A Life Without Limits by Sir Bert Massie - DR UK CEO Kamran Mallick's Book review

Fri,17 November 2023
Blog Education Equality & Rights Participation
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A ‘Life Without Limits’ by Sir Bert Massie reminded me that we are losing the first heroes of the disability movement, the generation that won the rights we enjoy today. His autobiography charts the life of one working class disabled boy and the history of disability rights in the UK.
Sadly, I never met Bert Massie, but I both benefited from his campaigning and faced parallel barriers. He was born nearly 25 years before me and contracted Polio as a baby in Liverpool whereas I caught it in Lahore shortly after learning to walk. I lived at home and went to my local high school. We both experienced disrupted education because of numerous surgeries and barriers to higher education which meant getting our degrees in our late 20s. The book is funny, poignant and full of historical detail. Perhaps it is time for a mainstream film or series to share the stories of disabled activists with the world?

Born in 1949, Massie had an innate understanding of the inequalities and discrimination he faced long before he had the language to describe them or the tools to challenge them. Despite having a loving family he grew up largely in hospital and then a segregated boarding school.
A brochure for the school stated that the disabled child is “happier being among other handicapped children … and is given the special training necessary to enable him to make a contribution to the community.”  His experience of arbitrary rules, bullying and corporal punishment paints a different picture. “…it takes a degree of insensitivity to cane a person’s hand when that same hand has to be used to bear weight when using crutches.”
Massie quietly exposes the cruelty, humiliation and exclusion of life as a disabled person and his message is all the louder for it. ‘A Life Without Limits’ is energetic and cheerful, while his frustration and anger comes through, it is his humour and determination that keeps you turning the pages.

Massie had both spirit and a natural ability to challenge the prevailing view of disabled people. He might have been ‘given’ a protected job as a lift operator but he earned extra cash on the side by starting a business making headed paper. He got the sack for challenging his boss on one occasion. Later his refusal to do a job badly just because that was the way it had always been done earned him respect and a pay rise. He blatantly ignored the strict ‘no passenger’ rule for Invacars – obeying it would have put a damper on his dating life, and thankfully the police often turned a blind eye.

The chapters covering Massie’s years with Radar and then as Chair of the Disability Rights Commission demonstrates the unrelenting and often unrewarding work of campaigning. There are disagreements with other disability charities, public policies that reverse hard won achievements and months of negotiations are undermined by commercial priorities. Massie took these setbacks in his stride and carried on with cheerful determination. He is open about the criticism made by others that the DRC could have been more aggressive or sought a higher public profile but remained convinced that negotiation and cooperation achieved more than displays of anger would have. The DRC’s transition to the EHRC and its downgrading are covered in detail and with some ire.

Sir Bert Massie died in 2017, before he was able to write the final chapter. Completed by Bob Niven and Ann Frye, it is this chapter that shows the scale of his hard work and the breadth of his interests. He worked to end discrimination and improve the lives of disabled people up until his death. This chapter answers his own question about his life “Did I spend it sufficiently well, or did I miss many unseen opportunities? It is hard to imagine how he could have done more.
‘A Life Without Limits’ is published by Mereo Books and available from Amazon and other booksellers.
Written by Kamran Mallick