Obituary: Michael Shamash

Inspirational campaigner and lecturer whose work had 
a major impact on the public perception of disability


Standing at just three foot six in height, my brother Michael Shamash was one of Hampstead Garden Suburb’s well known characters. He was easy-going, gregarious, good company, but also an amazingly effective campaigner for disability rights.

Michael, who has died a few days short of his 64th birthday, was brought up in Hampstead Garden Suburb and by the time he was one year old it was obvious he was going to be very small. His parents, Charles and Arabella Shamash, struggled to get him into mainstream schools. At the time of his birth in 1957, schools were reluctant to accept pupils with disabilities. 

With encouragement from Great Ormond Street Hospital, his parents secured a place for him at Kerem House, the local Jewish kindergarten, and then Brookland Rise School, where he won an assisted place (a half-scholarship) to University College School in Hampstead.

Michael always had a tremendous sense of fun despite the difficulties caused by his size. When he was ten he had surgery at Great Ormond Street Hospital to straighten his legs. For some months he would come to school in a wheelchair: the school was reached via a very steep path. On the way home I would push the chair down the slope as fast as I could, with Michael cheering me on. 

At the age of 17 he had a cracked hip, which necessitated another long spell swaddled in plaster. I was the only member of the family strong enough to carry Michael up and downstairs every day. Perhaps this made us unusually close. Michael – because of his size and his outgoing personality  — was always the centre of attention.

He attended Warwick University where he took a degree in sociology and politics and later an MA in criminology. 

Michael was employed in the social work department of Camden Council from 1984 until 1992. He had to find ways of coping with his size. Because he visited clients in high rise blocks, he had to carry a collapsible white stick so he could push the lift buttons for the top floors. He frequently attended national conferences. If he stayed in hotels, he often had to ask them to supply him with a milk crate, so he could climb onto it to use the key to his room door.

He was involved in Camden NALGO, the union which later became UNISON. He supported initiatives on disability rights, worked on staff driven disability groups and attended national conferences. 

A former colleague, Rory Heat, described him as inspirational: “He always had the right things to say. He could discuss disability in ways that didn’t make people feel awkward. He had a huge impact on perceptions of disability,” Rory explained: “He loved people, he loved socialising and arguing and he was good at both.” Michael later ran a community group for the disabled in Tower Hamlets. He also worked as an academic, lecturing on disability at Middlesex and Bedford universities. He worked for Disability Arts in London and also for the Disability Rights Commission, where he examined ways of tackling the barriers that disabled people faced in their lives. He wrote extensively about disability and fashion and judged the National Social Worker of the Year award. He was also elected as chairman of the Restricted Growth Association, which represents small people. 

He never learned to drive, but he was always fascinated by transport. In his social life he was obsessed with buses and bus timetables. If anyone ever mentioned some out-of-the-way town, he could say exactly what kind of buses operated there and who ran them. Sometimes after school, instead of coming straight home, he would take a long bus journey just for the hell of it.

He had an obsession with the Trabant car (an East German car from the communist era), and he made a series of programmes for Radio 4 with his friend, the author Will Self, in which they drove to the former factory where Trabants were made. During the programme, they discussed not only cars but also disability and size — Will is almost twice the height of Michael. 

Fiercely independent, he remained unmarried for many years. But 11 years ago, he began dating Helen Tonge, a woman of normal height whom he had met through work. Just over two years ago, when Michael was 61, he and Helen had a daughter, Lydia.

Towards the end of September he went into University College Hospital for what was expected to be a routine hip replacement. Things went badly wrong and he ended up in intensive care. The following day Michael was on the phone  and discussing leaving hospital, but the next morning his breathing failed and he died. A full inquest into has been scheduled for February.

Michael is survived by his partner Helen Tonge, his daughter Lydia, his mother Arabella, sister Adele Shaw and brothers Jack and Philip. His father Charles predeceased him in 1996.

Michael Shamash: born September 29, 1957. Died September 23, 2021

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