Opinion: Drawing seasonal inspiration

Peter Stanford

It's the time of year for traditions - turkey, mince pies, awkward maiden aunts as house guests. In the press, the end of the year tends to lead to two standard reflections, one on things to celebrate in the past 12 months and the other on those inspiring individuals we have lost.

I'd like, if I may, to combine the two in the form of Mike Devenney.

Mike died in November from bronchial pneumonia at the age of 45. When he was two, he had been told by doctors that he would never be able to walk or talk and that he would be utterly beyond the reach of any school.

As a hypochondriac - though hopefully now one in remission - I have great respect for doctors and their skills, but also feel one of their roles is to give us something to kick against. And Mike proved them wrong, triumphantly.

He gained a first in psychology in 1981 and, this year, was awarded a PhD by Clare College, Cambridge. He served for four years on the Disability Rights Commission, was an elected Labour councillor in Islington and ran Ealing Council's disability policy and services. Not all simultaneously but, given his phenomenal energy, it might as well have been. He also ventured into television as an award-winning BBC documentary maker and - to his delight as a lifelong Celtic fan - advised the Government's football task force.

And he achieved all of this when his speech could only be understood by most people through a third-party facilitator. Despite his disability, he had a gift for communicating. It sounds absurd, but it was true. Mike turned all the 'can'ts' predicted for him when he was a child into a list of 'cans', and passed on that confidence to everyone he met. Never underestimate someone, he would say, because they are disabled.

If we are really to change attitudes, open hearts and minds and achieve true integration in our society, then we need inspiring individuals like Mike Devenney; people who, by the very force of their personality and achievements, force us to think afresh. He was, in short, a hero and will be much missed by all who knew him.

- Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards.

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