June Maelzer

Fighter for the rights of the disabled
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When June Maelzer was born in Delhi in 1942, paralysed down her right side, her parents, Aileen and Basil, were told she would never amount to anything and not to bother taking her home. Instead they resolved to try to build a life for her that was much the same as that of any other little girl.

June Geraldine Maelzer, disabled-rights campaigner, lecturer and alternative health therapist: born Delhi 29 June 1942; (one son); died Hayle, Cornwall 5 January 2004.

When June Maelzer was born in Delhi in 1942, paralysed down her right side, her parents, Aileen and Basil, were told she would never amount to anything and not to bother taking her home. Instead they resolved to try to build a life for her that was much the same as that of any other little girl.

June Maelzer went on to tackle practical and political challenges in every moment of her daily life, attempting to shift discriminatory practices and to adapt environments which excluded her. She fought to be in places and situations where disabled people had hitherto never meant to be, but where she knew they had a right to be. She taught those who knew her to reflect on their own habits and patterns of thinking and behaving, and to recognise exclusion. Maelzer once said that her life was "meant to show what could be done" and this she did.

She was four when her family returned to England and for a while she attended a day school for disabled children in London. She learned to stick up for herself playing with other neighbourhood children, but her life was to change dramatically when her father died. Aileen had to find work and June was sent to a boarding school for "delicate children". This she recalled as a tough experience that quickly taught her to assert herself. Later she attended Thomas Delarue school in Tonbridge, Kent, run by the (then) Spastics Society.

After school, she went to Oakwood Further Education Centre, from where she applied to many universities to study Psychology. Deemed "a fire risk" because she used a wheelchair, she was routinely rejected. Eventually Manchester University accepted her as an undergraduate.

Having gained her degree, she struggled to find a job. She wanted to do social work but in the early 1970s found the profession could not conceive of a potential client becoming a colleague. She took herself off instead to work as a volunteer in a day centre for drug users. She ran a Hell's Angels club and took up work with homeless boys living in hostels.

When she became pregnant June Maelzer faced the toughest challenges of her life. She was implacably opposed to doctors who suggested termination and who insisted she was selfish and irresponsible to have a baby. She was over the moon when her son, Frank, was safely delivered in 1976 and determined to make their lives as ordinary as possible.

After a routine post-natal check-up Maelzer discovered that a case conference had been convened without her knowledge and a decision taken that, whilst in the first instance she would be allowed to keep her baby, "social services would be on the sidelines waiting to take the baby into care". She found her parenting constantly undermined. When her baby began walking at the early age of 10 months, he was scrutinised for bumps and bruises by zealous health professionals. At a clinic, when she said he mainly ate fruit and vegetables, she was told that if he did not begin to eat meat he would be taken into care. When he gained weight normally, the gaze of professionals turned to assumptions of "maternal deprivation" because Maelzer couldn't cuddle him without physical assistance. She felt she was expected to fail.

In the early years she struggled for cash and faced a traumatic time until she eventually found an au pair agency prepared to support her; later Community Service Volunteers began to send volunteers into the home. After many years of enforced dependence on volunteers, the idea of setting up a trust to enable Maelzer to hire and fire her own staff, train them herself and pay them social-services rates was mooted. Following a hard-won campaign, Manchester City Council funded the trust, setting up in 1983 what is now thought to have been one of the first in Britain, an idea that later developed into the government Direct Payments scheme.

There followed years of paid employment, as a regular visiting lecturer in the Department of Psychology and Speech Pathology at Manchester Metropolitan University, and in research, consultancy and training in the field of disability and equal opportunities. She co-authored a well-received book, Researching Disability Issues (1998), and became a well-known media personality in Manchester - easily recognisable crossing the city in her bright pink taxi.

Maelzer carried out extensive research on the experiences of other disabled parents and felt passionately about the entitlements of parents with HIV and Aids-related illnesses. She was a sensitive and insightful advocate for people with learning difficulties. In 1995, Manchester Metropolitan University awarded her an Honorary MSc in recognition of her courage and commitment to improving the rights and lives of disabled people.

June Maelzer often experienced huge inconvenience and at times serious personal discomfort and indignity because her work was based in buildings with no accessible toilets, or with broken lifts, or rooms where the doors or desks didn't allow space for a wheelchair to pass through. Once, finding herself assigned yet again to travel in the guards' van on a train journey, she was caught up in an altercation about where she could smoke. "Don't you think you're sick enough already?" asked the guard.

Later in her career, she worked as an alternative health therapist and decided to move her business to Cornwall. Shortly afterwards, with her living arrangements still uncertain, she was diagnosed with cancer and the battle to live - and now to die - independently continued from her hospital bed. Once again she determined, and somehow managed, to get home.

June Maelzer never saw a satisfactory outcome to her campaign for recognition of disabled people's basic human rights. At her funeral many of her disabled friends were stranded on the cemetery path.

Michele Moore and Sarah Beazley