A Tribute to Lord Jack Ashley

Lord Jack Ashley has died. Lord Ashley was the famous British MP who was deaf.  He lost his hearing in 1968 after complications occurred from a routine surgery to repair a perforated eardrum. One day he was fully hearing and the next day he was deaf. At the time he was apparently one of the stars of the Labor Party in Britain. Many saw him as dead cert to earn himself a ministry. In fact he was apparently being spoken of as a future Prime Minister.

One can only imagine what it must have been like to one day wakeup as a fully deaf person in 1968. In a time when there little or no assistive technology and at a time when live remote captioning was unheard of it must have been traumatic to the extreme for Lord Ashley to lose his hearing given his position as an MP. So distraught was he that he offered his resignation believing that there was no possible way that he could continue.

Fortunately for him, Britain and indeed the world Lord Ashley’s was convinced to continue. His colleagues, including the Prime Minister, implored him to remain. His wife Pauline was instrumental in convincing him to continue. She apparently told him, “Look Jack, there are hundreds of thousands of deaf people and seriously disabled constituents in this country, not least in the Potteries and your own city of Stoke-on-Trent, where many men and women suffer from one form or another of industrial disease. You can use your affliction to make them feel represented.”  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/jack-ashley-deaf-mp-who-campaigned-tirelessly-for-the-rights-of-disabled-people-7668932.html

He was to remain in parliament in for almost four decades. He was a champion of human rights for the disabled. His campaigning and reforms changed the life for people with disabilities in Britain. His list of achievements are considerable. Most noticeably he was the first person to introduce a bill to parliament for the introduction of anti-disability discrimination. His initial attempts to have anti-discrimination laws implemented while not successful,  ultimately led to the introduction of disability discrimination legislation for Britain in 1995. Other notable achievements included heading the campaign that eventually  won compensation for victims of the drug Thalidomide. He was also active in campaigning for stricter safety measures for the introduction of new drugs. http://www.disabilityrightsuk.org/lordashleyobituary.htm

We live in a day and age where we demand access. In 1968 the sort of access we take for granted today was but a pipe dream.  For Lord Ashley to continue in parliament he had to adapt quickly. He took a crash course in lip-reading and his devoted wife attended parliament with him writing notes and assisting him to understand the debates that were happening.  Colleagues would scribble notes for him to ensure he understood as much as possible about what was going on.

So respected was Lord Ashley that even the opposition MPs assisted him. Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, would apparently ensure that when he spoke in parliament he always faced Lord Ashley so as to assist him with his lip-reading. Heath was not known for his kindness. He was apparently rude to the point that he would not talk to dinner guests and even charged people to attend his 5oth anniversary in parliament.  Like many people who are deaf Lord Ashley had trouble modulating his voice when giving speeches in parliament.  An opposition Conservative MP would assist Lord Ashley to modulate his voice by placing his hand on own his head if Lord Ashley’s voice was too high and on his knee if his voice was too low.

Lord Ashley was one of the first to introduce live remote captioning into the workplace. He did so to enable him to better follow parliamentary debates. Using a stenographer and basic computer technology with a dictionary data base he had captions transmitted to a cathode ray monitor that was in front of him. This was later adapted to provide live television captioning for the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Look at how live captioning has grown today, even theatre is live captioned. Deaf people the world over have a lot to thank Lord Ashley for. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Ashley,_Baron_Ashley_of_Stoke

Lord Ashley had a cochlear implant in 1993. He was always thankful for the benefits of the implant while at the same time remaining realistic. He has been variously quoted as saying the implant made people sound like “Donald duck speaking under water.” or a “Dalek with laryngitis”.  He was also very empathetic of the Deaf Community.  Of his deafness lord Ashley had this to say, “When I lost my hearing and became totally deaf, someone said: ‘Jack Ashley’s not really deaf, he just can’t hear’. It seemed to be a ridiculous comment but I later discovered that born-deaf people, who may be without speech, and who rely entirely on sign language, are a distinctive community. They are proud of their history, heritage, and that comment indicated, rightly, that I was not one of them. That is clear in retrospect but it shows how easily misunderstandings can arise.”  Lord Ashley was no one trick pony he understood the issues of deafness and disability like very few people do or can. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/jack-ashley-deaf-mp-who-campaigned-tirelessly-for-the-rights-of-disabled-people-7668932.html

For me Lord Ashley was my first role model. I first heard of him at a time when I was trying to plan my own career path.  The word that most often came from teachers lips was CANT. “You can’t be a teacher because you cannot hear the students” – “You can’t be journalist because you cannot possibly interview people.” – “You can’t work in a bank because you cannot serve customers.”  There was a never ending list of CANTs.

Reading of the achievements of Lord Ashley inspired me to aim high.  Lord Ashley showed me and many others the way. He showed us what was right and fair. Above all he showed us that anything was possible with a dose of good old fashioned guts and humanity. His is a story worth telling. RIP Lord Ashley.