Susan Cunliffe-Lister, Lady Masham of Ilton, who has died aged 87, was the longest-serving female member of the House of Lords – she was made a life peer in 1970 – and a prominent campaigner for better support and access for disabled people.
Twice a gold medallist at the Paralympics, following her paralysis after a riding accident, she championed myriad health causes and founded the Spinal Injuries Association in 1974. Her own lived experience was a vital spur to her work.
“Disability is very complicated,” she said. Her frustration at frequent failures to ease the challenges it posed fuelled her passion to effect change.
In 1958 Susan Sinclair, as she then was, found her life dramatically altered when she was pursing a point-to-point triumph in Wiltshire. Her horse fell while going over one of the course’s 24 jumps, rolling on top of her. Another horse kicked her in the stomach, causing an enormous haemorrhage. Fractures to three vertebrae in her back left her paralysed from the chest down.
Within 24 hours, she was transferred from Swindon to the specialist spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire. Its chief doctor, the neurologist Sir Ludwig Guttmann, is now regarded as the founder of the Paralympic movement, and sporting pursuits became an essential thread in her nine months of rehabilitation there.
The initial process was infused with pain. The first time Sinclair got into a wheelchair, she passed out because of poor circulation. Guttmann and his physiotherapists quickly nudged her to try archery to help her physical and mental recuperation. A lifelong affection for table tennis was stirred too. She returned to riding, utilising an adapted saddle she helped to design.
Swimming provided the platform, however, to spirit her to heights in Rome in the autumn of 1960, the first of her three Paralympics. She was now Susan Cunliffe-Lister, having married in 1959 David Cunliffe-Lister, Lord Masham, to whom she had been engaged at the time of the accident.
The Games’ inaugural edition was far removed from today’s monolith. The accommodation was not accommodating. “We arrived,” she recounted, “to find that the Olympic village where we were housed was built on stilts. And how were they going to get 400 wheelchairs up and down? They had to bring the Italian army in.”
She collected gold in the 25m breaststroke and a silver in the backstroke, as well as a bronze from the table tennis. Her victor’s souvenir was swiftly lost amid a celebratory dinner near the Trevi fountain. Italian media reported that she had tossed it into the waters. The reality was more mundane, she attested: it had probably fallen from her chair. In 2022, she was presented with a replica, commissioned by the British Paralympic Association, utilising a scan of her silver medal.
Tokyo’s Games four years on generated five more medals, split once again between the pool and the ping-pong table. In addition to four silvers came a table tennis doubles gold with Gwen Buck from a final in which, after she fell from her chair, her Italian opponents sportingly picked her off the floor rather than profit from a default. Masham and Buck claimed doubles silver in Tel Aviv in 1968. A singles bronze there rounded her tally of Paralympic medals to 10.
Born in Caithness, Sue was the daughter of Sir Ronald Sinclair, 8th baronet, and Reba (nee Inglis), and was educated at Heathfield school in Ascot, Berkshire, and at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London. She then worked at a stable in Wiltshire before her accident just before her 23rd birthday.
North Yorkshire became her home, where her husband’s grandmother provided a house that was constructed to facilitate her wheelchair. After her Paralympic successes, Masham launched herself into voluntary work and talks, her activism bringing her to the attention of the prime minister, Harold Wilson, who suggested she enter the House of Lords as a crossbencher. “A total, total surprise,” she acknowledged. A delighted Guttmann instructed: “You must make them aware of other disabled people.”
Taking her seat as a life peer in February 1970, the now Lady Masham of Ilton gave her maiden speech on the chronically sick and disabled persons bill, the first piece of legislation to give rights to people with disabilities. She later served on select committees and parliamentary groups, including on science and technology, administration and works, and HIV and Aids, with a personal focus on the impact of the virus in the developing world.
She established the Spinal Injuries Association to address the lack of support and information, and specialist medical care, for newly injured people, becoming president in 1982. Masham served as a trustee, patron or president of many health and disability organisations, and chaired the Home Office working group on young people and alcohol in 1987.
For almost three decades, she was adjoined in the Lords by her husband, David, who inherited the title of Earl of Swinton in 1972 and served as a Conservative whip under Margaret Thatcher. The couple adopted two children, and were married for 47 years until his death in 2006.
Masham continued to enjoy the occasional game of table tennis, even as her physical capacities diminished and she was compelled to use an electric wheelchair. She remained a frequent speaker in the Lords, and contributed until a month before she died, when she asked a question about long-term rehabilitation in emergency care.
She is survived by her children, Clare and Jessie.
• Susan Lilian Primrose Cunliffe-Lister, Lady Masham of Ilton, Paralympian, parliamentarian and disability campaigner, born 14 April 1935; died 12 March 2023