“If we could each bequeath one precious gift to posterity, I would choose a society in which there is genuine compassion for long-term sick and disabled people; where understanding is unostentatious and sincere; where needs come before means; where if years cannot be added to their lives, at least life can be added to their years; where the mobility of disabled people is restricted only by the bounds of technical progress and discovery; where they have the fundamental right to participate in industry and society according to ability; where socially preventable distress is unknown; and where no one has cause to be ill at ease because of her or his disability.”
Alf Morris, 5th December 1969
The recent death of Alf Morris, Lord Morris of Manchester, follows the passing of Jack Ashley, Lord Ashley of Stoke in April. Both campaigned throughout their lives to improve the rights of those withmental and physical health needs and significantly changed people’s attitudes to those with ‘disability’. Everyone has benefitted for 40 years from the legacy of what they achieved. The loss of both these men highlights a sizable moral gap in current political life.
Someone is needed urgently to fill the position of ‘Champion’, but where will such a candidate come from?
The excerpt above was taken from Alf Morris’s speech before the parliamentary debate on his private members bill, which became The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. Like the formation of the NHS almost a generation before, he was creating something noble that enriched the whole of society and is still supported by the majority of the population today.
Jack Ashley shared Alf’s ability to galvanise support across the UK Parliament for many bills aimed at removing discrimination against people like himself. Very few people in politics can claim results that match so well their best intentions. Providing a real legacy.
We need such heroes today. Maybe it is difficult to follow their groundbreaking work. However decades without further progress towards equality for those experiencing mental ill-health has lowered the credibility of politics in this country. Financial considerations have too easily taken precedence over what is morally right. It is sad that few have the convictions to follow their hearts in the way those two men did in life.
That’s not to say I have given up hope of a new hero for people with mental health issues emerging in Scottish politics. The Cross Party Group on Mental Health has Mary Scanlon for The Conservatives and Dr Richard Simpson for Scottish Labour. The Scottish Government has Michael Matheson, Minister for Public Health. Additionally, they have Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister & Secretary for Health. Any of these public servants could be worthy of the title depending on them producing lasting results. So far none have delivered a legacy similar to Alf Morris and Jack Ashleys’s generation.
It takes a brave person to recognize that ‘Legacy’ involves some expense to achieve. The resulting benefits are incalculable yet would be shared by everyone.
We can afford whatever it takes to enact new anti-stigma legislation that benefits everyone. It just requires a little heroism from today’s public representatives to act and be seen to do so.
We have plenty of unsung heroes working today.
All too often it is mental health campaigners, service providers, voluntary organisations, public service broadcasters and individuals who are leading the way – always being ahead of mainstream politics when putting public service before self-interest. Without a figure from politics to champion their efforts it has increasingly fallen to celebrities and private financial patrons to highlight the work being done.
Respect has to be given to Ruby Wax and Chris Hoy for supporting SAMH. Stephen Fry promoting better understanding of manic depression has helped change some public conceptions of mental health. Founder of The Paralympics, Sir Ludwig Guttmann has recently gained wider recognition thanks to the BBC Drama ‘The Best of Men’.
The Paralympics itself will no doubt supply us with some sporting heroes, like Oscar Pistorius and Ellie Simmonds and our support for them should ideally be sustained beyond the life of those events. Improved rights for people with physical health issues have helped create the environment for changing attitudes to mental health. But we can discuss that more at a later date.
The strength of any movement promoting mental health issues needs to be focused through some leadership.
Who will stand up as a champion for mental health and bring about real improvements in the lives of so many if not those given the political mandate? Personally I think we need some heroes from ‘the political class’. Maybe that is for the public to decide. What form of legislation is needed to create a legacy that reduces stigma and discrimination against people with mental health experience? Also who should we be rallying behind to help change public opinion in our favour? Your suggestions would be welcomed.
Kevin Gallagher puts forward his opinion hoping to start a debate.