One in five people in Britain today has a disability and their present lives are still affected by the lives of their predecessors during the Industrial Revolution. But what was the experience really like for disabled people during this tumultuous period in history?

In the last four years, Swansea University, in collaboration with three other UK universities, and funded by the Wellcome Trust have carried out research led by Prof. David Turner under the central question of: how important was industrialisation in shaping conceptions and experiences of disability between 1780 and 1948? To answer this question they have consulted a very wide range of historical sources such as autobiographies, medical and mining company records, parliamentary papers, Royal Commission reports or newspapers and novels among others.

We previously had little information about it but, during the 19th Century, about a hundred non-fatal accidents took place in Britain’s mines for every fatal one leading, in many cases, to permanent disabilities. But the team working on this project recently proved that disabled people played an equally important role to that of the rest of the workers during this period, even if it wasn’t necessarily on the same terms.

According to Dr. Blackie, speaking to the BBC, there were “numerous examples of people who have experienced disabling injuries and illness playing a full part in the mines, and coming up with ingenious ways of helping themselves to adjust. But what you quickly realise is that these aren't all people who are choosing to work. Some are, but many had little option but to return to work because of the financial pressure being off work put them and their families under.”

He added: "If you'd have pensioned off everyone who had a respiratory condition or who'd received a crush injury then there simply wouldn't have been enough workers.”

Dr Mantin also explained how “legislation towards the end of the 19th Century made mine owners responsible for accidents and entitled workers to compensation, making bosses less inclined to hire disabled workers because of the risk involved.”

He added: “The 20th Century meant mixed fortunes for injured and sick men, which seem to have fluctuated with the state of the economy. For example, during the depression fewer men were required and those with disabilities were let go first, but either side of the two wars there was a sense that every man is a valuable economic commodity and is therefore worth rehabilitating. It’s only since the development of the social model of disability in the 1970s that disability history has emerged as a specifically-focused field.”

Since then society’s attitude to disability has evolved, and far from being regarded as a series of isolated cases, our attitude towards disability is interpreted as something shaped by social factors which cannot be explained through a few individuals. 

Dr Blackie concluded: “Disability, both today and in the past, is frequently associated with incapacity for work. Because of this, historians have generally failed to recognise the valuable productive contributions many disabled people have made to their families and communities in the past.

“The general historiographical silence on disability issues is also a reflection of the social exclusion of disabled people today. With the growing success of the disability rights movement in recent years, historians have finally been moved to explore the hidden history of disability.”

Documenting these events, there is a film set in the Second World War called Live Again which, according to Dr Mantin, “insinuates in its title that life for injured workers was not worth living without treatment and the value of work. Its final shot is a triumphant scene of a patient holding a safety lamp and going back into the mines as a 'useful and normal citizen', so in many ways the challenges of stigma and perception which faced disabled workers were the same then as they are now."

Another way to approach this period is going to Swansea's Waterfront museum from 20th June, where there will be an exhibition based on this study with documents, photographs and artefacts that prove how disabled people were treated and viewed in the mining industry.

For more information about the project and museum exhibition click here


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