Saturday, 21 April 2012

Labour peer Lord Ashley of Stoke dies

The Labour peer and campaigner for disabled rights Lord Ashley of Stoke has died, aged 89. Jack Ashley, the first deaf MP, died on Friday night after a short illness. His daughter and Guardian columnist, Jackie Ashley, paid tribute to him on Twitter. "My wonderful, brave and adored father, Jack Ashley, Lord Ashley of Stoke, has died after a short battle with pneumonia."

Her father's death was announced earlier by her husband, the BBC presenter Andrew Marr. He said: "Lord Ashley of Stoke, the former Labour MP Jack Ashley, died last night, April 20, after a short illness, at the age of 89. The campaigner for the rights of the disabled, who had been the first ever deaf MP, won major victories for the victims of the drug Thalidomide, for victims of army bullying, and for victims of domestic violence. He is survived by his three daughters, Jackie Ashley, Jane Ashley, and Caroline Ashley."

Ashley won the seat of Stoke-on-Trent South in 1966, but lost his hearing less than two years later after an unsuccessful ear operation. He recalled in his autobiography that the last voice he heard was that of the late rugby commentator Eddie Waring. After initially fearing he would be forced to give up politics, Ashley learned to lip-read. Other MPs, including political foes such as the former prime minister Edward Heath, turned towards him during Commons debates so he could get a clear view of their mouths.

Ashley worked hard to modulate his speaking voice, which he could no longer hear. However, his deafness never affected his combative attitude. "Early on when I first lost my hearing, I think people were a little fearful about attacking me. But as I re-established my confidence, that soon fell away," he said.

As his fame as an advocate for disabled rights grew, Ashley became president of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. He played a major role in the campaign for better compensation for children disabled by the drug Thalidomide, which was given to mothers to treat morning sickness during the 1950s and 60s. In 1993, a year after he was made a life peer, Ashley's hearing was partially restored by a cochlea implant, an electronic device which stimulates the nerves in the inner ear.

Ashley worked in a factory after leaving school at 14, becoming a shop steward and a local councillor. He studied at Oxford and Cambridge universities on scholarships, and worked as a producer for the BBC before entering parliament.

The Guardian

Ed Miliband has paid tribute to Jack Ashley:

"Jack Ashley turned his own tragic experience of losing his hearing into a mission of courage and determination for deaf and disabled people. He was a pioneer as the first deaf MP to sit in Parliament, but he did much more than that. There are many millions of men and women with disabilities who will have better lives thanks to Jack Ashley. He succeeded in changing the law and in changing attitudes."

He added: "Jack Ashley will be missed by his family, his friends and his colleagues in the House of Lords. He led an amazing life and will be remembered with deep affection, profound respect and great admiration."