Only rarely are we fortunate enough to encounter a campaigner with the dedication and drive to effect the kind of change that Jack Ashley, Baron Ashley of Stoke, achieved in five decades of tireless effort. When considered as a whole, it’s difficult to underestimate the importance of the accomplishments of the Labour peer, who passed away in April 2012 after a short illness.
After early work in the chemical industry and a spell as a driver in the Royal Army Service Corps during WWII, Lord Ashley studied Economics and Political Science at Ruskin College and Cambridge. He became Member of Parliament for Stoke on Trent South in 1966, the culmination of two decades of local government experience and political ambition.
In December 1967, he underwent a routine operation to treat mild hearing loss caused by a perforated eardrum sustained early in his career. Complications and an infection following the surgery resulted in Lord Ashley becoming profoundly deaf, a turn of events that he described as “rather like being struck by lightning".
When he attended Parliament for the first time after losing his hearing, he noted, “Each member on his feet appeared to be miming... At that moment I felt in my heart that I had begun a lifetime of tomb-like silence. I took a final look around the chamber before leaving for home and my family, and to prepare for my resignation.”
Shaken by his sudden hearing loss, Lord Ashley prepared to give up his seat in Parliament, but was persuaded by friends and fellow MPs of all allegiances to try a course in lip-reading before he did so. When he returned to Parliament several weeks later, he became the UK’s first profoundly deaf MP and the only totally deaf politician in the world.
His reception by the House stands as a testimony to the respect Lord Ashley was accorded. Members on both sides of the House, including political adversaries like Edward Heath, would ensure they faced towards him during debates so he could follow the conversation by lip-reading: "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."
In the decades that followed, Lord Ashley campaigned tirelessly and vociferously on behalf of those affected by the side-effects of Thalidomide and Opren, an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat arthritis; for women affected by domestic violence and rape; for victims of bulling in the armed forces; and for the establishment of the Vaccine Damage Payment Scheme. In addition to these, though, surely his greatest achievements were those intended to change the lives of deaf people.
By 1977, Parliament had provided a specialised reporter to type word-for-word accounts of the speeches made in the House, which would appear on a screen at Lord Ashley’s side. Inspired by this technique, closely related to the shorthand style of courtroom stenography, he began to investigate the possibility of providing this service to viewers of television programmes. The technology became known as Closed Captioning and, since its inception at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, the subtitling of live television has become an important and well-recognised part of Deaf culture.
Only five years after this advance, Lord Ashley and his wife Lady Pauline Ashley established the charity Defeating Deafness, now known as Deafness Research UK. The charity aims to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of deafness, and after Lord Ashley received a cochlear implant in 1993, the charity worked hard to make this option available on the NHS for anyone affected by hearing loss. He compared the sounds to “listening to a croaking Dalek with laryngitis but compared with total deafness, it is a miracle”. He would later add, “After 25 years without sound, my own life has been transformed by a cochlear implant, which has enabled me to hear again. It seems like a miracle, but it's actually the result of many years of work by skilled researchers. We want others to benefit from research as I have done.”
Perhaps the greatest tributes to Lord Ashley’s life and legacy are those made in the national press by his contemporaries and today’s political leaders, both Labour and Conservative. Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock said: “He has never stopped being a brilliant parliamentarian, an unsurpassed constituency MP and a man of the firmest conviction and endless kindness. No one in a generation has been or is a bolder or more tenacious campaigner for justice.”
Current Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband has added, “There are many millions of men and women with disabilities who will have better lives thanks to Jack Ashley. He led an amazing life and will be remembered with deep affection, profound respect and great admiration.”
His political opposites, too, have been enthusiastic about praising his many achievements. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron opined, “He was a tireless campaigner for disabled people and had a huge impact, not just through his charity work and pushing for legislation in Parliament, but also in changing attitudes.” And the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg described Lord Ashley's life as "an inspiration to all. His tenacity and courage made this country a better and fairer place for people with disabilities".
Regardless of political or personal affiliation, it’s impossible to dispute that Lord Ashley did just that.
Written by Christie Louise Tucker