Tag Archives: disability history

Disability: a taboo area of Britain’s past

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.

References:

Annie Lord, My Life (1943). Burnett Archive, 2:486.

Autobiography of Charles William Esam-Carter (1946). Burnett Archive, 4.

 

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Disability History Month

Disability History Month is an annual event which runs from 22nd November to 22nd December, covering AIDS day (1st Dec), International Day of People with Disabilities (3rd Dec) and International Human Rights Day (10th 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. For more information on UK Disability History Month, visit their website.

In honour of this month, Brunel Library’s Special Collections would like to draw your attention to the remarkable items we hold which give insight into the lives of disabled individuals over the last two centuries.

The Burnett Archive, a collection of fascinating working class autobiographies, contains several accounts of lives affected by disability. To give an example, one autobiography is written by a man who suffered from epilepsy in a time when it was not well understood. Born in 1914, this man tells of his struggle to live a “normal life” and hopes that in doing so he can provide others with hope that they will be able to do the same (Wally Ward, Burnett Archive 2;798).
The autobiographies provide very moving personal life-experiences, and expose prejudices and discrimination which we may be shocked to discover today. Born in Manchester in 1912, Jim Ingram remembers being made an “other” even as a small child due to his physical disability. He recalls adults arguing over the worth of “crippled” children: “Once I overheard the older people arguing that a crippled child was evidence of sin and had no right to be alive. Things like me should be destroyed at birth.” (Jim Ingram, Burnett Archive 2:430)

Sadly, this discrimination often came from inside the family, as highlighted in one autobiography which tells of a brother resenting the birth of his severely disabled sister whom he feels stole his childhood and tore apart his family. This narrative gives insight into the effect that the lack of support and understanding within the wider society had on individuals. (Charles Esam-Carter, Burnett Archive Part 4)

The Burnett archives also hold fascinating but disturbing accounts of the treatment of people suffering with mental health conditions and their experiences in “lunatic asylums”. (H .J. Harris, Burnett Archive 2:363)

For more information on what the Burnett archive holds visit our webpage about it and arrange to visit and read these accounts for yourself.

In addition to these documents, 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.

To access these invaluable first-hand accounts of living with a disability both in the modern day and in previous centuries, come and visit Special Collections and read these life histories for yourself.