APPALLED by how her handicapped daughter was treated at an airport, one mother decided she wasn’t going to take it anymore. Ruth Campbell discovers how the former junior school teacher helped improve conditions for disabled people all over the world.

MARGARET Clough never set out to change the world.

But having a disabled child led to the junior school teacher launching a campaign that has challenged business leaders and politicians all over the globe.

Her daughter Julie is severely mentally and physically handicapped after being brain damaged at birth and, following years of putting up with appalling facilities for the severely disabled in public places, 14 years ago, Margaret finally snapped.

The turning point came when, humiliatingly, she was forced to change her then 29-year-old daughter in a body bag storage room at a major international airport because there was nowhere else available.

When she complained next time it happened, they were moved to a strip and search room in security. “I was so hurt people could treat my daughter like that,” says Margaret, who is originally from Ripon and used to teach at Ascham House School in Newcastle until she retired six years ago.

The shocking treatment Julie received drove Margaret to start her campaign for more accessible toilets and changing places for disabled people in 2002. “Wherever we went Julie had to be laid on toilet floors to be changed because she cannot stand or walk to sit on a toilet,” she says. “Would you lay a loved one on a dirty toilet floor with their head next to a toilet bowl where someone has just urinated?

“A mother can only take so much, and after lying her on the floor of some horrendous places including wet and smelly toilet floors in hospitals, arenas and shopping malls, I decided enough was enough. Nobody should have to go through the unnecessary indignity and difficulties we face, just to visit the toilet.”

Working alongside her 38-year-old son Tony, who has just been appointed an MBE for his work on the Space to Change campaign, Margaret has helped establish proper disabled changing areas in high-profile venues such as Arsenal and Manchester United football clubs, the O2 Arena and the National Exhibition Centre, as well as in airports, hospitals, theme parks and shopping centres.

But she wants to see specialist facilities, known as Changing Places, with space for the user, their carer, a changing bench and a hoist, in more public places. “Julie was brain damaged through neglect at birth and my determination to achieve what is needed for severely disabled people such as her has since been at the forefront of my life,” explains Margaret. “Just think what a difference it will make for stroke victims, MS sufferers, injured war veterans, and all other disabled people confined to wheelchairs.”

Modest and softly spoken, Margaret, 69, is not a naturally feisty person, but her resolve to help improve the lives of the disabled has forced her into the spotlight. She has argued her case, face-to-face, with the heads of major international companies and given talks and presentations to a range of organisations.

She and Tony, who has undergone successful treatment for a brain tumour, have even been invited to appear in front of the European Parliament. “Tony and I together make a formidable team,” she says. “It is very frustrating when businesses say they can't afford to install a Changing Place when you know they can or should do. We keep contacting them and saying ‘One day you may need this facility’ and often, in the end, it works.”

Their campaigning work, which is all voluntary, has taken them all over the world, including Chicago, Frankfurt and Vancouver. “We have given a talk to the International Air Transport Association in Barcelona,” says Margaret. “And we are hoping to persuade Orlando Airport in Florida to put Changing Places in as many disabled children travel there. At one event, I spoke to a crowd of more than 200 people from different American airlines and airports. My final sentence was ‘The UK has over 700 and the US has no Changing Places. Come on America!’ I got a standing ovation.

“A highlight was our invitation to the European Parliament. Hopefully a law will be passed that will require these specialist toilets, needed by one in 284 people, to be installed alongside ordinary toilets. This would mean disabled people could travel to wherever they wished. A quarter of a million people in the UK need these facilities to enable them to get out and about and enjoy the day-to-day activities most of us take for granted.”

After her horrendous airport experiences with Julie over the years, Margaret is particularly delighted at their success in establishing three Changing Places toilets at Manchester and Heathrow airports, two at Gatwick and Stansted and one each at Newcastle, Birmingham, Leeds and East Midlands airports. “In addition, there is a beautiful lounge in Heathrow’s Terminal 5 for people with reduced mobility, which includes a Changing Place,” says Margaret. “It is named the Lichfield Suite after where we live now, in recognition of all the work we have done and we are very proud of this.”

Last year, Margaret and Julie helped Virgin Airlines and British Airways trial a new hoist for transferring disabled passengers into an aircraft seat: “Rather than being manhandled and thrown into a seat, the Eagle Hoist can easily lift a disabled person and can be completed in the allowed timeframe of seven minutes to ensure there are no delays. Now most UK airports are using them.”

On a return visit to her home city of Ripon recently, she noted that more could be done for the disabled here. “The city centre and Fountains Abbey definitely need Changing Places for local people and visitors,” says Margaret. “This would allow more people to visit this beautiful city.”

She also reflected on how far she has come. “When I left Ripon Grammar School in 1968, I never dreamed that one day I would have the honour of talking to distinguished directors and executives of well-known companies,” she says. “The greatest recognition has been my son receiving his MBE. I am very proud and excited to be going to Buckingham Palace with him. It’s just a pity they don’t have a Changing Place there!”