Mini. But I couldn’t afford a Mini.
“When I was running the PHAB club, I was involved with a lot of younger disabled people. They were having problems which struck me as being bloody unreasonable. And I thought,’We can sort this out’, so I began helping them. And as you become more and more adept at using the system, you become a campaigner.”
Bert’s involvement with the PHAB organisation, which existed to bring disabled people and non-disabled people together for the benefit, largely, of the disabled people, was his first encounter with the other side of disability politics where such initiatives were regarded as patronising and inappropriate.
That uneasy relationship with what was then becoming the disability movement continued to be uneasy and at times difficult when he joined RADAR.
“There was a certain frustration that RADAR was an influential organisation but there weren’t enough disabled people involved with it. That to me was preposterous. If you think of the disabled people who were involved with RADAR; for example, on the education committee we had Vic Finkelstein.“
As director/chief executive of RADAR, Bert was closely involved in working within the political system to bring about anti-discrimination legislation. During the 1980s he saw numerous bills go into parliament, only to be defeated by the government. And he was criticised for taking what was often seen as a pragmatic approach, always doing the expedient thing, thereby letting himself down.
“I don’t know whether it let me down or not, and that doesn’t really matter. What I think is more important is that it hasn’t let disabled people down. It’s actually served disabled people extremely well.
“With regard to supporting what became the Disability Discrimination Act, I said at the time, this is incremental, we can build on it. And we did get a Disability Rights Commission with a new Labour government. We also got regulations on inclusive education and accessible transport brought in. Now had I said in ‘94, we get everything or nothing, we’d have had to persuade a new Labour government to bring in a whole new bill.
“So if the accusation against me is pragmatism, I say, guilty. But I think it served disabled people well.”
So does he have any regrets?
“Oh, thousands of things. Not taking the best picture in the world, writing the best novel in the world, even writing the autobiography which I’ve been threatening to do.
“But what I’m conscious of is that disabled people still live in comparative poverty. Disabled people are still disproportionately represented on all the indexes of deprivation in this country.”