Remembering and Reflecting: Disability and Community in Cornwall, headed by Dr Theo Blackmore, research manager for Disability Cornwall, aims to show how the lives of disabled people in Cornwall have changed over time.
The project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, recorded 19 in-depth interviews with disabled people across the county, on issues such as education, employment, hate crime, and what they did in their spare time.
The idea came from interviews Blackmore carried out with disabled people for his PhD in disability studies at the University of Exeter.
One disabled woman had told him how her brothers built her what they called a “dilly” – a kind of go-kart – when she was a girl, because her family could not afford a wheelchair.
When she was in her 20s she moved into a Leonard Cheshire residential home because it was the only way to obtain a wheelchair, and it had level access. She has lived there ever since, for about 60 years.
Blackmore says in an introductory video: “It occurred to me at the time that there are some disabled people in Cornwall who have some real tales to tell about their lives, and about how things have changed over time.”
Even though there are about 115,000 disabled people living in Cornwall – about 20 per cent of the population – the Cornwall Record Office does not hold recordings of disabled people, and it agreed with Blackmore that this was a “real gap”.
He told Disability News Service: “It’s an attempt not to fill that gap but to begin a process where at least there is recognition that these people do have voices and that there are amazing histories that need to be recorded.”
The videoed interviews have so far been viewed online around the world, including in north America, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Japan and even Kazakhstan.
The interviews will be lodged with the record office, the Cornwall audio-visual archive, and the county’s Azook Cornish history project, as well as with organisations such as Cornwall College, which Blackmore hopes will use them to train health and social care students.
He also hopes they will be used by Cornwall Council to train social workers and councillors, where they might help to break down some “specific views and preconceptions”, and bring new ideas into the council.
He suggested that they could help to educate the minority of councillors who might share similar views to those expressed last year by the independent Cornish councillor Collin Brewer, who caused outrage and was forced to resign after suggesting in a DNS interview that it might be a good idea to kill some disabled babies.
He said: “I think it will be a can of worms in there. I don’t think Brewer was unique. I am sure there are other people of his ilk [in the council]… who might think in a similar kind of way.”
Blackmore said the project was also an attempt – despite the problems many are currently facing – to show that life for disabled people had “fundamentally changed in a fairly positive direction” over the last 50 or 100 years.
And it will mean that researchers can look back in another 50 or 100 years to see how things had changed again for disabled people in Cornwall.
One of the major themes to come from the interviews was the negative attitudes of other people, including at school.
One of those interviewed, Pete Skea, says in his interview: “They used to put a disabled person in the corner and basically forget all about us and not integrate us into the mainstream classroom.”
But most of the interviewees also speak “very positively” about living in Cornwall as disabled people, mentioning aspects such as “community, belonging and a sense of place”, says Blackmore in one of the videos.
Chris Jordan tells how, as someone with learning difficulties, he was elected to his local parish council in 2003, while Richard Pryor says that people right across the county are “always very accommodating, always willing to help you out, take you somewhere, get you involved in something”.
Dr Claire Tregaskis, who left the county and then returned to Cornwall later in life, describes how she decided to come back in the 1990s when she realised it was “safe” to visit her home town of Wadebridge.
She says she moved back at around the time the Eden Project opened in St Austell in 2000, when people from other parts of Britain who were “more used to difference” had also started moving to Cornwall.
She says she could not have returned to Cornwall if Wadebridge itself hadn’t changed. Previously, she says, she “felt like an alien” in the town, but “when people stopped crossing the road to avoid me I knew it was safe”.
“All of a sudden it didn’t matter actually if local people were still not liking me, because there were new people who didn’t mind talking to me.
“And oddly enough I found that the more that that happened, the more the locals suddenly thought, ‘Oh, actually, she isn’t quite as scary.'”
Among the negative issues the interviewees discussed were the public transport system, the inaccessible built environment, and the isolation of Cornwall from the rest of the country.
Skea says: “I know it’s happening everywhere, but I think it’s happening worse in Cornwall, all the benefit changes, all the council cutbacks.
“We’re always last to know what is happening down here and I think when it comes from the economic point-of-view I think we’re all worst hit down in Cornwall than perhaps I would be if I was somewhere else in England.”
Blackmore is due to show all of the interviews at Cornwall College tomorrow (21 February), at an event attended by members of the fire service and police force, as well as students and council staff, members of the public, and some of the interviewees.
The interviews will be screened every Monday for the next few weeks, at about 9.30pm, on the Cornwall Channel, which broadcasts every Monday evening from 9-10pm on Sky Channel 212
20 February 2014