“Life has been a battle. It’s frustrating, but I don’t do bitterness or hate. I have tried that and it’s exhausting. It’s shattering. I haven’t got the energy for that level of emotion. I’d rather forgive someone.”
His battle with life began shortly after he was born, Herbert William, the son of Lucy who worked in the Jacob's Biscuit Factory and Herbert Douglas Massie, a dock labourer, in the Spring of 1949, in the same Liverpool Walton Hospital, where Paul McCartney had been born seven years before. Three months later baby Bert contracted polio and he found growing up as a severely disabled kid in the 1950s and 60s working class Liverpool, that not much was expected of him : plenty of prejudice was in place and his horizons were strictly limited. As a teenager his sense of injustice was acute and by the age of 18 he had become a disability rights campaigner, a role he maintained for the rest of his life rising to the positions of Chairman of the Disability Rights Commission and a founding Commissioner of its successor, the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
It was now that he joined what he called the 'escape committee' when, with his mates, he perfected their Colditz-style escapes from school. With them, he would freewheel down the drive into town to get sweets and and a taste of the outside world and when they were cold or tired, would allow themselves to be picked up by the local police who were sympathetic to their situation. They would then be either bought snacks, taken back to the police station for tea, or given the thrill of being driven around Liverpool in a police car and this, at a time when Z-cars was playing on tv.
His life wasn't universally bleak and as a youngster, Bert enjoyed annual visits to a summer holiday camp in the Wirral for Disabled Boys and he was aware his disability afforded certain advantages and recalled : “With polio there were no class barriers, middle class people got it, working class people got it; journalists got it, and footballers got it. I joined the British Polio Fellowship at 11 and had my first holiday through them at 11 when my brothers and sisters hadn’t even heard of holidays. I mixed with the middle classes and at last had an aspiration for education; for the first time I was encouraged to ask ‘why don’t you ?"
With no expectations that disabled youngsters would study for 'O', let alone 'A' levels, Bert left school without any formal qualifications. He described it starkly as : "In the 1950s there was a pretty low expectation of what you could achieve in this condition and you were doing well if you were still alive at 16." His interpretation as to why he didn't succeed at school, however, was interesting : “In those days education was fairly basic. You weren’t pushed. I used to think I left school with no qualifications because of that and that I was disabled, but then I looked at the education of my brothers and sisters and realised it was just because we were working class.”
At this time the trike was a formative influence in his life. Bert already had "a strong sense of justice and injustice. My drive came from both a personal need and an appreciation of what was wrong. I started off fighting for access to cars when I was a young man because I had been given a Niblet three-wheeler and it one had one seat. Put aside the fact that it kept breaking down, I couldn’t take my girlfriend out in it! There was a sign on the dash which said you couldn’t take passengers. Liverpool police ignored it but the minute you got into Lancashire, they were waiting for you. I wanted to try and get a small car and so joined the Disabled Driver’s Association when I was 19, then the National Committee, campaigning that 'the car was an extension of you.' I cut my campaigning teeth on motability issues. But it was always, as much as it was about physical access, about attitudinal barriers we face.”
After first starting work in an office as a book-keeper, he moved on to the 'Liverpool Association for the Disabled' where the Director, having been paid a visit by nuns had said : "You’re a'teaching order', you can teach Bert," which they duly did, with Bert receiving private tuition for 'O' levels at the local convent with the nuns and a medieval history course, with him handling and interpreting original documents. As a disabled teenager, in the late 1960s, it was a common occurrence that he'd "go to a restaurant and people would say : "We don’t serve wheelchairs" to which he'd reply : "Well that’s okay, I don’t eat wheelchairs."
'They may have A levels but they don’t seem that clever.’ Having resolved to go for 'A' levels himself, he found that there was nowhere physically accessible for him, so he gave up his job and went off to a specialist college for disabled people near Mansfield and then returned to Liverpool to take a degree at Liverpool Polytechnic, followed by a postgraduate 'social work' course at Manchester. He later confessed : "I would have been a lousy social worker" and "I was supposed to talk to people about their problems but once the problem was clear I would rather help put it right. I was accused by one of my lecturers of being task-centred."
"At that time there were no specific social security benefits for disabled people. After much campaigning they were introduced from the 1970s onwards. 'The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970', improved social care for disabled people and also introduced what the Blue Badge Scheme. It was the first major legislation specifically concerning disabled people since the 1940s. Although it introduced the concept of an accessible buildings in this part of the Act proved ineffective."
Having graduated, he received a phone call from the newly formed 'Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation 'in London (RADAR). It was 1977 and he was 28 years old and, as he recalled the CEO "asked me to come and work for them and it seemed a good idea to get some vocational experience." In his opinion it was the 1980s which "saw the blossoming of the disability movement and a greater determination by disabled to influence the environment in which we lived and to design the services we used." It was in 1980 that he began working on a new taxi made accessible to disabled people : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVTsTDsTSAg&t=0m57s
In 2000 Bert became Chairman of the Disability Rights Commission, which was set up to promote 'The Human and Civil Rights of Disabled People' and, in the Autumn, having been invited to give a keynote address at a major conference in Scotland had tried to board a plane to Scotland, only to be told that would not be allowed to take his seat because he was in a wheelchair. In Bert, the captain had clearly chosen the wrong passenger and within hours the story : ‘Chair of Disability Rights Commission refused access to airplane’, was bouncing its way around the world.
"Many disabled people have been invited to look to the stars, only to find the ground opening beneath them. It is clear, that without action now, the challenges of the coming years will create new patterns of inequality and disadvantage that Britain can ill-afford."
It was in 2007 that Bert received and became, 'Sir Bert', in the New Year Honours for 'Recognition of his work for Disabled People' and said: “I am delighted and while it is the nature of the honours system that awards are given to individuals, in practise the knighthood is also in recognition of the wide range of people it has been my privilege to work with, at the Disability Rights Commission and more generally in helping to bring about rights and justice for disabled people. I look forward to continuing to work with them on this vital task in the years ahead.”
When he was interviewed five years ago, Bert said : "The scale of how much there is still to do is all around us. Too many buildings remain inaccessible to people with mobility impairments. People who are deaf or blind still face communication difficulties and far too little information is available in suitable formats for people with learning disabilities. People with mental health issues receive inadequate support. The rate of unemployment amongst disabled people has increased since 2007."
He made the point that : "Although equality legislation and practise has a role, it is perhaps not a significant as the role of human rights. We should be pressing for all disability services to be based on Human Rights Principles. This would, of course, also apply to any public services that disabled people use such as health and social care."
Seven years ago, Bert described himself as :
"An ageing disability activist who fears that the equality successes of the past might be undermined in the future, thus placing disabled people at a further disadvantage."
When asked the question : "If you could give your younger self, advice, what would it be?" He replied :
"Choose battles carefully, plan strategies diligently and pursue them fearlessly and relentlessly. Never underestimate your opponents. Learn their strengths and how you can overcome them."
What better epitaph for an 'Ageing Disability Activist ?
A final word from Bert, speaking as a patron of 'Disability and Deaf Arts' at its launch in 2012 :