05 December 2012

Historic Buildings Tell Story of Disability

New Website Launched For Disability History Month

carved stone hands reading Braille

A carving of hands reading Braille on the former Royal School for the Indigent Blind, Liverpool
© English Heritage

From medieval churches built with Lepers’ squints to meeting places for the first disabled self-help groups in the early 20th century, the history of hundreds of buildings telling the story of disabled people’s lives features on a new Disability in Time and Place website launched today (Wednesday 5th December) by English Heritage: www.english-heritage.org.uk/disabilityhistory

Disability in Time and Place was launched by the Chair of English Heritage, Baroness Andrews, and Tara Flood, paralympian and Director of Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) at The Graeae Theatre, Hackney, one of London’s best examples of a fully accessible historic building.

Chiswick House, once used as a mental institution

Chiswick House, in West London, was used as a mental institution from 1892-1928
© English Heritage

A Story Unexamined and Untold

Maria Miller, Culture Secretary, said: “Our heritage is rightly famous around the world for its historic breadth and depth.  But it also shows us how society has changed over the centuries, and how attitudes and perceptions have changed.  I very much welcome English Heritage’s new Disability in Time and Place initiative, which will help visitors understand and challenge attitudes to disability.”

Baroness Andrews, Chair of English Heritage, said: “This is a history of the nation’s buildings and of a significant proportion of our population which, until now, has gone unexamined and untold.  It is the part of the history of every town and city, with the schools, chapels and hospitals which surround us all each day but it has remained invisible and silent.  I am extremely proud that English Heritage, using photography from our Archive and testimony from disabled people alongside our own research, is now bringing this story to light.”

Tara Flood, Director of Alliance for Inclusive Education, said: “Disability History Month creates an important opportunity for disabled people and our allies to celebrate our lives and to remember our history which has been about struggle and resistance against disablism. ALLFIE’s “What Did You Learn at School Today” project tells the story of how much has changed in terms of our experience of education and the important lessons we must all learn from the past. We are delighted to be supporting the Launch of English Heritage’s Disability in Time and Place project which tells a similar story – together both projects use history to highlight how much there is still to do to support the inclusion and equality of disabled people.”

Stories explored in Disability in Time and Place include

  • Early self-help groups
    The Guild of the Brave Poor Things was formed in the 19th century for young disabled people. Later known as the ‘Guild of the Handicapped’, its coat of arms was a crutch crossed with a sword with the motto ‘Laetus Sorte Mea’, which translates from Latin as ‘happy in my lot’.   In 1913 its Bristol members opened ‘The Heritage’, which was one of the very first purpose-built buildings for disabled people in Britain.  
  • Memorial Villages set up to help disabled servicemen returning home from the First World War  
    Westfield War Memorial Village in Lancaster was one of many specialist communities built for the thousands of WWI servicemen returning to Britain in need of help and support. The memorial at its centre depicts a soldier giving his wounded comrade a drink, commemorating the sacrifices made by the men of Lancaster serving in the King’s Own Royal Regiment.
  • First schools for the blind  
    In 1791, Edward Rushton, himself blind through disease, opened the ‘Liverpool School for Indigent Blind’. It was the very first school in Britain that equipped people with the skills they needed to support themselves.
  • Churches designed for deaf congregations
    Built for the Royal Association in Aid of the Deaf and Dumb by Edward Maufe in the 1920s, St Bede’s Church in Clapham and St Saviour’s in Acton were designed specifically for the deaf. They have dual pulpits, one for the chaplain and one for the interpreter, as well as bright lighting and raked seating so everyone can see. St Saviour’s is still used as a deaf church.
  • Learning disabled at Hampton Court Palace
    Known as ‘fools’ and paid to amuse their royal employers, people with learning disabilities were valued members of the Tudor Court. A painting of Henry VIII with his immediate family from around 1545 includes two of his favourite ‘fools’, who enjoyed many privileges. They were seen as being close to God and appreciated for their reputation of speaking the truth.
  • Bethlem Royal Asylum, or ‘Bedlam’
    The word ‘Bedlam’ has come to mean a scene of chaos and confusion, but Bedlam, in Lambeth, South London, was actually an institution which grew from a small, rough place housing only 40 inmates, to a place of pioneering treatments based in what we now know as the Imperial War Museum.

For the first time on English Heritage’s website, the content is transcribed into British Sign Language and available in video format.

The Disability in Time and Place project has been developed in partnership with the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), and a steering group of champions for disability rights and disability historians.  

English Heritage has also updated its publication, Easy Access to Historic Buildings, which describes how physical barriers entering and getting around historic buildings can be overcome.