Sir Peter Large

Champion of the rights of disabled people
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Peter Large will be remembered as one of the supreme champions of the rights of disabled people. Severely disabled in body, but never in mind, he played a major part in the reshaping of attitudes towards disabled people that began in the 1960s.

Peter Large, businessman and disability campaigner: born 16 October 1931; Chairman, Joint Committee on Mobility for Disabled People (formerly Mobility for the Disabled) 1971-97, President 1997-2005; Chairman, Association of Disabled Professionals 1971-93, Parliamentary Adviser 1993-2005; Parliamentary Adviser, Disablement Income Group 1973-93, Vice-Chairman 1985-93; MBE 1974, CBE 1987; Chairman, Silver Jubilee Committee on Improving Access for Disabled People 1977-79; Chairman, Committee on Restrictions against Disabled People 1979-82; Kt 1993; Vice-Chairman, Radar 1995-99; married 1962 Susy Fisher (died 1982; one stepson, two stepdaughters), 1992 Sheenah McCaffrey; died Warlingham, Surrey 23 January 2005.

Peter Large will be remembered as one of the supreme champions of the rights of disabled people. Severely disabled in body, but never in mind, he played a major part in the reshaping of attitudes towards disabled people that began in the 1960s.

Born in 1931, he was a pupil of Enfield Grammar School between 1943 and 1950, and enlisted in the Royal Navy under the National Service scheme, first as a stoker on HMS Victory before being commissioned and leaving the service as a sub-lieutenant. He gained a BSc in Civil Engineering from University College London that initially set him on course for a career in the oil industry working for Shell, where he was regarded as one of the brightest and most promising of young managers. But in 1962, while working in Indonesia, he was suddenly stricken with poliomyelitis to an extent that made him reliant on a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

A man of towering intellect, incisive judgement and passionate commitment to social justice, he realised in his new situation that disabled people were generally regarded and treated as second-class citizens and that provision for them was one of the most neglected areas of social and political policy. While not alone in the movement for change that grew in the 1960s, what marked him out - along with Megan du Boisson - was a capacity for influence and gentle persuasion among those with the political power to help.

He was initially greatly helped by Denny Denly, a wheelchair user who worked as Access Officer for the Central Council for the Disabled - the forerunner of Radar (the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation) - and founder chairman of the Joint Committee on Mobility for the Disabled. Denly "discovered" Large and invited him in 1968 to join the committee as an individual.

But it was Mary Greaves, then Director of the Disablement Income Group, who introduced Large to the corridors of power, where he was to find a small, but committed, number of political allies. One of these was the MP Alf Morris (now Lord Morris of Manchester), who in 1969 introduced the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill. This measure, Mary Greaves wrote later, was the single factor that influenced many others in creating the worldwide awareness that disabled people are people, with the same needs, aspirations and problems as those without disabilities.

But in 1969 Morris was having enormous difficulties in the huge task of piloting the complex Bill through Parliament. Peter Large was one of those invited to join an ad hoc committee to help steer the Bill through its committee stage. And with Denly he helped to secure the introduction of the Orange Badge parking scheme as Section 21 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act.

It was to Large that Alf Morris, as Minister for Disabled People, turned in 1977 to chair the Silver Jubilee Committee on Improving Access for Disabled People. When that committee's groundbreaking report was published in January 1979 under the title Can Disabled People Go Where You Go?, one of its recommendations was that a successor committee be set up to tackle the wider issues of discrimination against disabled people.

Morris immediately agreed and set up Corad, the Committee on Restrictions Against Disabled People, again chaired by Large. It was the minister's intention that Corad would report to a Labour government and would act as a springboard for legislation to combat unjustifiable discrimination and secure legally enforceable rights for disabled people. This was not to be. When Corad reported in February 1982, Margaret Thatcher was in power and its recommendations for anti-discrimination legislation were ignored.

Nevertheless, it was Peter Large's closely argued case that prompted a succession of Private Members' Bills which eventually led John Major reluctantly to concede the introduction of a Disability Discrimination Bill in 1975.

As Chairman of the Association of Disabled Professionals and parliamentary adviser to the Disablement Income Group from 1973, Large's influence behind the scenes was profound. With Jack Ashley, Lynda Chalker, John Pardoe and Lewis Carter-Jones as vice-chairs, Dig carried its message across all the parties.

Personally, Large knew more about disability than any MP. His experience of disability at its severest, coupled with his business acumen, allowed him to support the All Party Disablement Group in drafting speeches and prompting amendments and questions on disability issues in both Houses.

His parliamentary reports in Progress, the journal of Dig, over many years, remain as reminders of his acerbic wit and sharp criticism, sharper, it must be said, with the advent of the Conservative government in 1979. This did not, however, lessen the respect that he enjoyed at Westminster, nor inhibit his appointment in later years to the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board, one of seven members who had a disability.

I interviewed Peter Large a little over a year ago. By then he was already very frail, in failing health and dependent on assisted breathing apparatus. He spoke with great difficulty, but nevertheless remained fully focused as he recounted some of the highlights of his life. And he was able at that time to respond to a consultation on the Disability Discrimination Bill now before Parliament. Indeed, the day before he died he was still working on briefings for members of the House of Lords on the provisions of that Bill.

Peter received the Harding Award in 1992 and, poignantly, the Lifetime Achievement Award in Radar's Human Rights Awards last month.

Derek Kinrade