Social history of disability

Visitors with items from the Hidden Now Heard exhibition Credit: Paul Pickard
Held as part of the Inclusive Heritage conference 2015, this workshop discussed the emerging findings within disability histories.


Laura Harris, Paul Hunt and Sarah Pickard from Mencap Cymru's Hidden Now Heard project and Beth Astridge and Darrienne Price from the Accentuate Programme and Screen South's History of Place project spoke about the challenges and opportunities ahead for sharing disability histories.

Workshop discussions

Discovering social history stories

Rich stories can be found in correspondence, diaries, personal accounts, doctors’ notes, school records and artworks.

Some archives may be under threat because people may not have realised their value. Accentuate and Mencap Cymru shared their experiences of finding disability paper archives in strange places such as in a disused office building, covered in mould and barely readable; or in the airing cupboard of a former hospital administrator.

“The history may be staring us in the face but we stare straight past it.” Workshop participant

Setting up conversations with academics and community practitioners, and using them to create sustainable networks had proved useful. These partnerships could also help local communities set up archive research groups.

Dealing with difficult stories

Workshop discussions showed that there was a need to be aware of the wide and conflicting range of historial interpretations about disability and institutional history. We should not always assume we are documenting a journey from darkness into light.

Remember that there were changes in perceptions over time, and focus on these.” Workshop participant

Be confident about displaying the demeaning terms once used - visitors will understand that they are there because they were once a historical reality. Look for positive stories, for example, the patient who regularly escaped the hospital to go to the pub, to be brought back at closing time by police. And tell stories through everyday objects. Mencap Cymru attached oral history information to everyday objects in their interactive exhibition such as telephones, pillows and a toilet flush (where the issue discussed was lack of privacy). It was agreed film can also be a great medium for communication, especially for young people and people with learning difficulties.

How to use oral histories

Mencap Cymru shared their experience of interviewees’ concerns about the oral history interview process. Many health and care staff and the families of people placed in long-stay hospitals now have a sense of shame and won’t always trust researchers.

“Act according to the principle that everyone has a right to access their heritage easily” Workshop participant

Oral history projects should be underpinned by training. People with learning disabilities who are oral historians expect to follow normal interview procedures, but people’s prejudices will sometimes constrain the course of interview. It might help to do a trial run and make an assessment of how people interact with the interviewer before deciding on who does which interview. Consider budgeting for counselling and emotional stress support for lay researchers when the challenges of uncovering painful histories become considerable.

Read the full summary of the workshop written by Dr Chris Goodey from the University of Leicester below.

Hidden Now Heard project: A long-stay hospital in Wales
Accentuate History of Place project: The Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind was the first UK specialist school for the blind Credit: Accentuate Screen South
Accentuate History of Place project: Guild of the Brave Poor Things was the first building designed for disabled people to come together socially Credit: Courtesy of Bristol Record Office
Accentuate History of Place project: Mural of Edward Rushton on the ceiling at The Liverpool School for the Blind Credit: Accentuate Screen South
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