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Tribute to Baroness Masham

Baroness Masham of Ilton: 14 April 1935 – 12 March 2023 | Image courtesy of UK Parliament

3 min read

A force of nature, Baroness Masham’s kind and gentle manner belied her steely strength in the fight for disability rights

Susan Lilian Primrose Cunliffe-Lister, Dowager Countess of Swinton, Baroness Masham of Ilton sadly passed away earlier this month at the age of 87. She was the longest serving female member of the House of Lords and the first Paralympian to hold that position.

Due to the seating arrangements in the Lords Chamber for wheelchair users, she was the person I sat next to more than anyone else and – from a pure companionship point of view – I will miss the almost daily catch ups about our various roles. She has been described by so many different people as a force of nature. She was fascinating, funny and the first disabled woman that I remember seeing on TV, in an episode of This is Your Life. I never imaged that one day I would meet her let alone call her a colleague and friend. 

Born is 1935 she had a traumatic spinal cord injury in 1958 (after being thrown from her horse competing in a point-to-point race). At that time she would have been given a relatively short life expectancy (possibly around 10 years). The attitudes to disabled people at the time meant that many would not have expected her to do anything but fade away. Certainly not get married, carry on with her life and then go on to make a significant contribution to public life. That she lived so long and, importantly, so well, is a testament to her strength of character. 

Her rehabilitation was at Stoke Mandeville Hospital under Sir Ludwig Guttmann (who developed and defined the early Paralympic movement) whose passion no doubt contributed to her confidence to achieve. In the three Games she competed in she won medals for swimming and table tennis. As a young athlete trying to learn about the history of the movement there was limited information. Being able to talk to her about each of the Games gave me an insight that few others could. Her interest in the development of the Games carried on throughout her life.

She was fascinating, funny and the first disabled woman that I remember seeing on TV

Her range of interests were wide and she challenged attitudes throughout her life. When she recognised the widespread lack of support for people with spinal cord injuries she helped set up the Spinal Injuries Association. She supported the Snowdon Trust, set up by the First Earl Snowdon to support disabled people in education, and she did so much more. She navigated the political and disability rights world in a kind and gentle manner but with an steely strength.

I never knew her as a manual wheelchair user, but she would be seen in her electric chair, a sheaf of papers in hand, rushing between meetings and debates, raising issues and being involved, connected to the world outside through her many endeavours. She hand-wrote her speeches and my favourite phrase of hers was: “What are we going to do?” That was the lovely way she had of challenging us all to do better. It really meant: “What are you going to do?” She constantly wanted to do more for disabled people, and would not settle for the status quo. There are many lessons that I learnt from her but, most importantly, it was her positive belief things could and should be better – and the only way that can happen is by working hard every single day.

Baroness Grey-Thompson is a Crossbench peer

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