Herbert William Massie CBE

Doctor of Laws

14 July 2005 - Orator: Professor Linda Ward

Madam Pro-Vice-Chancellor: Bert Massie

Five years ago, in the autumn of 2000, the Chair of a prestigious national body was invited to give a keynote address at a major conference in Scotland. A frequent flyer, he arrived at the airport and waited to board the plane as usual. Out on the tarmac, at the foot of the steps up to the aircraft, imagine his feelings when, after all the other passengers had boarded, he was told by the Captain that he would not be allowed to take his seat. Why?  Because he was in a wheelchair…

The would-be passenger was, however, accompanied by his private secretary – a strapping man, who was happy to lift his slightly built colleague on to the plane.  No, that was not acceptable to the Captain. So the plane took off, leaving them behind on the tarmac – and the assembly of the great and the good in social services in Scotland without their keynote speaker.

Unfortunately for the airline in question, they had perhaps picked the wrong man to refuse aboard. For he was Bert Massie - Chair of the newly established Disability Rights Commission, set up by the government explicitly to eliminate unfair discrimination against disabled people and enable them to receive the same treatment as other people.  Within hours the story – ‘Chair of Disability Rights Commission refused access to airplane’ – was bouncing its way around the world.

The story – a true one – is a textbook illustration of Bert Massie’s lifelong belief that it is legislation that is needed to ensure disabled people have access to the same rights and services as their non disabled colleagues and friends.

Today Bert Massie shrugs off the incident with a smile.  That sense of humour has been a great asset in his lifetime of fighting for disabled people’s rights.  Indeed, a long term colleague tells of seeing his wit and charm in action on many an occasion as government ministers or senior officials have accepted Bert’s point of view without even realising it.  Being ‘bolshy’ has helped too, Bert confesses.

Perhaps being ‘bolshy’ explains Bert Massie’s remarkable story. Born in Liverpool in 1949 – and a passionate Scouser ever since - he contracted polio the same year and spent the first five years of his life in Alder Hey hospital. At 5 he was moved to the Children’s School of Rest and Recovery; at 11 to Sandfield Park Special School. There was no expectation in those days that sick and disabled children should be educated in the way that we now understand the term, so Bert’s formal educational experience was poor.  But his problem-solving skills developed apace as he and his mates perfected their Colditz style escapes from school.  They would freewheel down the drive into town to get sweets and and a taste of the outside world.  When they were cold or tired they would allow themselves to be picked up by the local police who were sympathetic to their situation.  They would buy them snacks, take them back to the police station for tea, or whiz them round Liverpool in a police car…Eventually, of course, they had to return to school – but not before Bert and company - and their police mates - had played Z cars around the city!

With no expectations in those days that disabled youngsters would study for O or A levels, Bert left school without any formal qualifications.  His first job was an eye opener.  Meeting people who had O levels he thought to himself ‘They don’t seem that bright!’ and resolved to get himself some further education.  It was easier said than done. None of the evening class provision in Liverpool at the time was accessible to someone in a wheelchair.

By now Bert had started work at the Liverpool Association for the Disabled. One day, some nuns came in to the office and the Director of his organisation said to them ‘You’re a teaching order – you can teach Bert’. So Bert Massie got private tuition for O levels at the local convent! It was an unusual education.  As part of his medieval history course, for example, the nuns would bring in original documents for him to look at – hardly a typical O level student experience!

The convent was located on the same site as a teacher training college. Drinking with the student teachers in the bar, Bert observed once again: ‘They may have A levels but they don’t seem that clever’ – and resolved to go for some A levels himself. Again there was nowhere accessible in Liverpool for him to study.  So he gave up his job and went off to a specialist college for disabled people in Coventry. His experience there gave him the confidence to apply for a degree course, which he did in Liverpool, followed by a social work training course in Manchester. From there he went straight to the newly formed Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation in London, where he became Chief Executive in 1990.

After that Bert’s CV reads like an encyclopaedia of issues and developments affecting disabled people. He has been heavily involved in promoting accessible public transport and contributed towards the creation of the accessible London taxi. He has been an adviser or committee member on services for disabled children, special education, the Arts, employment, access, rail and, ironically given what was to happen in 2000, even the joint airports committee of local authorities!   He has contributed to most of our legislation on disability issues.  And he has become involved in numerous charities.  As a youngster, Bert enjoyed annual visits to a summer holiday camp in the Wirral for disabled boys.  The Heswall Disabled Children’s Holiday Fund still runs those camps.  They are led by a member of Bristol University staff and many of the helpers are Bristol students and graduates.  Bert is now Patron of the charity.

Bert was awarded an OBE for services to disabled people in 1984 and a CBE in 2000.

For the last five years, Bert has been Chair of the Disability Rights Commission. Asked to identify the biggest change or achievement witnessed over his long career, Bert unhesitatingly singles out the fact ‘that disability issues are now taken seriously’; there has been a dramatic change in the way disabled people are generally treated in a fairly short period of time. But he highlights major battles still to be won.  Within health care, for example, there are court cases underway where disabled people are having to fight for the right to be given artificial hydration and nutrition – food and water - in order to stay alive.

Soon the Disability Rights Commission will be dissolved, replaced by the new omnibus Commission for Equality and Human Rights, which will cover all the different strands of discrimination and equality issues experienced by women, older people, people from Black and minority ethnic groups and so on. But, as a result, in no small part, of Bert’s persistent efforts, there will at least be a Disability Committee for the first five years, which should help ensure that the particular issues confronting disabled people are not lost from view. And there is one final achievement.  Under the new Disability Discrimination Act 2005, there is at last provision for aviation to be covered at some point in the future. So the days of Bert Massie – or other would-be disabled flyers like him – being refused access to an aeroplane may eventually become numbered…

Madame Pro-Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Herbert William Massie, CBE, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.


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