Keith Armstrong, a one-man machine fighting for people with disabilities
He inspired campaign that made buses, taxis and most public buildings accessible to wheel-chairs
21 September, 2017 — By John Gulliver
Keith Armstrong being arrested in Parliament Square during a protest over access to public transport for disabled people
HE was a one-man machine constantly campaigning for better disability rights.
Confined to a wheel-chair as a victim of polio from childhood, Keith Armstrong, who has died at 67, helped to inspire a movement that has made buses, taxis and most public buildings accessible to wheel-chairs. We take these reforms for granted but it took years of campaigning by stalwarts such as Keith to persuade public authorities to change their attitudes.
Nothing would stop him from challenging public perception about disability – he eagerly joined demonstrations, led them if necessary, argued for his rights even if it meant being arrested by the police, his campaigning became his life’s work.
Realising that words influence thought he objected to the use of the word “disabled” and helped to popularise instead the phrase “people with disabilities” – the point was that a disability is simply a part of a person’s life, not something that defines them completely.
Keith, who lived in Seymour House, Churchway, Somers Town, from the 1970s, was born in South Africa, but after his father died in a car accident, his mother returned to Britain for treatment of his condition. At a special school he soon demonstrated his creative spirit, launching his own poetry magazine.
He then came to London and found himself in the squatters’ movement until he was given a Camden council flat in Churchway. In the 1980s and 1990s he campaigned for accessible transport and, after blocking New Oxford Street with other wheel-chair users, found himself facing a trial until the charge was thrown out because the courthouse did not have ramp access.
A spirit and talent such as his soon attracted support from politicians and he became an adviser to both Camden and Ealing councils as well as London Transport and the Greater London Council. Typically big hearted, he would put up people in his flat – anyone who needed help knew they could turn to him. He got annoyed with the council because a flat opposite his was left vacant and, knowing of a woman with disability, Claire Glasman, was homeless he persuaded her and a friend to squat the empty flat.
Soon, he drummed up a campaign for the two women – and eventually they became council tenants. A restless creative spirit such as Keith’s meant he also became an accomplished poet, musician, a photographer and a scholar, publishing papers on the history of wheelchairs, the life of the emperor Claudius – many of his works can be found on academia.edu.
Apart from his non-stop involvement with disability campaigns, he had a boundless enthusiasm for other causes such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and became a familiar figure in Somers Town and Camden Town, often playing his harmonica in Camden Lock.
He was a man of undying principles – and he stuck by them whatever the obstacles.
Campaigner took on discrimination
By CLAIRE GLASMAN
KEITH was a great talker, had wide-ranging interests and progressive views.
For example, if people said someone was a “bastard”, he would tell them, “Check your language!”, as it was perpetuating discrimination against people born outside marriage.
He was knowledgeable about disability history and how the Nazi holocaust started – with the extermination of disabled children, and that the gas chamber had developed from taking psychiatric patients and people with learning difficulties and killing them with lorry exhaust.
It’s very sad that he has gone, he made a big contribution to a lot of people’s lives.
Claire Glasman is a founder member of Winvisible, set up for women with disabilities, and based in Kentish Town