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Thursday, November 4, 1999 Published at 16:47 GMT

UK Politics

Lord Ashley: Battler for the disabled

Lord Ashley was the UK's first totally deaf MP

Lord Ashley is perhaps the worst adversary any government would want to face when trying to drive through unpopular changes to disability benefits.

The former Labour MP commands enormous cross-party and public respect for his vigorous campaigning for disabled rights and his inspirational personal struggle to overcome the effects of deafness.

Probably the most famous deaf person in the UK, he lost his hearing in 1968 but continued to serve as an MP until 1992 when he was made a life baron.

Such is his reputation that his condemnation of the most controversial measures in the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill carries great moral authority.

Ministers may privately cringe when the 75-year-old peer declares the legislation would not only cause great hardship but also break the moral contract between government and people.

Just as embarrassing for them, his campaign against the Bill in the Lords forced the legislation back to the Commons on Wednesday - prompting a second major backbench revolt against the proposals.

Now with the Bill set to return to a hostile House of Lords, Lord Ashley insists that it is ministers who will "blink first".

'Rebellious nature'

Such defiance is characteristic of a man who admits he has always had "a bit of a rebellious nature".

One of three children born to a poor couple in Widnes, Jack Ashley was only five when his father, a factory night-watchman, died.

"I was always very anxious to campaign on behalf of disadvantaged people. I feel an affinity with them," he once said.

Leaving school at 14 to work as a factory labourer, he became a shop steward six years later and was a local councillor at 23.

He studied at Oxford on a scholarship. Another scholarship then took him to Cambridge, where he caused waves by being the first president of the union who refused to wear evening dress during debates.

In 1951 he unsuccessfully stood for Parliament as the Labour candidate for Finitely.

After that he worked as a producer for the BBC, making documentaries and political programmes before entering the House as MP for Stoke-on-Trent in 1966.

Overcoming deafness

A ministerial career was predicted until at age 45 he became deaf.

His best-selling autobiography records how his hearing slipped away to nothing after something went wrong following a routine ear operation.

[ image: Edward Heath: Made his lips easy to read]
Edward Heath: Made his lips easy to read
Lord Ashley famously recalled that the last voice he heard was that of the late rugby commentator Eddie Waring.

After initially fearing he would have to give up politics, he decided to battle on and learned to lip read aided by his wife, Pauline.

Other MPs, including political foes such as former Tory prime minister Edward Heath, helped him to take part in Commons debates by turning towards him so he could get a clear view of their mouths.

Others helped him to modulate his speaking voice which he could no longer hear.

Tory MP Neil Marten, sitting on the opposite bench, would put his hands on his head to indicate that his Labour opponent was speaking too high and on his knees to show that he was too low.

But that was where the cross-party co-operation ended. Lord Ashley established himself as an MP who was combative and outspoken in his fight against a wide range of social injustices.

His terrier-like attacks on Tory ministers earned him the nickname "that bloody Jack Ashley" long before Lady Thatcher became known as TBW.

[ image: Doctor Who's daleks: Their metallic voices are how Lord Ashley hears human speech]
Doctor Who's daleks: Their metallic voices are how Lord Ashley hears human speech
"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 recalled.

Despite his pride in his working class roots - he founded the Cloth Caps Club for proletarian MPs - he was always on the right of the Labour Party.

As he became increasingly famous as passionate advocate for disabled rights, he became president of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf.

His celebrity grew even further in 1993 when his hearing was partially restored by a cochlea implant, an electronic device which stimulates the nerves in the inner ear.

Lord Ashley spoke of his delight of at last being able to hear his grandson even though all human voices sounded like "a croaking dalek with laryngitis".

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