Disability: A New History

Episodes

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05Finding a Voice20130531

Peter White draws on the latest research to reveal the lives of physically disabled people in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today - Finding a Voice: Peter discovers William Hay, an 18th century MP born with spinal curvature who has left us a remarkably revealing account of his life.

Peter comments, "This series has been full of surprises for me - surprises even after making programmes about disability for 30 years. But perhaps this discovery has been for me the most startling. It's a book which very few people know about, and even fewer have read - a personal exploration of what it's like to be disabled in the 18th century. It's full of insights we like to think of as modern."

In his book "On Deformity", William Hay describes his life as a disabled MP, in Parliament and on the streets. He reveals the daily humiliation of being a man of restricted growth and his fear of rowdy crowds. But he also proudly challenges the conventional thinking of the time that his disability makes him ill. He gives advice to other men in his situation about which careers they should follow. And he excels at self-deprecating humour - sometimes, he confesses, he feels like "a Worm".

Hay's essay is seen by historians as ground-breaking - because in William Hay, disability had for the first time found a voice. But Hay is a challenging role model for modern disability activists.

With historians David Turner, Naomi Baker, Tim Hitchcock and Chris Mounsey and readings by Jonathan Keeble.

Producer: Elizabeth Burke

Academic adviser: David Turner of Swansea University

A Loftus production for BBC Radio 4.

06Doing and Being20130603

Work and disability has always been an awkward fit.

Peter White says, "When as a teenager I said I wanted to be a broadcaster, there was a sharp intake of breath. Shouldn't I be considering becoming a piano tuner, or a physiotherapist? That's what blind people did. I wanted to know what it was like in the past, when people had to work - or starve."

What he discovers is surprising - disabled people were everywhere in the 19th century work-force. In some parts of the country, more than 60% of nurses had a disability. For other disabled men and women, earning a living meant creating a particular niche for themselves. Peter uncovers the career of the blind poet Priscilla Pointon, who made a living writing poetry about her life - signing up hundreds of people on a subscription list to become a wealthy woman. She was just one in a long tradition of blind poets.

Peter also discovers a treasure trove of letters from disabled people seeking work in the Victorian period, which have been collected by Professor Stephen King of Leicester University. They describe the indignity of being assessed by the authorities of the day, and their anger at being accused of faking disability. There are some striking parallels with today, when the debate about work and disability is in full swing.

With historians Steven King, Chris Mounsey and Julie Anderson, and readings by Gerard McDermott and Emily Bevan.

Producer: Elizabeth Burke

Academic adviser: David Turner of Swansea University

A Loftus production for BBC Radio 4.

07Wooden Legs and Wheelchairs20130604

Peter White has a close encounter with a huge wooden leg, and asks who got access to new technology in the 19th century.

Strangely, wooden legs were thought to be sexy in the 19th century. During the 22 years of war with France, tens of thousands of British soldiers and sailors gave their lives for their country. Surviving, with a missing limb, became tangible proof of valour - and virility.

However, the reality of life with a wooden leg was anything but romantic. Peter White discovers an extraordinary account written by a 19th century soldier, Thomas Jackson, who lost his leg in battle:

"Military surgeons are not very nice about hurting one. What with the tearing off of the bandages, and the opening of the wound afresh, and the tying of the ligaments of the arteries, I fear in my feeble strength I must have sunk under the excruciating pain. When fitted on, my wooden leg was strapped by the knee. I looked down with the same kind of satisfaction which a dog does when he gets a tin kettle tied to his tail."

But William Jackson was one of the lucky ones. As a military man, he had access to the latest technology. Disabled women were not so lucky - and could be confined to the house, unable to leave their bedroom. Two case studies - one soldier, one genteel woman in Bath - reveal how expectations of mobility were limited by gender. And how crucial it was to have individual ambition.

With historians Julie Anderson, Caroline Nielsen, and Amanda Vickery.

Producer: Elizabeth Burke

Academic adviser: David Turner of Swansea University

A Loftus production for BBC Radio 4.

08Sex and Marriage20130605

Peter White explores sex and marriage between disabled people and reveals the shameful history of eugenics in Britain.

The programme begins with a document from Buckingham Palace - an order for some glamorous undergarments for a Royal Trousseau. They were sewn by the women of the Girls' Friendly Society, a group of disabled seamstresses who made a living by sewing sexy underwear. But they themselves had no expectation of marriage, or a sex life. In fact, if they were discovered not to be a virgin they were expelled from the group.

For disabled women - or men - the idea of sex or marriage was taboo. The programme traces the fear of "bad blood" - the early and shameful history of the eugenics movement in Britain. It was a potent mixture of bad science and fear, and it ran right through society. The birth control pioneer Marie Stopes, for instance, became hysterical at the prospect of her son marrying a girl who had bad eyesight and refused to attend the wedding.

But despite such fears, there were of course romantic relationships between disabled people - not surprising, when so many of young people were living together in residential institutions in the 19th century. New research from a Swansea institution for the deaf reveals that the official rules about sex, and the reality of what happened, were very different.

With historians Professor Joanna Bourke, Mike Mantin and Vivienne Richmond. Documents are brought vividly to life by actors Euan Bailey, Gerard McDermott and Madeleine Brolly.

Producer: Elizabeth Burke

Academic adviser: David Turner of Swansea University

A Loftus production for BBC Radio 4.

09Brave Poor Things20130606

Disabled children are everywhere in popular fiction - Tiny Tim, What Katy Did, The Secret Garden. But what about the real children of the 19th century? What were their lives like, and where can we hear their voices?

In this 9th programme in the series, Peter White searches for documents which reveal the reality of children's lives.

He discovers new research into the history of the Brave Poor Things, a charity which set out to "save" disabled children across the country through organised games, outings, and a Guild song:

"A trouble's a ton, A trouble's an ounce

A trouble is what you make it.

And it isn't the fact that you're hurt that counts

But only how did you take it."

The literature of the Brave Poor Things includes quotes from children - like this girl:

"O! I am so glad to be a cripple!", said a happy-faced girl one day when away in the country. "Glad?" questioned someone. What DO you mean? And she answered "I can't help being glad. It is so beautiful to belong to the Guild, and I couldn't unless I had lost my leg."

That's from fund-raising propaganda - but it's not a real girl's voice. Using images of pathetic children to raise money for charity has had a powerful legacy.

Just occasionally, there is a real child's voice. Peter discovers a letter from a little girl in a Swansea Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, and it is almost unbearably moving:

"I do feel homesick. When are you coming to see me? Do you know how long I have to stop here? The children are all dumb here, I am the only girl that can speak."

With historians Julie Anderson, Joanna Bourke and Mike Mantin.

Producer: Elizabeth Burke

Academic adviser: David Turner of Swansea University

A Loftus production for BBC Radio 4.

10A Disabled Identity20130607

In the final part of his series, Peter White reveals the birth of a modern disabled identity in the 19th century - through the lives of some extraordinary independent blind women.

Peter says, "I'm used to people describing me as "disabled". Fair enough, I can't see. But I do wonder sometimes whether putting me into a disabled category really makes much sense. Some of my best friends use wheelchairs, but the truth is our needs could hardly be more different. I fall over them, they run over me! But over the last 40 years, disabled people have needed a collective identity to make change possible, to break down discrimination in jobs, transport, in people's attitudes generally.

People have tended to think that this sense of collective identity in Britain began after the First World War, when so many men returned with very visible injuries. But the evidence I've uncovered making this series reveals it to have begun much earlier."

This evidence comes from new research into the lives of blind women in the 19th century. We hear the stories of two extraordinary women who fought the conventions of their time, Adele Husson and Hippolyte van Lendegem. Independent, critical, angry - their voices are very modern, and research into their lives challenges accepted wisdom about the history of the disability movement.

With historians Selina Mills, David Turner and Julie Anderson, and readings by Emily Bevan and Madeleine Brolly.

Producer: Elizabeth Burke

Academic adviser: David Turner of Swansea University

A Loftus production for BBC Radio 4.

12 LASTOmnibus Edition - 2/220130607

Across the country, historians are discovering the voices of disabled people from the past. In this two week series, Peter White draws on the latest research to reveal first-hand accounts of what it was like to live with physical disability in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The result is moving, revealing, and sometimes very funny:

"Sirs, I am a dwarf. I have lost my job at the circus and what is a dwarf to do in such a situation? In this Godforsaken place the snow comes so deep that a self-respecting dwarf can't even walk along the street without drowning!"

This document is from a huge archive of letters from disabled people in the 19th century, applying to the local authorities for money. Sources like this are only now being discovered and interpreted by historians across the country - it amounts to a new historical movement.

For Peter, as a blind man, the series is revelatory. He says, "I'm used to people describing me as "disabled". Fair enough, I can't see. But I do wonder sometimes whether putting me into a disabled category really makes much sense. Some of my best friends use wheelchairs, but the truth is our needs could hardly be more different. I fall over them, they run over me! But over the last 40 years, disabled people have needed a collective identity to make change possible, to break down discrimination in jobs, transport, in people's attitudes generally.

People have tended to think that this sense of collective identity in Britain began after the First World War, when so many men returned with very visible injuries. But the evidence I've uncovered making this series reveals it to have begun much earlier."

Producer: Elizabeth Burke

Academic adviser: David Turner, Swansea University

A Loftus production for BBC Radio 4.