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Lord Ashley, champion of disabled, dies

Flood of tributes for Britain's first deaf MP, who also campaigned over domestic violence and the Thalidomide scandal

Lord Ashley of Stoke, the veteran Labour peer and disability rights campaigner, has died after a short illness, his family announced yesterday. He was 89. As Jack Ashley, he became Britain's first deaf MP, following an unsuccessful ear operation in 1968. He died on Friday night.

His death was announced by his son-in-law, the television presenter Andrew Marr, who said: "The campaigner for the rights of the disabled, who had been the first ever deaf MP, won major victories for the victims of the drug Thalidomide, for victims of army bullying, and for victims of domestic violence."

He is survived by his three daughters, Jackie, Jane and Caroline. Jackie Ashley, a Guardian columnist, wrote on Twitter: "My wonderful, brave and adored father, Jack Ashley, Lord Ashley of Stoke, has died after a short battle with pneumonia."

Tributes to Lord Ashley were led by the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, who praised "an outstanding servant of the Labour Party and an extraordinary campaigner for equal rights for people with disabilities". David Cameron described him as "a tireless campaigner for disabled people [who] had a huge impact, not just through his charity work and pushing for legislation in Parliament, but also in changing attitudes." The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said Lord Ashley's life was "an inspiration to all. His tenacity and courage made this country a better and fairer place for people with disabilities".

Jackie Ballard, chief executive of Action on Hearing Loss (formerly the RNID), said: "Jack was a great role model to anyone with hearing loss. He had a brilliant career before and after losing his hearing. But he wasn't just a supporter of the deaf; he was a champion for people of all disabilities."

Susan Daniels, chief executive of the National Deaf Children's Society, of which Lord Ashley was vice-president, said: "His achievements are many, and there can be no doubt that he leaves a truly great legacy. Deaf and disabled people can be inspired by the strides that Lord Ashley made with and for them in his remarkable political career."

The former prime minister Gordon Brown described him as the "greatest champion Britain's disabled have had".

Born in Widnes in 1922, he worked as a coal heaver before winning a scholarship to Oxford. After further study, he became a researcher and radio producer, before joining BBC television in 1956. He was elected MP for Stoke-on-Trent South in 1966. He recalled the "total and unbelievable silence" of the House of Commons chamber when he returned to Parliament after losing his hearing two years later. He said: "Each member on his feet appeared to be miming... At that moment I felt in my heart that I had begun a lifetime of tomb-like silence. I took a final look around the chamber before leaving for home and my family, and to prepare for my resignation."

Colleagues and constituents persuaded him to take a course in lip-reading and he subsequently returned to the Commons. MPs turned towards him during Commons debates so he could get a clear view of their mouths.

Lord Ashley championed other groups, including the physically and mentally disabled, victims of rape and domestic violence, as well as victims of the drug Thalidomide.

He insisted his condition did not affect his combative nature. He said: "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."

In 1993, soon after moving to the House of Lords, a cochlear implant partially restored his hearing. He immediately began campaigning for the NHS to make the operation more widely available.

David Blunkett, the first blind Labour cabinet minister, said last night: "Jack Ashley was a pioneer who set aside his disability and, by doing so, forged a path which others, including me, have been able to follow. By sheer tenacity and, latterly, technology, he was able to demonstrate not only that he could work on equal terms but achieve a great deal more than most of us in politics are able to boast about."