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

Battling with buses: a year on

Around this time last year I found myself trying to get used to using the bus on my own. This wasn’t something that I found easy, and it would make me very nervous. I don’t drive so I spend a lot of time on public transport and I found some types easier to deal with.

I mastered the train long before I felt confident enough to take the bus because I really wanted to make a surprise trip home from university for my dad’s birthday. Once I’d done it for the first time, I felt confident enough to do it again and again. It was like the world had opened up to me and I had more independence than ever before. It was wonderful and it also meant that I could take more trips back home when I started to miss my mother’s cooking.

Getting the bus felt like a whole other ball game to me because there were so many other things to consider than remembering to book my rail assistance 24hrs before I wanted to travel so that someone would be able to help me with the ramp. Buses brought with the other challenges. I had to worry about fitting my walking frame on the bus so that no one would trip over it, and if I had to able to be able to put it in that place for myself. I have seen many buses with a whole range of different layouts, some of which I find easier than others but I never know which one will turn up.

if I have to be anywhere by a certain time I need to get one or two buses earlier than the one that would get me there just about on time in case some turn up that don’t have enough space. This time last year the thought of boarding a bus without a friend or someone to help made me feel sick with nerves and I tried to avoid it as much as possible.

However, I am pleased to say that 12 months on, doing this doesn’t bother me too much anymore and I get the bus alone quite often, although my family will always try and meet me at the bus stop by our house when I get home again to help me get off. A lot of the drivers on my local route now recognise me and are always willing to help, as are a lot of the other passengers too, which is always lovely. I just try my best to avoid travelling at busier times and try to leave myself plenty of time to get to where I need to be so that I can be more relaxed.

If I know that I need to get a lot of shopping, or use my wheelchair instead of my walking frame, then I need to have someone with me. However, if I don’t need to carry a lot and will be using my frame, I know longer feel worried about having to go it alone.

I think that’s progress. I feel like I’ve gained so much more independence and I always find that to be one of the best feelings in the world.

Progress and success!

Today I have some exciting news for you all. Well, it makes me really happy, I’m not so sure about the rest of you, but I’m feeling really quite proud of my little self.

Those of you who’ve been following the blog for a while now will know that I used to have a lot of fears about taking my walking frame Martha on the bus by myself, because of access issues with getting on and off them, the amount of space she takes up while I’m on there, and my worries that there wouldn’t be enough room for her later on in the journey.

This had been a problem for me for a very long time and I was often too afraid to take the plunge to go in alone without an help because, let’s just say I’ve come across a few people being quite rude and being really quite unhelpful even I’ve had someone there with me. Thing is, I’m 22 now and I knew I had to shape up try face this sometime. So I did. It wasn’t easy. In fact, I found it really stressful. Sometimes I’d have to try really hard not to cry out of fear and relief at different times.

My mum would always ride the bus with me when I was going into town to meet my friends, then walk home again, only to walk back to town to pick me up again and take the bus home with me. As much as I appreciated her doing this, it wasn’t fair and I knew it had to stop.

Slowly, I began to feel more at ease if I timed my journeys so that they were evening ones, when the transport is quieter, but after doing I didn’t feel quite so uneasy, got excited and wrote a post about it telling you all I thought that I was maybe making some progress.


Fast-forward a couple of months and I honestly can’t remember the last time that anyone got the bus with me unless they just so happen to be heading in the same direction! I know now that if the bus gets too busy while I’m halfway through the journey I can just get off and wait for the next one if they’re regular enough and it doesn’t bother me now. Mum still walks me as far as the bus stop near my house, and meets me at it when I get back off, but I’m not going to turn having company to walk home with.

In fact, I was on a bus just yesterday and someone I’ve noticed a few times asked me if I was by myself. Not in a rude way, but in a pleasantly surprised one. I don’t know if it’s because this person recognised me too but had only ever seen me with someone else. A small, self-centred, part of me hoped that this was true and that they were, in a way, recognising my achievement without really realising.

I’d still rather take the train given the chance, but if you had told me at the start of the year that I’d feel so relaxed about buses I’d probably have laughed and said “not likely”.

This accomplishment may seem small, but I have surprised myself and managed something that I’d begun to doubt I ever could.

With that, I am happy.

The sisters are doing it for themselves

Well, my little sister Sophie came to my aid again yesterday. I needed to wonder into town to collect one of my book reservations from the library (Joyland by Stephen King, if you’re wondering) and I’d already agreed to spend some time with Sophie while my mum ran some errands, so I suggested that we turn it into a girly shopping day. I knew she wanted to pick up some accessories for a new party dress she’s just got, plus it would give me the chance to spoil her a bit for all the stuff she does for me.

I was mostly expecting her  to say that she’d much rather have movie day because she loves the chance to choose a DVD from my collection rather than the family one, (just lately we’ve tried to watch the Addams Family Values about four times but we always keep getting interrupted), but she agreed straight away. She said she was in the mood to find something pretty for her new outfit. She even declined the offer to go and see Monsters University at the cinema afterwards, telling me that she wasn’t in a film mood. However, I wouldn’t have blamed her for backing out when I mentioned that we’d have to get the bus together.

Whenever we go out, it’s usually my folks who take care of the folding and unfolding of my walking frame Martha so today would be a first for her. She’s seen some of the challenges I’ve faced on public transport with mum around so I did wonder if she’d change her mind, but she didn’t. I showed her how to collapse Martha and put her back up again and she seemed to manage just fine. I gave her the option of staying home again, but she said she still wanted to go, so she helped me with my shoes and off we went.

I could tell that she was nervous, because she was really quiet as we waited at the stop. To tell you the truth I was equally nervous being the one responsible for the safe keeping of her mobile phone and spending money (courtesy of the Bank of Dad). Luckily when the it arrived there were no other prams/wheelchairs/walking frames so we were okay. She helped me guide Martha on safely, took her own seat and gave me a massive grin,

“Feel better now?” I asked. She nodded.

At the other end a nice gentleman helped me get off again and she took care of Martha. That was the hard part over with. I was so proud of her. If she was worried, it didn’t stop her from taking on the bus challenge with me. I tried my best to make sure she had some fun and even took her for milkshake, a very well deserved milkshake.  Oh, and some hairspray. And some hair clips.