His memory gives us strength
The political activist and campaigner Vic Finkelstein, who has died aged 73, was deported from South Africa for his support of the anti-apartheid movement. He was the main architect of the Fundamental Principles of Disability, published in 1975, which argued that the problems faced by disabled people were caused by society’s failure to take account of their needs, not by their impairments.
Vic was born in Johannesburg of Jewish parents and later moved to Durban. In 1954 his life changed for ever when he attempted a pole-vault and broke his neck, which left him paralysed. With the help of the Jewish community in Durban, he was sent to the Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire for treatment and rehabilitation, and remained there for a year.
On returning to South Africa, he resumed his education and was offered a bursary at Durban University. He originally planned to study architecture but soon decided that it was not for him, and studied psychology instead at the University of Pietermaritzburg, with the intention of eventually pursuing a career in rehabilitation.
Despite the banning of the various resistance movements, Vic was a member of the Congress of Democrats, the organisation for white people in the anti-apartheid Congress Alliance, and, with others, he provided covert support to banned groups. In 1966 the flat he shared with his cousin was raided. With no possibility of escape in his wheelchair, he was arrested and sent to prison.
During his incarceration under the 180-day detention laws, Vic endured torture, deprivation and much hardship before eventually coming to trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months, 15 of which were suspended. On discharge, he went to live with his brother in Johannesburg and completed his studies at the University of Witwatersrand. By this time, he had decided to leave South Africa and, in a final act of defiance, returned to the police offices to reclaim the precious books that had been confiscated from him, as several of his interrogators looked on in amazement.
On coming to Britain as a refugee, Vic immediately set about establishing contact with the ANC and met Elizabeth Lewin, who in 1968 became his wife. Encouraged by Liz, who worked as a physiotherapist, he soon began to meet politically active disabled people, and when in 1972 Paul Hunt wrote a now famous letter to the Guardian, calling for a radical new disability organisation to be formed, he eagerly got involved.
This organisation, the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation, published a document called the Fundamental Principles of Disability. Not only was Vic a key participant in the discussions that produced this document, but he was the main drafter of it. He was also prominent in setting up the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People in 1981 and became its first chair. In the same year he represented Britain at the first world congress, established by Disabled Peoples’ International.
Professionally, Vic worked as a psychologist within the health service before moving to the Open University when it created one of the first courses in what we now know as disability studies. He joined the course team and soon became its chair, shepherding it through two major revamps as well as promoting a range of innovative short courses. He remained at the Open University until 1994, then joined the centre for disability studies at the University of Leeds as a visiting senior research fellow, remaining active there until his retirement in 2008.
In one of his few autobiographical writings, for a book planned but never published, Vic wrote: “When I went pole-vaulting at Durban high school in 1954, I left behind one destiny and moved instead ‘forward to square one’ and began living another more fulfilling, more rewarding and more human lifestyle than I could ever have predicted.” Already, thanks to Vic, thousands of people all over the world have more fulfilling, rewarding and more human lifestyles than they could ever have imagined.
His marriage to Liz produced two daughters, Anna and Rebecca, who survive him. Liz died of cancer in 1993.
• Victor Berel Finkelstein, disability activist and scholar, born 25 January 1938; died 30 November 2011
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