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Disability history


Records relating to living with disabilities, both physical and mental, start in the Middle Ages, can be found in a variety of different collections within the Borthwick Institute. This page lists just a few of the sorts of records which may contain information.

Private papers

Collections of family papers – such as letters and diaries – reveal information about changing attitudes to disability through time, including comments about relatives and their own disabilities as well as about charities they may support.

Church records

The Church has cared for, and legislated about, the disabled and disability since the Middle Ages. Medieval Bishops were anxious to provide suitable help for clergy with disabilities. Later, at parish level, the accounts kept by parish officials such as churchwardens demonstrate concern for those with physical disabilities: see the case of the York churchwarden's accounts. In the church courts an individual's perceived mental capacity could affect their legal right to make a will or to marry and cases about this appear in the Church Courts. For an example read the story of Margery Blakelocke.

Charity records

Records for charities to help those dealing with disabilities vary from large, national charities to small, local organisations, and include charity schools. At the Borthwick the records of the Wilberforce School for the Blind in York are a major, largely untapped source of information. The archives also contain information about smaller charities, for example the subscription book for an eighteenth-century charity to support the blind children of the clergy.

Medical records

Medical records are an obvious place to look for information about disabilities and attitudes to them. The majority of the medical records at the Borthwick are from psychiatric hospitals, whose patient records reveal numbers of people who suffered from physical rather than psychiatric problems. For an example read the case of Walter Freelove Brown.

Probate records

Wills and probate accounts may provide some information about the care of the testator's relatives with disabilities. Probate accounts may include details of payments owed to doctor and carers form the deceased's estate, for example the case of Ursula Simpson's daughter, Ellen, who was blind. Testators usually appointed guardians for children who received legacies from their wills and who were under 21. When these children – or other legatees – were believed to be permanently incapable of administering their own property because of a disability such guardianships could be made for life. Wills also include bequests and (in early wills) grants of alms for the sick and needy including those with disabilities.