English Heritage reveals a time and a place for disability history


From churches designed for Deaf congregations to the first schools for blind children and one of the earliest disabled people’s organisations, a new website project charts the history of disabled people through the buildings they have used.

Disability in Time and Place was launched this week by English Heritage – the government’s adviser on the historic environment – and features scores of photographs that link buildings to the stories of disabled people over the last 1,000 years.

English Heritage used photographs from its archive, original research, and testimony from disabled people to build the new section of its website.

Stories explored include the formation in 1894 of The Guild of the Brave Poor Things, a user-led group for disabled people; the first school for blind people, set up in 1791 by Edward Rushton, who was blind himself; and two churches designed for Deaf people in the 1920s, which feature dual pulpits, one for the priest and one for the interpreter.

Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), which worked as a partner on the project, welcomed the decision of a “mainstream” organisation like English Heritage to focus a project on disability history.

ALLFIE’s own What Did You Learn At School Today? oral history project is currently recording disabled people’s experiences of education over the last 100 years, in conjunction with the British Library.

Flood said both projects “use history to highlight how much there is still to do to support the inclusion and equality of disabled people”.

But she said the projects also highlighted the “sense of isolation and the sense of segregation”, both through the “physical incarceration” of disabled people in the old asylums, long-stay hospitals and residential special schools, and the “emotional sense of segregation it creates for people”.

And she said there was a “very clear link” between the segregation of disabled people and disability hate crime.

Flood pointed to disabled children who were segregated into special schools and then left school with “no anchors in their community”, a situation which “drives the incidence of hate crime”.

The launch of the new web pages took place during UK Disability History Month, which this year has focused on challenging the ideas that have led to disability hate crime.

Richard Rieser, coordinator of UK Disability History Month, welcomed the new English Heritage pages as a “framework” to build on.

He said: “The rights that so many people have fought for are very much under threat at the moment.

“It is very important that the coming generation [of disabled people]realise that whatever rights we have got have had to be struggled for.”

But he said English Heritage’s work on the website should be just the beginning, and that he hoped it would spark debate among disabled people, who would be able to put “flesh and blood” on the “bare bones” of the pages.

6 December 2012