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Tributes to 'dogged' Norfolk disability campaigner George Saunders

PUBLISHED: 20:29 15 May 2019 | UPDATED: 17:32 16 May 2019

George in Scotland in 2010 for a niece’s wedding     Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSON

George in Scotland in 2010 for a niece's wedding Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSON

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He was involved with Norwich Shopmobility and the Boudicca Way trail, and checking that shops and restaurants had decent access

George rowing at Flatford when he was 10 or 11    Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSONGeorge rowing at Flatford when he was 10 or 11 Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSON

Most of us still reach for easy stereotypes, don't we? We see someone in a wheelchair and think disability defines them. We rarely talk to them and discover, perhaps, they once had a different kind of life. It probably doesn't even cross our minds that being "disabled" isn't the end of the road.

Which is why we all ought to know about George Saunders.

Before the very rare condition Guillain-Barré Syndrome put him in a wheelchair, George had graduated in maths and physics; worked in Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan; and narrowly escaped a bomb explosion at the railway station in Rangoon (then Burma).

While the serious auto-immune disorder might later have stolen most of his mobility, it didn't quell his spirit.

It’s 1973 and George Saunders enjoys some horse-riding in either Canada or America    Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSONIt’s 1973 and George Saunders enjoys some horse-riding in either Canada or America Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSON

George has been described as a dogged campaigner for access rights - helping make Norfolk more accessible to folk with limited mobility. He's also been called intrepid - getting out and about and striving to enjoy the freedom of movement most of us take for granted.

An example. George was one of the "do-ers" who helped make sure the Boudicca Way trail (between Norwich and Diss) could be traversed by the users of powered wheelchairs.

Bit by bit they surveyed the 36 miles and found problems and solutions. Challenges en route included finding ways around stiles, using spades and portable ramps when the going got tricky, fording a couple of streams, and having to be rescued after getting stuck in a rabbit hole.

Afterwards, George could proclaim "there is a trail in south Norfolk just waiting to be explored by adventurous disabled powerchair ramblers".

A lover of the natural world – and determined not to be deterred     Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSONA lover of the natural world – and determined not to be deterred Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSON

Norwich Access Group produced a leaflet (Boudicca Way By Powerchair) to help. (As well as a robust fully-charged outdoor powerchair with puncture repair aerosol, must-have equipment includes "an adventurous spirit".)

Not lives defined by a stereotype, are they?

Dogged in his endeavours

George at the wedding of a niece in Scotland in 2010    Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSONGeorge at the wedding of a niece in Scotland in 2010 Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSON

"I've known him about 40 years," says Stephanie Ash of George. "We've been involved in all sorts of things in Norwich to do with access and disability rights. We were founder members of the Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, which then became Equal Lives." They were both trustees of the latter.

George became co-chair of Norwich Access Group "and has done a tremendous amount of work. He's been really dogged in his endeavours to make sure that the city of Norwich was as accessible as it could be to disabled people - in particular wheelchair users, but he did work quite closely with the RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People), and they were represented on the access group as well."

He was for many years a trustee of Norwich Shopmobility, which lends powered wheelchairs and scooters in the city, and a member of the Broads Local Access Forum, promoting access for all in the Broads National Park.

"He also worked with Norfolk County Council's Trails Team to survey and improve the accessibility of countryside walks, enabling them to be used by wheelchair users." Boudicca Way is the jewel in the crown.

‘He loved his garden, re-styling it after a few years; then kept three beehives – producing a considerable amount of honey’ says sister Frances   Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSON‘He loved his garden, re-styling it after a few years; then kept three beehives – producing a considerable amount of honey’ says sister Frances Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSON

Clearing unexploded bombs

George Saunders was born on April 1, 1952, at a maternity hospital near his home town of Leigh-on-Sea in Essex.

"We were a family of four and were bought up in the traditional style in post-war Britain," says sister Frances Jobson. "Mum ran the house while Dad went to work." The family always went away on holiday for a couple of weeks in August.

London 2012 Paralympic Games – at the five-a-side football   Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSONLondon 2012 Paralympic Games – at the five-a-side football Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSON

"He started school at West Leigh Infant School at the age of five and soon became a popular child amongst his peers, and in the summer used to climb over the fence into the ancient woodland of Belfairs that bordered our rear garden.

"A popular game was to jump the stream that ran through the woods. Sometimes, one or another would miscalculate the distance between the banks and land in the water, much to the disgust of our mother.

"He was a member of the Cub (young Scouts) movement, and then did a spell in the Sea Scouts, joining the Leigh detachment.

"He narrowly missed passing the 11-plus but went to the secondary modern Belfairs High School for Boys, then followed this by doing A-levels at Westcliff High School for Boys (a grammar school).

Out with friends, when he was about 18  Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSONOut with friends, when he was about 18 Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSON

"During his teenage years he showed an interest in racing bikes fitted with special racing gears and would cycle to Biggin Hill to see air shows with friends. He then moved on to renovating motorbikes and veteran cars, visiting rallies and meetings.

"On to Bath for a degree in maths and physics (geophysics), with some time out in industry on an exploration ship to carry out practically the theory he had read and studied.

"During his degree course he took student jobs, one of which was clearing unexploded Second World War bombs from Maplin Sands, when preliminary plans were being made for an airport to be built there.

"At 21 he visited western Canada, staying with family in Vancouver, after which he travelled down as far as New Mexico.

On his 60th birthday, in 2012. He had a big party in an Indian restaurant  Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSONOn his 60th birthday, in 2012. He had a big party in an Indian restaurant Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSON

"After graduating, he contemplated his future and decided a spell overseas may be the right course, so he travelled with friends through Europe, Asia and India - then on to Perth, Western Australia - doing part-time jobs as they went.

"George finally acquired the role of geophysicist, working on the rigs off Western Australia. This led to him being placed in Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan, and being part of the team while the new rigs were being towed out for positioning over the new wells.

"On the train station in Rangoon he narrowly missed a bomb explosion: fate dictated that he walked to a particular platform while the bomb exploded on the other.

"He then decided a spell back home would be nice - buying a flat, sports car and yacht, and meeting up with old friends and family.

George at the time he was pioneering his rambler trails, probably about 10 years ago    Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSONGeorge at the time he was pioneering his rambler trails, probably about 10 years ago Picture: COURTESY FRANCES JOBSON

"Whilst back in the UK he contracted Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which is a rare and little known disease, and, after over a year in hospital and rehabilitation, lost much of his mobility.

"He was then fortunately offered a placement in John Grooms Court in Norwich (Sprowston Road), where as part of his rehabilitation over two years he was helped to rebuild his life and regain his independence.

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"George recovered to an inspiring degree: moving into his own bungalow in Norwich, adapted for independent living; learning to drive again; and then he set out to give back to the community.

"He achieved this through harnessing his intellectual and organisational skills to raise the profile of disabled people in Norwich.

"He loved his garden, re-styling it after a few years, then kept three beehives - producing a considerable amount of honey.

"Being a very independent person, he soon settled in, and threw himself into ensuring that equal living for the disabled community was brought to the forefront.

"He always loved time with family, and fortunately there were many occasions when we all got together - even travelling to Scotland for the wedding of a niece, helped by his good friends.

"One of his main tasks was the inspection of restaurants, shops, hotels, offices, public conveniences - in fact, everywhere public - to ensure that the premises were fully accessible to wheelchair-bound citizens.

"It was his love of the natural world, and walking in the countryside, that led him to form the disabled ramblers, and - working together with the authorities - he arranged for many footpaths to be upgraded and new boardwalks along the Broads, accessible for wheelchair access, to be put in place."

Made a huge difference

It's little wonder Stephanie Ash says Norfolk has lost "a tireless campaigner for independent living and equal access for disabled people - to both the built and the natural environment".

She adds: "His work made a huge difference to the lives of other disabled people in the city of Norwich, and he will be greatly missed."

Past and present activities of Norwich Access Group include founding Norwich Shopmobility; producing access guides to the city; campaigning for wheelchair-accessible buses; advising on dropped kerbs; and checking access to restaurants, cafes and other buildings.

"Just the smallest step - or a lip on the threshold - can be the difference between getting in or not. And the width of doors… and accessible toilets… being able to park nearby…

"There's the issue of buses, and there being only one space (for a wheelchair). If somebody with a pushchair is parked in it… Imagine if you're going out with a friend who's a wheelchair user; you'd have to travel on separate buses!"

Some ongoing concerns, then?

"Well, the list is endless. Although it has improved a lot since the '80s, it's still difficult because people assume everything was fixed by the Disability Discrimination Act (of 1995), but that isn't actually the case. So it's kind of gone off the radar.

"I know George had something really simple, which was a sort of Dropped Kerb Watch, so members of the group would go out and about and notice the lack of a dropped kerb - or what is almost worse: a dropped kerb one side but not the other.

"Parking on the pavement was another of his bugbears."

Stephanie sent a photograph showing George manning a publicity stand in The Forum, Norwich. "You can see that just to his right there's a noticeboard the group devised, which has got all the common things that could stop people having access."

Those issues include inconsistent surfaces, and those A-shaped advertising boards outside shops and businesses - "a hazard to everyone". It also praises good practice, such as the ramp at Norwich Yacht Station in Riverside Road.

"He was on the Broads Local Access Forum, and worked with officers there. He liked to get out and about. He had quite a heavy-duty powered wheelchair. He was intrepid. He liked to go out in the countryside; he liked wild spaces."

Did George feel things were getting better, in terms of access?

"I think he was always optimistic. He wasn't going to admit defeat, so he kept plugging away at it.

"Several of us would think 'Oh, I've had enough of bashing my head against a brick wall', but he wouldn't let it go. And a good job too!"

How did he manage to get things done? "He was a mild-mannered man, but he was just persistent."

George lived independently. "That says a lot about his determination. When he first came to Norwich, he was living at John Grooms Court, but he wanted his own place and he fought hard to have that. He had people going in to assist him, but it was his place."

Stuck in a rabbit hole

George wrote a piece for the Norwich Access Group website about the Boudicca Way project. Here are some of his observations:

* "Whilst the county council has overall responsibility for maintenance of the footpath network, the current reality is that they can only afford to keep a fraction of this regularly cut and open… We realized that to make a long-distance trail accessible for powerchairs we'd have to do it ourselves."

* Crossing fields: "We found that if the going is too difficult or impossible, even with spades and portable ramps, then another way round has to be found. This could be as simple as following the field margin if it is wide enough or, failing that, an off-trail detour has to be sought."

* "Surfaces on the trail can vary so much too. We got stuck in a rabbit hole on one short soft-surface section and had to be rescued. It's essential to take a mobile device as well as an able-bodied accomplice once you go off-road."

* "The going can be very slow at times and there can be hidden ditches under overgrown vegetation. Later we decided to address the very difficult surfaces ourselves with spades and a mattock. In the worst muddy patches and gullies we laid cheap plastic meshing."

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