From polio to politics

24th March 2000 at 00:00
He's a Liverpool lad with a knack of getting things done, and experience of disabled life. Karen Thornton meets equal-rights watchdog Bert Massie.

HE'S tackled England football managers, ferry firms and airlines, the state benefits system and the financial services industry. Education is next.

Bert Massie, 51, is the first chairman of the Disability Rights Commission, the new anti-discrimination watchdog that will have similar powers to the commissions for racial equality and equal opportunities.

It should be an auspicious year for disability rights. Apart from the establishment of the commission, the Government is also introducing a Bill to extend anti-discrimination law to disabled pupils and students in schools, colleges and council-

provided adult education.

But although Mr Massie is well-known within his own field, as the former director of the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation (RADAR), he has a very low profile in education. "Who?" was the response from three national education figures, when asked about him.

They must come up to speed. The Government's Bill will place a legal duty on schools and education authorities not to discriminate against disabled students, and ensure policies and buildings are inclusive and accessible.

Mr Massie says he is looking forward to working with schools, teachers and governors, and wants to "persuade and educate". But his commission will use its anti-discrimination powers to back youngsters if schools resist.

His school experiences were sometimes brutal. A working-class lad from Liverpool, he was one of eight boys and girls raised by Bert, a steel-erector and riveter, and Lucy, a school cleaner. Stricken by polio as a baby, he spent his first five years in and out of hospital, before being sent to the city's Children's School of Rest and Recovery.

"I never recovered and don't have a lot of recollection about rest," he jokes, skating over a school ethos which was strong on corporal punishment, and kept pupils' contact with families down to two hours a fortnight.

"This was seen as a good thing. If you saw your parents too often you got all emotional." He and his classmates found ways to express themselves.

A box of crutches and calipers was balanced on a door for a "particularly disagreeable" teacher. "I couldn't reach," hesays, innocently. However, some of his gear was in the box ...

Things improved at Sandfield Park special school, but although the regime was less physically demanding, it lacked academic rigour. He left, unqualified, at 16.

"Qualifications weren't expected. I was disabled. There were certain expectations of disabled people. I also came from a working-class home when there were also expectations about what working-class kids could achieve. While I had no qualifications when I left school, neither did my brothers and sisters.

"It was just the way it was. That was the system and the age I was born in."

He went to Portland training college for the disabled in Mansfield, where he picked up a handful of RSAs in office and commercial courses, then went towork - in haulage, retail, and credit control. He started to become involved in disability politics, and in 1970 was asked to join the Liverpool association for the disabled.

Unable physically to get his wheelchair into Liverpool's educational institutions, Mr Massie eventually picked up his O-levels thanks to individual tuition from some nuns. He had to travel to Hereward College, Coventry, to complete his A-levels.

His first experience of mainstream education was at Liverpool Polytechnic, where in 1977 he collected a degree in social studies. A post-graduate social work qualification at Manchester Polytechnic followed, and in 1978 he joined RADAR.

Over more than 20 years with RADAR, he has been at the forefront of disability politics - from battles over benefits to the sacking of Glen Hoddle, after the England football manager claimed that disabled people were suffering for sins in a past life.

In 1997, he joined the Disability Rights Task Force, the government-appointed body which made most of the recommendations to be included in this spring's anti-discrimination Bill.

Last October, his appointment as chairman of the DRC was announced. The commission starts work next month.

Those who have worked with him in the past have no doubts about his ability to carry forward the inclusion agenda.

But cost remains a concern of headteachers and governors. John Adams, the chairman of the National Association of Governors and Managers, said: "It sounds grubby when your first thought is resources, but they have to be found somewhere."

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