Hidden Lives: Disability History at Swansea University

This is a guest blog post from Professor David Turner of Swansea University, who was kind enough to write something for us about his current research project: Disability History at Swansea University.

Image credited to the Wellcome Library, London.

This image of bandaging techniques to be used in first aid is provided free by the Wellcome Library, London.

Swansea University is a centre of excellence for research in the relatively new field of Disability History. Recent projects undertaken by lecturers and researchers in the Department of History and Classics and the College of Human and Health Science range from studies of intellectual disability in the Middle Ages to an oral history of Thalidomide survivors. Disability History sheds light on the experiences of people normally absent from the history books, while studying the treatment and cultural representation of people with disabilities in the past tells us much about topics that are central to the Humanities, asking about how societies have responded to difference and ascribed value to human life.

The main project currently underway at Swansea is Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields 1780-1948. Funded by a Wellcome Trust Programme Award of nearly £1 million, the project is one of the most ambitious studies of disability in history ever undertaken. Led by a team of researchers at Swansea University and involving collaboration with academics at Aberystwyth, Strathclyde and Glasgow Caledonian Universities, the five year project compares the representation and experiences of disability in three British coalfields (South Wales, North East England and Scotland), in order to explore the lives of those disabled in the workplace, set against the backdrop of industrialisation.

The Industrial Revolution has been regarded by some scholars of disability as marking a profound turning point in the lives of people with disabilities, heralding their increasing marginalisation from the workforce. But our research is presenting a more complicated picture. ‘Industrialisation’ was a multi-faceted process which had different consequences in different sectors of the economy.

Coalmining was essential to Britain’s economic development between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, providing the fuel that powered the expansion in manufacturing industries. It was also highly dangerous, producing casualties from explosions, roof falls and a variety of disabling health problems, from visual impairments to lung diseases. Disability was ubiquitous in the coalfields, but disabled people were not necessarily excluded from the workforce. People with disabilities were expected to work as long as possible and we find some men injured underground returning to work on the surface, albeit in more menial, low-skilled roles. We even find some significantly impaired men working at the coalface. For example, Griffith Ellis who worked at hewing coal at the Upper Gethin Colliery, Merthyr Tydfil, had a wooden leg, and seemed to have worked alongside his brother, David. Sadly the brothers were killed in an explosion in 1865.

We shouldn’t romanticise the lives of disabled people in the past. The fact that Griffith Ellis continued to work after the loss of his leg reflects as much the lack of social care for people with disabilities in Victorian Britain as it does his ‘empowerment’ or willingness to challenge stereotypes. But this and other cases remind us that the experiences of disability in the past could be diverse and resist straightforward categorisation.

Students in the Department of History and Classics have been finding this out for themselves this term as part of the module HIH266, ‘Researching and Re-telling the Past’. The eight students who took this module have been focussing on disability in nineteenth-century industrial Britain, discovering sources about disability in the archives and blogging about their findings. One group (http://swandishist.wordpress.com) examined the conditions inside the Cambrian Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, a school founded in 1847 to educate children with hearing impairments. The other blog showcased a variety of topics, from the history of assistance animals to the representation of children in Victorian fiction (http://dhrmonth.wordpress.com).

In producing blogs for the general public, students taking the module recognised the growing importance of public engagement in historical research. Disability History at Swansea University has a strong commitment to reaching new audiences with our research, providing interpretation of the past that is relevant to the lives of people with disabilities, their friends, families as well as policymakers and people who work in the healthcare and voluntary sectors. In 2013, I worked on a series for BBC Radio 4, Disability: A New History, which was intended to get disability out of a broadcasting ghetto and into the popular mainstream by showing the richness of its pre-twentieth-century history (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b021mdwt). The Disability and Industrial Society project team have held workshops with disability groups, former miners and healthcare professionals to present our research findings and discuss their modern relevance. We are now putting the final touches to an exhibition on coalfield disability that will open at the National Waterfront Museum next summer.

Disability is something that potentially affects everyone. Its history is relevant to anyone coping with the life-altering consequences of accident, injury, or chronic illness, or adapting to the fading sight, hearing and strength that accompany the body’s natural process of aging. Studying disability historically shows how people have lived with impairment and how they have been treated by others. Understanding these things helps us adapt to the circumstances of our own changing lives, and heightens awareness of the struggles facing disabled people in the present. Disability is not just about an oppressed minority, but is also part of every family’s history. Disability history therefore helps to tell the story of our collective past.

Written by David Turner