A Life Without Limits by Sir Bert Massie (book review)

Let me start this review by saying that I knew nothing about Sir Bert Massie before I read his memoir. I recognised his name, but I didn’t know why I recognised it. Basically, I’ve grown up seeing the results of his extensive campaigning all around me without knowing it.

For those of you who are as unsure as I was, Sir Bert was a disability rights activist who grew in 1950s Liverpool and contracted polio as a baby. It didn’t take me long to realise why his name was so familiar. He worked for RADAR, the organisation behind the RADAR key locks often found on accessible toilets, played a huge part in bringing the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act into being, and so many other things. This obituary from The Guardian explains his work far better than I ever could.

I’m (just about) old enough to remember days before buses lowered closer to the pavement or had ramps to make them more accessible. I still remember my mum enthusiastically telling friends and family how ‘they were starting to adapt them now’ which made my frequent, two bus journeys each way, trips to the hospital much easier for us both. Even as an adult, I’d be unable to use buses independently if these adaptations hadn’t happened.

It turns out that the Bert was the “dispensable disabled person” who took part in the tests to see whether a wheelchair could remain upright without needing to be clamped down on these shiny new buses. I have to say, that although my wheelchair has wobbled round on many bus journeys, I’ve yet to actually face-plant the floor. I guess I have Bert to thank for that one.

I suppose the thing that struck me most of all was how different our childhoods were, and yet how similar they could have been. Attitudes towards disabled people were probably already starting to shift by the time I came into the world in 1991, but we still had a long way to go. In many respects we probably still do.

No one has ever refused to serve me in a cafe or restaurant, as Bert recalls happening to disabled people when he was growing up, but a nice elderly in a supermarket did once tell me dad that I “shouldn’t be in here with that thing”. That Thing being my first walking frame. Luckily, I was too young to remember the conversation, but I imagine her comment didn’t go down well.

Of course, cerebral palsy (CP) and polio are two different disabilities, but Bert and I both have physical impairments. He spent the first five years of his childhood living in hospital and having various treatments and surgeries

Bert went to schools that were adapted for children with physical impairments. I started mainstream schooling in the mid-90s in a primary school that wasn’t adapted right away, but began to add things like accessible toilets as staff and pupils needed them. When I left in 2002, the only way to get to the library (which was a computer lab by then) was up a flight of steps I think may have been made out of stone.

When I arrived at secondary school that same year, lifts were starting to be added there too, although many of my first real memories of high-school involve being stuck halfway down a flight of stairs in a stair lift, having to be manually cranked to the bottom by one of the caretakers. Usually at break time while the rest of the school trooped past me trying not to laugh. Most of the time I just bypassed the lifts completely and used the stairs.

I left school with 9 GCSEs and 3 A-levels. Bert didn’t because the places that offered these courses were inaccessible to him, so he went back and studied later. If I were more physically impaired than I am, I guess this may have been what happened to me, also.

As much as I enjoyed reading about Bert’s life, I’ll admit that most of the politics went over my head. While this was because it’s not something I have much knowledge of I feel like the book was written mainly for people who already have a decent understanding of how these things work. While this is understandable, I worry that it might put those in similar situations to myself off finishing the book.

Towards the end there were probably more acronyms than in you’d find in an average episode of Line of Duty, and I found myself longing for a glossary. I do plan on going back over the parts that confused me because it’s a topic that I feel I should try to better understand.

Nonetheless, this is still worth a read if you are interested in disability rights, or just like reading about other people’s lives.

If you fancy picking up a copy for yourself, you can get your copy from mereobooks, or get the audio version from the RNIB