Michele Coele obituary

Other lives: Co-founder of the Disabled Parents Network whose work helped shape government policy

My friend Michele Coele, who has died aged 68 from multiple sclerosis, was a campaigner for disability rights, and co-founded the Disabled Parents Network (DPN), which in 2004 became a registered charity. Lifelong gifts for friendship and for building bonds of solidarity underpinned her work.

Michele’s book Disabled Parents: Dispelling the Myths (1997) emphasised “society’s inability to recognise the role of disabled people as carers when they are so tightly pigeonholed as dependants”. She also co-edited a collection of pieces by disabled parents, Bigger Than the Sky (1999), with Rowen Jade, that have become resources for social work and government policy.

Michele was born in Harlow, Essex, the fifth child of David Roberts, an architect with Frederick Gibberd, and Yvonne (nee Markham), a full-time mother. She went to the Hertfordshire and Essex school for girls and to York University, where she got a first in English and education, and later did a PGCE.

In 1981 she married Edward Wates, whom she had met at York, and that year they moved to Oxford, where Michele did a master’s in philosophy at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University). She was diagnosed with MS the following year. I first met her on the induction tour of Brookes library. Her work there for her thesis on community links between the UK and the developing world started a long career in writing and activism.

Michele’s two children were pupils at St Frideswide school, Oxford, and she began to research the history of the city’s patron saint. Frideswide: Strong Peace, her writing about the St Frideswide massacre of 1002, was published in limited edition. To mark the anniversary of the event, a performance based on her work was given by David Bradley and Susannah York in 2002 in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, where the violence had taken place 1,000 years previously. Michele also wrote poetry, and a collection of her verse, Shells, was published in 2004.

Her radical thinking about more rational ways of living together led her to campaign for a co-housing community in Oxford, and as a result Oxford Co-housing was established in 2010. In her own house her lodgers assisted her. For a trial three months in 2015 she lived in a community in Cornwall. I went for a few days to join her there. She was by then entirely reliant on her assistants and took her team with her, organising them and the equipment she needed, and calling in the local district nursing service.

Michele acknowledged the reduction in her physical capacity without any self-pity. Despite this she retained agency until the end of her life, which was sometimes challenging for her and her team. Her intellectual curiosity sustained her, through conversation and thought.

Michele and Edward remained committed to their shared parental role following their divorce in 2012, after which she chose the surname Coele. She is survived by her children, Anna and David, grandchildren, Joe and Ivy, and siblings, Sarah, Jill, Hazel, Jonathan and Andrew.

Patricia Wells

The GuardianTramp

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