Disabled woman becomes high Sherriff

Rosie Moriatry-Simmonds in her Sherriff outfit
Rosie Moriatry-Simmonds in her Sherriff outfit Image credit:

A woman who became disabled after her pregnant mother took the sedative drug Thalidomide is celebrating a remarkable achievement in her home county of South Glamorgan.

Rosie Moriatry-Simmonds was born with four fingers growing from her shoulders, short legs and 13 toes.

The 60-year-old from Cardiff has now become South Glamorgan’s first High Sheriff who was born with a disability.

Moriatry-Simmonds said she hopes her new title will pave the way for more disabled people to be seen in high profile roles representing civil and public life.

“For many disabled people it is very difficult to be involved in civic duties but I am living proof that it shouldn’t be,” she told Wales Online.

“I will be invited to lots of events which might range from opening a shop to attending the five gun salutes a year at Cardiff Castle. If there are royal visits you are also in the welcome line up. Technically you are not supposed to be political, but in my presence as an obviously disabled person it will make people stop and think and it is an opportunity to promote diversity.”

Her mother was prescribed Thalidomide in the early sixties, when the drug was used on thousands of expected mums to help them with morning sickness and deprived sleep.

But the medication saw around 12,000 babies born with disabilities between 1956 and 1962.

In 1970 the government finally allowed disabled children the right to attend school, Moriatry-Simmonds was 10 at the time.

She passed here 11-plus at Ysgol Erw’r Delyn in Penarth (now Ysgol y Deri), but despite the achievement there was no local school which sufficient access to accommodate her needs.

As a result her parents had to fight for their daughter to attend the only school in the UK which offered accessible academic education – Treloars School in Hampshire.

After finishing school the family had another battle on their hands, almost all the universities across the UK did no offer wheelchair access.

Determined not to be beaten Moriatry-Simmonds was the first disabled student to be accepted by Cardiff University where she graduated in psychology in 1985.

But there was more boundaries to overcome, it was now time to find a job but at a time when disabled people were treated like second-rate citizens, it was tough.

Despite applying for over 200 jobs, she was only offered four interviews, the NHS turned her down in fear she would not be able to use their toilet unassisted.

Moriatry-Simmonds secured a role as a civil servant at Companies House which she kept for seven years before going it alone and launching her own business, the RMS Disability Issues Consultancy, advising on disability equality.

She married Stephen Simmonds, who was also born with a disability related to Thalidomide, and become a mum in 1995 giving birth to her only child, James.

In her spare time Moriatry-Simmonds paints by holding a brush in her mouth, the hobby came in useful during the pandemic, but as she explained there was more concerns than just how her drawings would turn out over the past two years.

“I didn’t want to end up in hospital with no one who knows how to handle me and the fear factor was scary,” she expressed.

“Stephen and I had a last business event on March 12, 2020 and did not go anywhere again for almost two years.”

Moriatry-Simmonds, who also has vision loss and hearing loss caused by Thalidomide, went on to share the support she had from her family growing up.

“My parents were very young when they had me - a baby with missing limbs. There was no support or anyone to say what the future held. I was very lucky because I was not wrapped in cotton wool. My parents and grandparents were fantastic. I was surrounded by love but not mollycoddled. There comes a time when you have to sink or swim yourself.”

The Sherriff title is just one of many Moriatry-Simmonds has achieved over the years, she is also a vice president of the Cardiff Business Club, chairperson of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Board for Cardiff University and a “protagonist” for the Thalidomide Memorial,  which marks the lives and achievements of people affected by Thalidomide from across the world.

In 2017 Moriatry-Simmonds received an Honorary Fellowship from Cardiff University, in 2018 she received an Honorary Doctorate and Honorary Fellowship from Swansea University and this month became an High Sheriff of South Glamorgan.

High Sheriff duties include supporting the crown and judiciary.