05 Aug 2015 Exhibition podcast: Kat Watkins, SAFE


In the first of a series of podcasts about our exhibition, 'From Pithead to Sick Bed', Kat Watkins from the disability group Swansea Access For Everyone (SAFE) tours the exhibition and talks about how disability history connects to her own experience and activism. In conversation with Mike Mantin.

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Mike Mantin (MM): Welcome to the Disability and Industrial Society podcast, my name's Mike Mantin and I'm here with Kat Watkins. Kat if you'd like to introduce yourself?

Kat Watkins (KW): My name's Kat Watkins and I work with Swansea Access for Everybody. I've just looked around the exhibition and, quite enjoyable.

MM: Great, so what did you think, how did you feel about the exhibition when you were looking round it?

KW: To be honest, when I was looking around the exhibition it made me draw a parallel to nowadays, that things really haven't changed a lot from how they were 100 or so years ago, and I just saw that these men went through incredible hardship just to survive. But the same can be seen nowadays as well.

MM: What in particular stood out to you that made you think that?

KW: Um, for me the rite of passage back to work. Whether you can or you can't, you've got to go and do it, sort of thing. But it's not deemed as acceptable if you're not able physically to do it. You've got to try and push yourself to be able to do whatever. And also the setting up of the NHS and welfare state and that happening in Wales as a direct consequence of the direct consequence of the miners. That's pretty fascinating to me.

MM: Did the exhibition change how you feel about disability in history?

KW: Um, not really.

MM: Fair enough! What can museums do to increase visibility of disability in society, to change society's attitudes?

KW: I think museums could actually play a big part in changing society's attitudes to disability, maybe setting up a few more exhibitions that are focused on disability historically. Like for example there was an exhibition a few years ago about a mummy that was found in Egypt that had brittle bones and it had been preserved 2000 years. That was quite incredible to me. And also making museums a lot more accessible, for example putting the exhibits lower and more visible, and not having to make you stretch yourself in all different sorts of ways to read the writings on the wall. Also making it bigger, because a lot of the time it's so incredibly small it's so difficult to read it. Or providing it in different formats, like giving an iPad at the beginning of the tour, saying "you might struggle with this part of the exhibition, so we provided this to enable you to participate better".

MM: That's a brilliant idea.

MM: This picture of the miners at Portcawl Rest is one of the first things we found. It's kind of hard to find pictures of disabled people in coalmines and disabled people in history -

KW: It's quite hard to find pictures of disabled people in general.

MM: Yeah.

KW: Cos we were deemed not visually appealing, and like freak shows. So you'd see them more in storybooks. At my old school there's a film done, it's quite incredible actually, footage from like 1908 of disabled children.

MM: Wow. Which school did you go to?

KW: Treloar School in Hampshire.

MM: So was this kind of like orchestrated footage where they got the kids all together, or does it show them at play?

KW: No it was like, so they went on days out and stuff and at play or at work, something like that, recuperating in hospitals. So it was set up before the NHS like that convalescent home. It was for sick and disabled children in London. By William Perdie Trigle.

MM: Did they put the footage online?

KW: It is available yeah, you could have a look for it online.

KW: Attitudes haven't really changed. "Useless to themselves and a burden to their relatives", that's pretty much what is expressed now. It's not changed at all in, well that's 150 years ago almost. It's quite depressing really to, you know-

MM: To draw that line between then and today?

KW: Yeah, and disability is still seen as the recklessness of the individual, sort of thing. There are certain people who still believe if you're born disabled you've done something in a past life that means you are disabled or your parents did something that needed to be punished. Note the views haven't changed at all.

MM: That's incredibly depressing.

KW: Yeah! It's not fun being disabled sometimes.

MM: Yeah.


MM: We wanted to emphasise in this panel, the need for family care for miners who couldn't rely on the state or collieries.

KW: There obviously wasn't much care available outside of the family other than convalescent homes. And you know, it's so much a parallel to nowadays. A lot of the time, particularly with the closure of the Independent Living Fund, unless you've got your family or close friends, that sort of thing, you do end up in shared accommodation, care homes, that sort of things, so you're still relying on your family to survive. It's almost again like the work capability assessment, "what can you do now?"

MM: "Are you fit to work?"

KW: Yeah. it's quite fascinating how, although we say we've come a long way in the last 200 years, we really haven't. It's still the same.

MM: Dressed up in new ways?

KW: Mm. And women take quite a big role now. They're not just shut away. But that's all disability was, shut away. It's not a lot different now.

MM: Even after things like de-institutionalisation, mainstreaming, that doesn't solve everything?

KW: Oh no.


MM: The last panel here is called Lessons from History-

KW: Yeah, I agree with that, part of that.

MM: Which part?

KW: Agree that it [disability] shouldn't ever be a restriction. And it's how society reacts. But unless society has knowledge and isn't fed propaganda all the time 'cos every news article you see or news story on the TV, it's all about how disabled people are scroungers of the planet and how they just sit on their bottoms doing nothing, and it's really saddening cos that's not how it is at all. And as such, we're not given a chance. And it's hindering our prospects of getting a job, which the government wants us to do. And because we're deemed parasites, basically, people who would give the jobs are like "oh, they're going to drain my company now" and take whatever we can offer. And it's just really crap. And also there were things set up to help people into work like the homes, and there was access to a fund that said they would help buy tiny pieces of equipment that would help you undertake a job. That's closing down now.

MM: Think of Remploy factories as well, setup in the aftermath of the coal indstury and World War II-.

KW. It's all going, all going. I just don't understand it. I don't understand the vendetta of people, basically. There's not really much need for it. People are people at the end of the day regardless of whether they have any impairments at the end of the day. They're still humans.

MM: So even though this is kind of before the NHS, before the formal welfare state, things are still similar?

KW: Yep. Still very similar. And although we do benefit so greatly from the welfare state and without it we would be stuck, totally, it's now gone the wrong way of, yes it is taken advantage of, and it isn't now helping those like the miners, the sick and disabled.

MM: So I mean just looking at the history of this, it can bring out strong emotions about the present?

KW: Yeah, it really can. I mean, it is quite incredible to see that it is totally parallel, there is no difference. That yeah, it's just history repeating itself over and over again.

MM: What do you think people can do to stop that happening?

KW: The stigmatism of disability needs to be shattered. And needs to stop being scared of disability, like if someone has a disability they need society to view them just as an individual rather than a parasite or a burden. Someone accumulates their disability, they need to not see themselves as a parasite or burden.

MM: Yeah, so some of it can be kind of internalised?

KW. Yep. It still is internalised, and that's because of the government etc. telling you that you're worthless, that your life is not worth anything anymore because you can't contribute to society as much as you used to be able to. It's not right, really not right. And no matter what is done now I fear that all the progress that is being made has been disbanded completely. Although I've got a job I can't work- I did 12 hours one week, I did 20 hours in 8 days and oh my god, I suffered so badly for that. And I could barely speak, nobody could understand a word I was saying. it wasn't because I was tired it's because my disability just flared up. And it's just not worth it. It's not worth putting myself through that all the time. And it seems like that's something people don't see and they think you're just making it up. And you're disability is just broken bones, that's all you do. So unless you've broken bones there's nothing wrong with you. But it's really not that.

MM: Like you're fit to work, regardless of something like cerebral palsy for example. "You'll get better, you can go to work"

KW: Yeah exactly. It's like the government saying, with the right support, you can just lead a normal, active life. Well yeah, we could, but that still doesn't mean I'm perfectly capable of working.

MM: Exactly, yeah.


MM: This is a trambulance, used to carry injured miners out of a the mines and onto a train or into the hospital. It's pretty back-to-basics, we had an original one which had a red cross painted on it and a shelter, but this is another which is basically just a stretcher on wheels.

KW: Yeah, but it's showing the way of the modern day bed for the ambulances with the wheels on the bottom.

MM: Yeah, two sets of wheels.

KW: It's like the styling really hasn't changed that much has it? So although basic it's engineering, just engineering, doing what you need it to do.

MM: And nothing else. No fancy colours!

KW: No point in having something for several jobs but only does one.

MM: Yeah, exactly.

KW: And a leg brace.

MM: Yes, a calliper, from Llandough Hospital.

KW: And the style of first-aid boxes hasn't changed much?

MM: No, no.

KW: I'm glad to see the style of callipers has changed though.

MM: Yeah that looks pretty uncomfortable.

KW: But it's quite good that they have to have a high number of miners carrying first-aid with them.

MM: Yeah, one of the first industries to really push towards that, 'cos it's so dangerous.