Friday, 31 August 2012

In memory of Gabriel

A few weeks back, we received the incredibly sad news that Gabriel Hardisty-Miller, an ambassador and long-term campaigner for the NAS, had died.

Our official tribute can be found here on the NAS website, alongside a beautiful poem written for Gabriel's memorial service. We were also kindly invited to pay tribute to Gabriel at his memorial. Here is what we said:

I'd like to start by thanking Gabriel, for everything he has done as an incredible campaigner and ambassador for our charity.

One of the great challenges facing our charity lies in fighting public ignorance and challenging preconceptions and prejudices about what people with autism can and can’t do – what they can and can’t achieve. What Gabriel did in his short life to help us to do exactly that cannot be overstated.

One of the great joys about Gabriel was in watching him meet and interact with people for the first time. A young autistic guy, in a wheelchair, sometimes snizzing, communicating unconventionally with his yes/no device, people often didn’t know what to make of him at first… yet, those who did meet him quickly found out he’s sharp as hell, funny, quick-witted, sociable, creative, stylish, ambitious, and self-assured. By simply being himself and allowing others to get to know him, he was able to challenge attitudes and presumptions about people with autism more effectively and succinctly than I or my colleagues ever will be able to.

Gabriel, along with his great friend Ben, have been peerless ambassadors for the NAS over the past few years. They’ve made hilarious videos and blogged for us, spoken at events and meetings, and met some of the most senior politicians. Gabriel’s story was recently told in our 50th anniversary report, published just a couple of months ago. And he has also featured in the most over-used photo the NAS has ever taken, celebrating the passing of the Autism Act, which he campaigned for, on Waterloo Bridge

I remember one particular meeting when Gabriel was on especially good form. He and Ben were being filmed interviewing then Minister for Care Services, Phil Hope. After showing him the latest Snizz Up comic and asking him some searching questions, Mr Hope – a well-meaning but rather goofy MP – at first responded with a long and incredibly boring monologue about his social care reform plans. A visibly unimpressed Gabriel, who was making everyone laugh with a few brilliantly timed “No”s on his device, had Phil a bit rattled. So, in a bizarre panic, the minister tried to win Gabriel back over by reaching for some juggling balls, and having a juggle. As many of you will know, Gabriel absolutely hates juggling. So the Minister’s well-intentioned distraction technique was met with a prolonged and multiple bashing of the “NO!” button.. Mr Hope will have been lobbied countless times that year, but I doubt any of his other meetings will have left the impression on him that Gabriel did that day.

When we passed a card around the office when we found out the incredibly sad news that Gabriel had died, I think almost every comment from staff included the word ‘inspiring’. It can be an overused word, but those of us who work at the NAS know how true a word it is to describe Gabriel. At the NAS we hear from people with autism, from parents and family members, every day. Often they are worried about what the future holds for them or their children; sometimes nervous about what kind of life they will have – what they will achieve.

Gabriel, with the support of Mary, Ben and the rest of his entourage, has inspired people to think bigger about what they can do with their lives. Inspired people to get creative. To do more. Not to be told what they can and can’t do. To live life to the full.

Personally, I’ll remember Gabriel with a big smile – as someone with a great sense of fun, who could curate a damn good gig night, whose dress-sense I envied, who could down a half pint of shandy with a straw in 6 seconds flat, and whose joyous snizzing would put a grin on the face of whole room of people.

Losing Gabriel is of course an unspeakably sad loss to his family and his many friends. And the autism community will mourn the loss of a great champion, campaigner and role-model for others with autism. But through what he has achieved – and for a 25 year-old, let’s never lose sight of just how much that is – his legacy will be an enormous one: a non-verbal young man who spoke for thousands.

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