Disability Since 1945

This section looks at how attitudes to disability changed after the Second World War. The National Health Service extended treatment and disabled groups campaigned for equal rights, inclusion in society and access.

World War II had put a high value on physical health and ability, but resulted in a large number of disabled ex servicemen needing support.

World War II had put a high value on physical health and ability, but resulted in a large number of disabled ex servicemen needing support.
© Wellcome Library, London

The End of the Second World War

As the Second World War ended in 1945, many horrors emerged. They included the mass killing of disabled people in Germany. The pre-war 'eugenicist' theories which had argued for the isolation and sterilisation of people with disabilities were no longer popular.

In England, public concern shifted to the 300,000 ex-servicemen and women and civilians who had been left disabled by the war.

Rehabilitation for All

The 1944 Disability Employment Act promised sheltered employment, reserved occupations and employment quotas for disabled people.

Initiatives to restore the fitness, mobility, daily living skills and morale of disabled servicemen and women spread to the rest of the disabled population. The new National Health Service extended rehabilitation services to workers disabled by industrial accidents.

The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation was an early disability rights group.

The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation was an early disability rights group.
© Disability Archive UK, Centre for Disability Studies, Leeds University

Direct Action

Disabled people did not remain passive, and many campaigning disability charities formed in the 1940s and 50s. A new social movement was started by a 'silent reproach' march of disabled ex-servicemen in 1951.

In the 1960s and 70s, the civil rights movement in America inspired disabled groups to take direct action against discrimination, poor access and inequality. A 'social' rather than a 'medical' model of disability emerged and eventually, in 1995, the Disability Discrimination Act was passed.

Inclusion and Access

The new social model was concerned with people's rights as members of society. The question of access was critical. Disabled people needed adaptations made to their environments if they were to be properly included. Separate facilities were built at first, but soon architects and planners took on the idea of 'universal design'. They created buildings and landscapes which every person could use every part of..

A man in a wheelchair is pushed up a ramp into the back of a waiting van run by The Not Forgotten Association, a charity for disabled army veterans, in front of the railings of Buckingham Palace, 1950s.

A man in a wheelchair is pushed up a ramp into the back of a waiting van run by The Not Forgotten Association, a charity for disabled army veterans, in front of the railings of Buckingham Palace, 1950s.
© English Heritage Archive

The Birth of the Paralympic Games

Great changes took place in sport. The inspirational refugee neurosurgeon, Ludwig Guttman (1899-1980), was in charge of Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. Here, patients paralysed in the war began to compete against each other as part of a pioneering rehabilitation method.

In 1948 a wheelchair archery competition was held on the lawns of the hospital. In this humble way, the Paralympic Games was born. The Games are now the second biggest sporting event on earth, and many elite disabled athletes have become sporting icons in their own right.

The End of the Asylum

The era of the asylum finally came to an end after a series of scandals revealed neglect and abuse. In 1981 the Jay Report promoted a 'care in the community' programme for people with learning disabilities and mental health needs. Tens of thousands of people left the long-term hospitals and returned to mainstream communities.

The Victorian ideal of a safe institutional 'asylum' has been replaced by new visions of equality, inclusion and universal access. Their long-term impact will be seen in time.

Watch the next BSL video on Back to the Community - Disability Equality, Rights and Inclusion

Oral History: Working at the Remploy Factory

Listen to an employee of the Remploy factory in Barking talking about bookbinding. Reproduced with permission of Eastside Community Heritage.

British Sign Language

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