Lorraine Gradwell, one of the leading figures of GMCDP, has had an obituary printed in the in the Guardian

'Many of the most important advances in the struggle for disabled people’s rights in the UK have been won first at local level. Lorraine Gradwell, who has died aged 64 of complications following heart failure, played a central role in making Manchester a bastion of disability rights and a model of community inclusivity. Intensive lobbying by Gradwell and fellow activists led to Manchester introducing the first accessible black cabs, and pioneering direct payments to disabled people to support independent living in the 1980s.

She was a founder of the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, one of the first such organisations in the UK, and in 1986 was its first paid development worker. Gradwell, who became disabled after contracting polio as a child, went on to found the Manchester-based Breakthrough UK, which supports disabled people to live and work independently. As chief executive for almost 15 years, she led its growth to a £1m-plus annual income and 40 staff, 70% of them disabled.

At national level she served on Whitehall advisory committees on disability and on small businesses, but never ceased campaigning for civil rights for disabled people. She was a resolute advocate of the “social model” of disability, which sees disability as a consequence of the way society is organised rather than a result of impairment or difference, and described the model as serving disabled people as “a life raft in a stormy sea”. In recent years she had become concerned that the focus of campaigning by the disability movement had shifted too much from rights to benefits, although she acknowledged the seriousness of repeated welfare cuts. And she was uncomfortable with campaigns that stressed disabled people’s vulnerability. She wrote in 2015 that “the push for welfare reform almost inevitably leads to the presentation of disability as an individual matter”. Although she could play the perfect diplomat in meetings with ministers and officials, she was unbending and forthright in defence of her principles. She was active in the disabled members’ group of the trade union Unison.

Gradwell was born in Middlesbrough. Her father, Tom Mahoney, was a steelworker and her mother, Inga (nee Blythman), worked on a market stall. Lorraine caught the polio virus just before her third birthday and spent most of her childhood in hospitals and a residential school, entering mainstream education only at 15. She nevertheless gained five O-levels and three A-levels, enabling her to undertake a sandwich degree course in fashion design and management which started at the then Middlesbrough School of Art (now Cleveland College of Art and Design) and ended at the Domestic and Trades College in Manchester (now Manchester Metropolitan University).

Although she was a wheelchair user, she made sure she took full advantage of student life, partying energetically and giving boyfriends lifts in her three-wheeled blue “invalid carriage”, designed for driver only. On one occasion she drove one of the notoriously unstable vehicles to Edinburgh and back, albeit at the cost of its exhaust system. She had become a keen and talented wheelchair athlete and swimmer, competing in disability games and being selected to represent Great Britain at the Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in New Zealand in 1974, where she won a gold medal for wheelchair slalom. She later achieved an open-water scuba diving qualification, which she prided almost as highly as the MA in disability studies she gained at Leeds University. In 1976, when she was working in the textile industry, she met her first husband, Les Gradwell, with whom she settled in Manchester and had two children, John and Jenny. The marriage ended in 1983, and Lorraine embarked upon life as a lone disabled mother at just the time she was throwing herself into disability activism and the endless meetings involved in establishing Manchester’s groundbreaking disabled people’s organisations. For a time she made ends meet by painting and selling china tea sets. She met her second husband, Tony Baldwinson, an urban regeneration specialist and community activist, at one of those early meetings in 1985. They forged a strong bond and moved in together four years later. She was appointed MBE in 2010.

Tony survives her, as do her children.

• Lorraine Susan Gradwell, disability activist, born 24 July 1953; died 3 September 2017


Picture of Lorraine Gradwell by Tony Baldwinson

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