From my doctor father taking me to meet one of his heroes, Frederick Parkes Weber – a dermatologist who just happened to have late stage Parkinson’s disease but who still exhibited the brilliance and clear sightedness which had so impressed my Dad — to seeing my beloved uncle being progressively affected by motor neurone disease, I was brought up to see the person rather than the disease or condition.
But perhaps more than anything, it was during regular holidays in Hampshire that I saw at first hand not only the effects of disability but also the difference that the right care and support can make. Not just to the well-being of the person affected, but to those doing the caring and their attitude to those they work with.
My oboist mother had a good friend at music college who, after the death of her husband, moved back to live with her father in a lovely old country house near Liss.
My parents, brother and sister and I would go and stay there for a couple of weeks in the summer during much of my childhood.
This friend volunteered for two or three days a week at Le Court, the original Cheshire Home, long since closed down. At that time it catered for people with severe disabilities and/or terminal illnesses.
I would go along with her and chat to the residents and help in whatever small way I could.
By today’s standards the set-up there was patriarchal and condescending. Looking at it from what I know now, I see the approach as old-fashioned and patronising. But at the time it was one of the best ‘homes’ around, and it certainly led me to admire hugely the work of its founder.
I met Leonard Cheshire more than once during those years. He treated me rather like a favourite uncle would have, and I was always immensely impressed by his gentleness and kindness.
I enjoyed enormously the interesting and mutually tolerant discussions we would have concerning his staunch religion and my ever more entrenched atheism.
Many years later I was happy to be able to return his kindness in some small way by opening the annual Le Court fete, which I’d attended many times as a girl. I was delighted to be given a framed photograph of the original Le Court signed to me by the great man himself.
We’ve come a long way since those days, in terms of physical improvements in the wider world at least (although we know even those have a long way to go!) but attitudes among the able-bodied towards those with disability are still stuck in the past in many ways.
In spite of my privileged early experiences I count myself among them. Do I marginally talk down to someone in a wheelchair in more ways than simply physically? Do I assume somebody visually impaired will be in some small way less capable of navigating the world around them than I am?
I’d love to think not, but it’s important to recognise the possibility of prejudice within oneself in order to be able to move forward.
I’m a huge admirer of Leonard Cheshire Disability as an organisation, and not only because of the care and understanding that they provide.
I know that the charity is also as keen to change attitudes as I am. To move towards a world where ‘disability’ is as accepted as short-sightedness, and where the needs and rights of those affected are catered for as a matter of course.
I was always immensely impressed by his gentleness and kindness.