We were very sorry to hear that Elisabeth Standen died this week. Elisabeth had been a regular at Novel Nights since it started and her memoir, Shadows, was read out on a number of occasions. Here is her biography she prepared for a Novel Nights reading back in 2016.
Elizabeth (MBE) has run poetry writing workshops for disabled people in Bristol and has worked as a Disability Equality Officer and Consultant. She raises awareness of Deafblind issues on transition, poverty, sexuality and learning at the highest level of consultation. Elizabeth currently runs a gardening group and a creative writing group on a social networking site for Visually Impaired People. She is writing her novel Shadows, Poetry and short stories.
We asked her friend, Judy Darley to write about her. Judy is a freelance writer and editor. Her new short story collection, Sky Light Rain is out now from Valley Press.
Written by Judy Darley
Eleven years ago, I was asked by a magazine to write a piece on Bristol’s inspirational women to celebrate International Women’s Day.
Elisabeth Standen immediately came to mind. I’d met Elisabeth through a writing group, and she allowed me to interview her for the feature.
Since that time I’ve had the privilege of becoming Elisabeth’s friend and writing buddy. I’ve been really fortunate to get to know her backstory through her writing and anecdotes, and to understand what a truly formidable force of nature she was.
When she was a small child her parents were told that there were two things she would never do – find love, and survive.
She rebelled against both those judgements, and continued to defy expectations throughout her life.
Elisabeth was compassionate, determined and endlessly inventive, both in her writing and in the spirited way she approached everyday tasks while challenged by her body. She was a prolific writer, reader and lover of life, surrounded by friends and served by a keen wit coupled with a temper that ensured that anyone who underestimated her (and there were many), soon had their assumptions shaken.
I, and I suspect everyone who had the pleasure of meeting her, will miss her enormously.
This is the full unedited version of the profile I wrote about Elisabeth, a shorter version of which was published by Folio magazine in 2009.
The equal rights campaigner
Elisabeth Standen worked as an equalities officer for Bristol City Council before becoming a freelance disability equality trainer and consultant. She is also a prolific poet.
“I was born physically disabled with an obscure bone disorder, blind in one eye, and probably with a hearing loss. I lost the sight of my good eye, after several accidents,” she says. “Once I was blind it became obvious that I had poor hearing. Until then I’d probably been lip reading without realising it. When I was offered a place at college to do O and A Levels, there were pressures against me going. Someone said: ‘If you don’t take this opportunity, you won’t get another, so do what you want for once.’ I took his advice and have never regretted it.”
At 34, Elisabeth gained a degree in Philosophy. Despite this achievement, it was difficult to find work.
“Then one day I met the careers advisor from my old university, who told me about a project in Nottingham who were looking for two people to collect data on disabled graduates and what they’d done since getting their degrees,” she recalls. “I applied and was successful. The post paid less than I’d been getting on benefits, but I saw it as a foot in the door.” Elisabeth then got a job as a disability equality officer for a large county council in the northeast. “I haven’t looked back since. From there I came to Bristol to work for the City Council on employment issues related to disabled people.”
Within 18 months, Elisabeth moved to the chief executive’s department as an equalities officer, with a specialism in disability.
“My role was to develop and implement an integrated equalities policy to ensure equal treatment in employments and services throughout the activities of Bristol City Council.”
Elisabeth believes that one of her greatest achievements was making the front entrance of the city hall fully accessible.
“When I first went to work for the council, there were three or four small steps into the building from the top of the Park Street ramp” she says. “There was a small temporary ramp, but people often forgot to put it out, and it was a trip-hazard to visually-impaired people or anyone slightly unstable on their feet. I was told we could use the back door. My response was to point out that I was not a Victorian trades person! The funny thing is, once the ramp from Park Street was raised level with the top step, people quickly forgot that it had ever been any different.”
About 12 years ago Elisabeth noticed she was having increasing problems with her hearing, which continues to deteriorate.
“That was a shock and I had to review my ideas about future employment. I retreated from jobs that required lots of large meetings. I manage okay, on a one-to-one basis, but with more than four people present, or with lots of background noise, I struggle to follow what’s going on. At first I was very depressed. Then I made the conscious decision to go on doing whatever I enjoyed, while at the same time, cultivating those activities that don’t rely on hearing. So I still play the piano, but have also increased my activity in the garden.”
In 1993, Elisabeth was contacted by Dennis Casling, a disabled poet who’d received a grant to run poetry workshops in Bristol.
“He rang me up and asked me to go along. I said I didn’t do poetry, but Dennis was persistent. He was afraid no one would turn up, so in the end I caved in.”
Those workshops were life-changing for Elisabeth. “I acquired a compulsion to write poetry!”
Elisabeth has subsequently had two poems published.
“Wheelchair Plaint appeared in Vive Gauche, a book of poems by women in Bristol. Key appeared in an edition of Scintilla, an annual poetry and prose anthology
produced by Cardiff University and the Henry Vaughan Society,” she says. “Writing helps me to find out what I think and believe.”
Elisabeth tirelessly champions and encourages others wherever possible.
“My advice to any young women trying to decide what to do with her life would be to find out what you like doing that you are good at, and don’t let anyone or anything divert you.”