On Tuesday 10th March, the inaugural Sir Alf Morris lecture was given by the renowned journalist and historian Sir Harold Evans who certainly didn’t hold back when talking about the rights of disabled people. Sir Harold’s lecture was followed by a speech by Lord Owen during which he encouraged all politicians to make the NHS a priority issue in the forthcoming election.
In his opening remarks, Sir Harold Evans commented that ‘wherever you look in the history of disablement, there’s Alf; Alf the agitator, Alf the conciliator.’ Looking ahead Sir Harold observed that ‘It’s an area of public concern that will go on forever.’ His talk spanned the eras of thinking over the last forty-five years from paternalism through legal and judicial to civil rights and then entitlement. Sir Harold drew comparisons with attitudes to education early in the twentieth century when educating working class children was considered by some to be a waste. He declared: ‘It’s a waste of talent when we don’t enable people who are disabled to give what they can give.’
One of the key themes of Sir Harold’s talk was the call to industry, planners and designers commenting that ‘It’s not the wheelchair that’s the disability – it’s the stairs! The environment should respond.’ He provided a number of examples of inconsistent design such as adapted cars but inaccessible parking meters and went on to ask ‘Why should the world be designed for people who have two legs, two arms and the usual bits and pieces? Why?’ His talk advocated a different way of thinking for technologists, product designers and planners in which they consider carefully every person who wishes to interact within the environment and community.
Sir Harold also tabled the importance of the atmosphere in which debates are conducted and raised concerns about current bias in the media. He stressed the value of language and transparency in statistics especially in periods of significant change such as now. He urged attention to the demise of the Independent Living Fund and its locally-devolved successor; he alerted the audience to the backlog in processing the new PIP allowance and asked the question about whether funding for older and disabled people is yet at the level needed.
In his speech, Lord Owen repeated advice given to him by Barbara Castle that ‘in politics, guts is all’ as he encouraged politicians on all sides to make the NHS the fundamental issue in this Election campaign and beyond. ‘I must take up this issue of ‘we cannot afford it’. I really feel that this is fundamentally wrong,’ he asserted, making the case that overall NHS funding is not currently sufficient to tackle the needs of overall healthcare and disabled people. Reflecting on the work of Lord Morris, he recalled ‘Alf was a fighter with tenacity that I’ve not seen in anyone else. You felt things zing.’
Lord Owen went on to repeat Sir Harold Evans’ call to technologists and environmental designers to think differently to encompass people of all abilities and ages. He said that more progress needs to be made in these areas and that charities and voluntary groups can have a great impact.
The launch was attended by many leading names from the disability world and plans are already underway for the second Alf Morris Lecture.
Launched by the Disabled Living Foundation, the Alf Morris Fund for Independent Living was set up to honour a man who made a difference to the most vulnerable members of society. This Fund will help people find out about the resources available to keep them independent, and to help them make choices. Its purpose echoes Alf’s vision, in his own words, “adding life to years” rather than just years to life.