Blog post by Joe Woodhouse-Page, student volunteer, for UK Disability History Month. This is an annual event which runs from 22 November to 22 December, covering HIV/AIDS day (1 Dec), International Day of People with Disabilities (3 Dec) and International Human Rights Day (10 Dec). Its aim is to raise awareness of the fight for equality that has been taken up throughout history by and for those whose lives are affected by disabilities
Whilst skimming through many archives you’ll find little reference to Britain’s disabled population, however, delve deeper into Brunel Library’s Special Collections and you’ll find stories of those people, stories that should not go untold.
Only in recent times have we, as a society, stopped treating disability as a taboo, when it is told in historical accounts it is often limited, masked and ultimately brushed over. Although, in Special Collections you’ll discover texts both detailing the experience of having a disability in the past and the impact that disabled people had on those around them and society.
One such text is the autobiography of Charles William Esam-Carter recounting the period of 1899-1903. Carter recounts his early childhood, when his severely disabled sister was born he was 4 years old. With a disabled sister and parents in dispute Carter felt like an outcast, displaying that the disabled were not treated as members of normalised society. Carter recounts the most upsetting aspect of the treatment of his sister; “She was dependent on us and we rejected her.” Perhaps selfishly, Carter even suggests that his childhood was ruined by the birth of his sister. The account provides evidence of the rejection of the disabled in past society and is well worth a read.
The account entitled ‘My life’ by Annie Lord also provides some worthwhile insights, dated in 1943; Lord propagates like Carter the rejection of disabled people in society. Annie Lord was deaf in one ear, although she did not discover this until she was 16, narrating; “Age of 16 years old I was taken for a different and ferocious weirdo… but they found out it was deaf,” it’s clear that Lord did feel like an outcast in society, portraying that she just had to “Carry on the best she could.” Although it has been said to be poorly written, Lord’s account gives us a rare first-hand account of what being disabled was like in 20th century society, certainly deserving of further exploration.
In Brunel’s Special Collections you’ll find details of disabled people in the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, seeing how far we have come as a society in terms of treatment of disabled people over the last century is fascinating, and a great way to spend an afternoon. In addition to this archive, we also have a modern collection of transcription poems, Neglected Voices, written by a former poet-in-residence at Brunel University, Allan Sutherland. These poems were created from life-interviews which Sutherland carried out among six individuals with different disabilities. The audio recordings and the full transcriptions of these interviews are held in Special Collections alongside the poetry collections themselves. ‘Proud’ is a poetry collection based on the words of Jennifer Taylor, who has a learning disability. ‘In Memory’ is formed from an interview with Catriona Grant, whose life was affected by a stroke at a young age. The collection, ‘This Hearing Thing,’ is based on the words of Wendy Bryant who gives an account of living with a hearing impairment, and lastly ‘Dan Dare Braces’ is a collection of poems on the life of Peter Moore, a survivor of abuse.
Annie Lord, My Life (1943). Burnett Archive, 2:486.
Autobiography of Charles William Esam-Carter (1946). Burnett Archive, 4.