14 Jun 2013 Voices from the Past: A New History of Disability - Alun Withey

What was life like for disabled people in the past? The history of disability has risen to far greater prominence in recent years. Academic historians interested in the history of the body, of medicine and of cultural attitudes towards impairment have begun to recover the experiences of disabled people, while disability history is rapidly becoming a virtual sub-discipline of itself. Equally, as contemporary debates and concerns about disability become ever more relevant, disabled people are increasingly finding a voice. The importance of such developments is reflected by the new landmark Radio 4 series “Disability: a New History”, whose run on network radio has just completed.

The series has been written in conjunction with Dr David Turner of Swansea University, an expert on the history of disability, and is presented by Peter White, a visually impaired broadcaster who works to alter perceptions of disability. Other academic contributors include Amanda Vickery, Julie Anderson and Steven King. This combination of serious academic research together with the personal experience and appealing style that White brings, make for a series that is stimulating and very engaging.


Matthew Buchinger

[Matthew Buchinger, the artist and magician who was featured in an episode of the series. Image source: Wellcome Library, London. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial version 2.0 licence]


Aimed at recovering the lived experience of disabled people in previous centuries, it uncovers a fascinating wealth of stories, good, bad and sometimes incredible, about the ways in which our predecessors coped with bodies that did not conform to the ideals of ‘normality’. As Peter White notes in the introduction to the programme, “Their voices are only just beginning to be heard”.

And what voices. Uncovering the thoughts, feelings and experiences of any historical actor in the past is problematic enough so it might be easy to assume that the disabled were simply a silent minority. As this series demonstrates, nothing could be further from the truth. Consider the case of the poet Priscilla Pointon, whose verse was dedicated to articulating her experiences as a blind woman in eighteenth-century polite society. Her poems speak candidly about the physical day-to-day problems of being sightless in a world where difference was almost always remarked upon and sadly often ridiculed.

Some of the stories, like the Irish crossing sweeper in Henry Mayhew’s account, hint at the problems faced by those whose afflictions hindered their work. Noting that no woman inLondonwould deign to marry a lame man, the man spoke of the hardships of doing menial work for desperately low wages. Letters to poor law guardians in the nineteenth century also highlight the desperate appeals for support made by disabled people struggling to make ends meet. But perhaps the most interesting fact to arise from these letters is the repeated desire shown by disabled people to obtain, or return to, some form of work.

Indeed, what shines through from the many examples in the series is the repeated ‘ability’, rather than ‘disability’ of people in the past. With sometimes seemingly insurmountable physical restrictions many developed remarkable coping strategies to enable themselves to participate fully in everyday social, cultural and commercial life. Priscilla Pointon’s blindness, for example, was no barrier to success with subscriptions to her book list running to more than 1300 and a coach and four being just one indicator of her wealth. Some even used their appearance to their (questionable) advantage. Episode three details impaired people, such as John Coan, the “miniature man” who imitated birdsong in public displays. Such people as Coan or the “hairy woman” noted by Samuel Pepys, remind us that disabled people were not shy of deploying their conditions strategically if it meant the ability to earn a crust.  Disabled people, as one episode suggests, were in fact common in the workplace. This is an important point. Far from being scroungers or a burden on the state, disabled people actively sought work and a productive role in their respective communities.


Sign language wedding

[A wedding conducted in sign language. Image source: Wellcome Library London. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial version 2.0 licence.]


A wide range of topics are covered in the thematic episodes, from the construction of identity to previously marginalised and often-overlooked aspects of disabled lives such as sex and marriage. This programme provides a fascinating insight into the sexual restrictions (and indeed frustrations) of disabled women. Even more astonishing to modern eyes is the discouragement of sexual relations between deaf and non-deaf people, in the belief that such a union would propagate the spread of deafness. Here social and medical attitudes intertwined to produce a stigma which doubtless manifested in attitudes towards other types of ‘able-bodied’ and ‘disabled’ unions. By the end of the nineteenth century, beliefs in genetics and eugenics brought sinister overtones of ‘bad blood’  - a corrupting element of disability which effectively tainted families with a disabled member, and made sex unsafe if not entirely taboo. On the other side of this coin, however, are tales such as the sign-language wedding between two deaf mutes in nineteenth-centurySwansea. Shunning pity, the apparently happy and fruitful marriages enjoyed by many disabled people remind us that many disabled people lived full, happy and, as the programme justly puts it, “normal” lives.

Questions of whether disability could be ‘cured’ are dealt with in the second episode. Early modern doctors employed a range of questionable, uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous remedies. Even during the age of Enlightenment, people still took children to London for the royal touch to ‘cure’ their Scrofula (King’s Evil). Disabled or deformed children might be taken to shrines in the hope that God would heal them, reinforced by miracle stories. In the medieval and early modern periods, so-called ‘monstrous births’ were viewed as resulting from anything from divine intervention for the sinfulness of parents to witchcraft or astrology. Such things remind us of the suspicion that was sometimes levelled at those with visible impairments.

Overall, the series brings the experiences, attitudes and voices of disabled people to life in a new and exciting way. Helping us to unpack centuries’ of accreted prejudices it takes us straight to the lived experience of disability more than two centuries ago, through the voices of those who knew it best – those who were there. The writers, presenters and producers are to be commended on this important milestone in the developing history of disability.

Episodes and transcripts of “Disability: A New History” are available to download from the series website:


Alun Withey

University of Exeter