Accessibility statement

Disability history


Six male blind members of the Wilberforce Memorial in a black and white photograph, pictured lined up on tandem cycles, with six male guides.

Researching disability history is important but can be challenging. The stories of people in the past with disabilities range from great successes to appalling mistreatment. Recognition and acceptance of disability has varied over time, often making it difficult to identify in the historical record. The voices of those with disabilities are often more marginalised and less well documented. Understandings of impairments and the corresponding terminology have developed substantially, and historical records may be difficult to interpret or what we would now consider offensive. On top of that, disability history is a broad, diverse and multifaceted field with many nuances to consider. 

Yet researching disability history is very valuable. As of 2023, Scope estimates that there are 16 million people with disabilities living in the UK, and the World Health Organisation estimates 1.3 billion people, 16% of the world’s population, experience significant disability. Disability is often a basis for health, social and economic inequality, and therefore past people with disabilities may have different stories to tell than standard historical narratives centred on people without disabilities, and in telling such stories our contemporary understandings and approaches to disability may develop. 

This Research Guide 

This introductory guide aims to provide a foundation for researching disability history in the Borthwick Institute for Archives. It seeks to highlight major potential research themes, provide suggestions for relevant materials held within the archives, and illustrate potential stories to be uncovered through examples and case studies. It is hoped that it will direct and inspire researchers of all levels and backgrounds to add to our knowledge of disability in the past, and we would welcome any suggestions and new insights. 

There are several things this guide is not intended to be. It is not intended to be a comprehensive gazetteer of all the relevant material held in our collections; it provides suggestions, but doubtless further useful materials will be available too. It is not prescriptive to any particular approach to or theory about disability history; recognising that research will operate from numerous perspectives and for numerous purposes, it is deliberately broad and general, and thus some content that may not appear relevant to those operating from a specific perspective may usefully benefit others. Similarly, it does not adopt any specific definition of disability beyond seeking to identify an impairment, mental and/or physical, that differs from a traditional normative understanding of the body; as understandings vary in the present and past, the cases considered are purposefully very broad and thus may not fully align with any one definition. 

Users of the guide are warned that it may discuss content and terminology which may be considered offensive and distressing. Disabilities, and people with disabilities, were often omitted or marginalised, and so this guide can only work within the constraints of such historical omissions and biases. Accounts of people with disabilities, such as those produced in an institutional setting, can often be dehumanising and deny their agency, and while this guide seeks to avoid such treatment some sources reflect this approach. The consent of those discussed in historical documents may not have been obtained by their authors, and unethical and immoral approaches may have been used to obtain information. Additionally, it is often unclear whether people referred to in historical documents would have considered themselves ‘disabled’, or how else if at all they would have identified. This guide seeks to avoid mislabelling people where their self-identification is unclear. Thus, while examples of people living with impairments are given, this is not meant to imply that they or their contemporaries necessarily considered them ‘disabled’. These examples are also generally not recent in date to avoid identifying living people or their relatives.

Please note that data protection laws restrict access to records less than 100 years old, where they contain personal information about potentially living individuals. These records can generally only be used for statistical research, and researchers wishing to use twentieth century personal records should contact the Borthwick for further information.

We would like to thank University of York student Andrew Hill for his work creating this guide. 

Further Reading

Bredberg, E. (1999). Writing disability history: problems, perspectives and sources. Disability & Society, 14(2), 189-201. 

Burch, S. and Rembis, M. (2014). Re-membering the past: reflections on disability histories. In Burch, S. and Rembis, M. (Eds.). Disability histories. Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, pp. 1-13. 

Kudlick, C. J. (2003). Disability history: why we need another “other”. The American Historical Review, 108(3), 763-793. 

Richards, P. and Burch, S. (2018). Documents, ethics, and the disability historian. In Rembis, M., Kudlick, C. and Nielsen, K. E. (Eds.). The Oxford handbook of disability history. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

In July 2022, University of York celebrated it's first campus-wide Disability Pride Month. You can find out more about Disability Pride Month, and hear the thoughts of some of our disabled students and staff, on the University's Disability History Month 2022 microsite. We're very grateful to student intern Sophie Mattholie, who created the microsite, for giving us permission to use her work in this guide. 

Impairments and Differences; Successes and Achievements

Impairments and Differences

When looking at disability, there are two main models that have arisen in recent research - the medical model and the social model. The medical model of disability centres upon the idea of an impairment – a medical condition, physical or mental difference, or some other form of divergence from the version of a human condition considered normative, as being the cause of ‘disability’. Under a social model, social conditions cause the disability, because social conditions interact prohibitively with some divergence from the normative form. Therefore, under either model, the study of impairments and differences, in many ways the history of human health, is a central topic within the history of disability. 

Focused histories of health conditions and differences are increasingly giving way to histories of their socio-cultural context (e.g. Mitchell and Snyder 2020, c.f. Kiple 1993). However, current histories of specific differences, especially those considered mental, neurological and learning differences, still arise (e.g. Horwitz 2013; Magiorkinis, Sidiropoulou and Diamantis 2010; Wolff 2004). By contrast, the physical evidence and scientific approaches in osteoarchaeology and paleopathology have centralised (physical) ‘diseases’ with less consideration for their socio-cultural context (Cross 2007). 

Impairments and differences can take many forms, and examples of evidence for them within the our archives are to be found throughout this guide. Beyond individual cases, data may be obtained which provides a more quantitative overview of health. For example, the Medical Department Reports, 1914-1953 (R/DL/LH/1), in the Rowntree & Co. archive reveal the changing physical health presentations of men and women in the company’s workforce, as statistically summarised by their medical group. The graphs below provide some sample statistics from which numerous interpretations arise, including that a higher proportion of women than men were rejected from employment on health grounds, and that the impact of the First World War can be seen from 1915 onwards, where the gender balance in consultations changes radically and, for a reason without an immediate explanation, the number of respiratory conditions decreases considerably.

A graph showing percentage of job applicants to Rowntrees medically rejected from employment over time,1913-1917.

A graph showing the number of medical consultations carried out by Rowntrees on staff, 1913-1917Graph showing number of respiratory conditions amongst Rowntrees staff members, 1913-1917.

Mental health is equally relevant. For another institutional perspective, the Borthwick holds archives for a number of mental health facilities, like The Retreat, into which patients were admitted for a variety of reasons. Compare, for example, the first three patients petitioned for admission in the Admissions papers for 22 December 1891 – 12 October 1894 (RET/6/1/11). The reason for petitioning for Sabina Dixon, a 59-year-old housewife from Brotherton, is unclear. Her husband, William Dixon, said she had influenza and was of unsound mind for eight days afterwards. John Orford, one medical practitioner, considered her depressed and suicidal. John Ward, the second medical practitioner, considered that she was reporting possession.

Printed proforma for admissions to The Retreat, completed in black ink in the same of Sabrina Dixon.

By contrast, the case of William Henry Barlow Moon, a 23-year-old artist from Scarborough, centred on anxiety, with him considered ‘excited’, ‘eccentric’, ‘suspicious’, and presenting with rapid and incoherent speech, difficulties consuming food and with antipathy towards his father, who petitioned for his admission. The third recorded patient is Nathaniel Webster, a 40-year-old solicitor from Harrogate. His petition focuses on his recent violent and excitable behaviour and his reports that he was homicidal, for which he requested confinement in a strong room so that he did not cause harm. The case study of Mary Rawes considers the life, activities and death of a person in The Retreat.  

The line between mental and physical conditions is debatable, ambiguous, and has changed over time. Consider, for example, how epilepsy was previously treated as a mental health condition in the case study of Walter Freelove Brown, also from The Retreat archive. There is also the position of those with neurodivergences, learning difficulties and differences. In the past, these have often been approached under the auspice of psychiatric care, and resulted in confinement in a home or an institution. ‘Idiocy’ is one derogatory label often applied, and used as a formal diagnosis. Elizabeth Brown was admitted to Clifton Hospital in September 1862, aged 44. Her occupation is listed as ‘idiot from birth’, and she had been confined to the Skirlaugh Union Workhouse for the last 20 years (NHS/CLF/6/1/2/12/789). The article ‘The results of idiot training’ by J. Kitching, published in 1868, discusses the provision of specialist education and schools for children with learning difficulties, and (in almost ubiquitously offensive language) demonstrates the medical (mis-)understanding and homogenising of learning difficulties at that time, although some distinction in abilities is recognised between students (RET/5/9/6/11). 

There is, of course, much more to an impairment than recognising that it exists. The causes of the impairment may well be of interest, whether it was present at birth or was developed or acquired at some time later in life. An injury or condition acquired at war, for example, might be considered disabling. This could be a very recent war; the Charles Wood Archive holds material on ‘Gulf War Syndrome’, a condition affecting personnel who served in the Gulf War of 1990-1991. The two World Wars had long-lasting consequences for many who served. Richard Wood, Baron Holderness, had both his legs amputated above the knee due to injuries sustained in an air raid in Egypt in 1942, and later became a cabinet minister. The records in his archive are notable for their detail, but also for giving the compelling first-person perspective of the person affected, not the doctors or hospitals providing the treatment. Such insights into personal perceptions of the impairment – thoughts, feelings and plans – are important and emphasise how individual the experience of an impairment is. 

Abilities, Successes and Achievements

Disabilities, successes and achievements are all too often conflated with ‘tragic’ stories, limited success and underachievement. However, it seems only right when studying disability history to recognise people’s successes and achievements, just as any other member of society would. Here, the damaging stereotypes of the ‘supercrip’ trope should be avoided, where the fact that a person with a disability achieved something invokes narratives of “overcoming, heroism, inspiration, and the extraordinary” (Shalk 2016, 73), often unrealistically through purely individual effort and willpower. A history of people with disabilities and impairments is incomplete without recognising what they do with their lives, but these successes are because they are human like anyone else, not superhuman because of their condition.

Accordingly, examples of such histories may not immediately be obvious, as they would be of an individual and their achievements regardless of their disability. President Franklin D. Roosevelt is an example of a historical figure with a disability at the height of political life (Ditunno, Becker and Herbison 2016). While the narrative of overcoming polio could be followed (e.g. Tobin 2013), one could equally observe that his lower-body paralysis made little difference to his ability to be President, and if there is any overcoming narrative, it is overcoming the prejudicial attitudes of the time by hiding his disability from the American public. Within our archives, Edward Wood, the British Ambassador in Washington at the time, discusses this (RWOO/2/4).

Albeit born into a privileged position, Edward Wood, Lord Halifax (and father of Richard Wood, Baron Holderness) achieved note regardless of his impairment. He was born without a left hand, but with a mechanical hand enjoyed pursuits like carriage riding. Andrew Robert’s (1991) biography, ‘The holy fox’: a biography of Lord Halifax, which drew extensively on the our collections, notes that “Edward was born without a left hand. He does not seem to have been adversely affected by this at all, and was certainly highly successful at putting it into the background. He had a false hand in the form of a clenched fist with a thumb on a spring, which he became so adept at manipulation that when out hunting he had not trouble in opening a gate while holding his reins and horn. Many years later, when crossing the Atlantic in a battleship, his Private Secretary, Charles Peake, ‘could not but admire the beautiful judgement and economy of movement with which he went up a vertical ladder using only his right hand without haste or hesitation.” (Page 6). Charles’ photograph of that moment is reproduced here.

Black and white photograph showing a man in a long coat and black hat climbing down a metal ladder on board a ship. 

When looking through that short album of Edward’s Atlantic Voyage to take up the post of Ambassador in Washington, his hands are never visible, concealed either in pockets or in long sleeves (CPEA/1). Most significantly, he was Foreign Secretary under Chamberlain, and thus negotiated appeasement personally with Adolf Hitler, who was and would continue to enact horrendous policies against people with disabilities. Edward’s documents are in the Halifax Family and Estate Archive form part of our collections.

A person need not achieve political fame to have a life worthy of historical study. Quite different to the Woods, Mary Rawes’s hastily written poem, Address to Melancholy, is a brief moment of creativity and expression in a break from her confinement. A person’s activities need not be beautiful however, either, and indeed they may be controversial. Isabel German, an anchoress confined to a sealed room for many years, is an example of a person with disabilities living a life of religious fulfilment, although it is impossible to tell how much volition, and how much circumstantial pressure, led to her pursuing this route.

Collection Highlights 

Archival sources that provide information on disabilities, impairments and differences in the past are abundant. Finding examples of what people with disabilities and impairments did can be approached in several ways. Firstly, the stories of specific people, if their identities are already known, can be pursued in the archive. Secondly, the organisations which provided support to people with disabilities and impairments can be studied, as their records may discuss what their residents/patients did before, during or after their time with the organisation. 

NHS Archive

The NHS archive contains a wide range of medical papers related to the administration and activities of NHS medical facilities in and around York. These range from pre-NHS papers in the nineteenth century, to the present. The archive, covering general hospitals and more specialist facilities like former mental health asylums, will cover a wide range of medical conditions, including those potentially of interest to disability studies, as well as patients with a variety of disabilities, impairments and other conditions. 

The Retreat Archive

The Retreat is a major institution for psychiatric care in York, originally operating specifically for Quakers. The Retreat has historically had a good reputation and sought to lead reforms in psychiatric care. The archive, spanning the late-eighteenth century to the twenty-first century, is large and unusually complete. Individual patient records normally identify the diagnosis for their admission, and continuing updates provide an insight into their condition during their care, providing useful information on conditions, presently or formerly, considered psychiatric. The archive also contains a large amount of documentation and personal letters which can provide a fuller insight into their lives.

Family Records

The Borthwick holds numerous family archives, typically from the eighteenth/nineteenth century onwards but some stretching back into the mediaeval period. Amongst them are to be found documents like personal letters and diaries, which may contain first-hand accounts of disabilities, impairments and differences discussed more openly in a private communication than would be made public. They can also include details of changing attitudes to disability through time, as well as about charities families may have supported. Legal documents like wills and death certificates may also contain more formal records of a person’s condition. Such archives provide a more personal, individual perspective rather than the third-party, institutional accounts of medical facility records. 

Churchwardens Accounts

Churchwardens were officials attached to parish churches who performed numerous administrative functions, including disbursing church funds. Prior to the enactment of Poor Laws in the Elizabethan Period, the parish church played a role in supporting the poor. Accordingly, churchwardens’ accounts sometimes demonstrate a concern for those particularly with physical disabilities. They are accordingly a useful record for identifying certain disabilities in earlier periods than most other forms of record, although they continue into more recent history too. 

Records of the Wilberforce Memorial

The Wilberforce Memorial, established in 1833, was a charitable organisation primarily operating the Wilberforce School for the Blind in York. This provides an example of a specialist, adapted education and training for children with visual impairments. Records will include the learning and activities undertaken by its students. 

Further Reading

Cross, M. (2007). Accessing the inaccessible: disability and archaeology. In Insoll, T. (Ed.). The archaeology of identities: a reader. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 193-208. 

Ditunno, J. F., Becker, B. E. and Herbison, G. J. (2016). Franklin Delano Roosevelt: the diagnosis of poliomyelitis revisited. PM&R, 8(9), 883-893.

Horwitz, A. V. (2013). Anxiety: a short history. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Kiple, K. F. (Ed.). (1993). The Cambridge world history of human disease. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Magiorkinis, E., Sidiropoulou, K. and Diamantis, A. (2010). Hallmarks in the history of epilepsy: epilepsy in antiquity. Epilepsy & Behavior, 17(1), 103-108. 

Mitchell, D. T. and Snyder, S. L. (Eds.). (2020). A cultural history of disability in the modern age. London: Bloomsbury Academic. 

Schalk, S. (2016). Reevaluating the supercrip. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 10(1), 71-86.

Tobin, J. (2013). The man he became: how FDR defied polio to win the presidency. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Wolff, S. (2004). The history of autism. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 13, 201-208. 

Medical Treatments and Cures

Under the medical model of disability, the approach to aiding people with disabilities is to apply medical treatments to try to reduce or overcome the impairment. The history of medicine is a major and wide-ranging field of study, with general texts and research into specific fields of treatment. Such histories are often principally ‘institutional’, focusing on professional sources from the perspective of those providing the treatment – hospital, doctors and so on – rather than those receiving it. Treatment may encompass more than just the administration of a medical procedure and observation of the results; a fuller history would recount the process of medical research, with the recognition of impairments as medical conditions and development of treatments, and the processes of diagnosis, treatment and medical outcomes. 

We hold numerous archives of medical institutions, public and private, which will detail the types of treatments used, and major examples are listed below. Several of the case studies given throughout this guide also include a person receiving an aspect of treatment, whether it be the cold baths, a form of psychiatric treatment used in the nineteenth century, used in the case of Mary Rawes, or the complex journey through field and conventional hospitals taken by Richard Wood during the Second World War. Note, however, that not every institution labelled a ‘hospital’ provided treatment. In older usage, the term indicated accommodation rather than medical care, as in the case of Wandesford Hospital in Bootham, which residents like Helen Watson had to leave when the private accommodation it provided became inadequate following a decline in their health (WH/5/1). 

Handwritten letter in brown ink on paper, from Helen Watson resigning her place at Wandesford Hospital.

As well as institutional accounts and patients’ perspectives, consider the role of medical philanthropists and pioneers. The Tuke family were prominent Quakers in York, and engaged in numerous philanthropic endeavours. One was founding The Retreat, a mental health hospital, and taking a wider interest in mental health care. The case study of Samuel Tuke provides an insight into the development of mental health care at that time. 

Collection Highlights

NHS Archives

The records of NHS hospitals and management bodies at the Borthwick include a wide range of medical papers related to the administration and activities of medical facilities in and around York. These range from the records of hospitals that existed before the foundation of the NHS in 1948 (some of which were subsequently absorbed into the Health Service) as well as more modern hospitals. The archives cover a wide range of medical conditions and the care and treatment offered for them, including those potentially of interest to disability studies.

The Retreat Archive

The Retreat is a major institution for psychiatric care in York, originally operating specifically for Quakers. The Retreat has historically had a good reputation and sought to lead reforms in psychiatric care. The archive, spanning the late-eighteenth century to the twenty-first century, is large and unusually complete. Individual patient records identify the fact that they were provided care within The Retreat, and sometimes identify specific treatments that were administered.

Lectures on Psychological Medicine Given at York Medical School

An example of academic medical teaching contained within the Borthwick’s archives, these lectures were delivered at the York Medical School between 1834 and 1859. They provide a more academic, theoretical perspective than institutional accounts from practicing hospitals. It is also rarer to find lectures on psychological medicine from the mid-nineteenth century, and papers from the York Medical School, which existed only briefly.

Dr George Gale Papers

Dr George Gale was a senior medical doctor and administrator in South Africa in the 1920s-1950s. Papers he produced, contributed to or worked with are spread across two archives, Dr George Gale Papers (GALE) and Aitken and Gale research notes on South African medical missions (CSASMF/2-3). They provide an overview of practical medical provision and medical research being conducted in South Africa at that time, and accordingly a more international perspective than institutional records from York.

Margaret Barnet Archive

Dr Margaret Barnet was a medical practitioner and researcher. Born in 1917, she occupied various posts in Yorkshire from 1949 and lived in York until her death in 2008. The archive contains research notes, reports, drafts, articles and correspondence on various aspects of medical history from the fourteenth century onwards.

Wandesford Hospital Archive

Wandesford Hospital, also known as Wandesford House, opened in Bootham in 1743 and was staffed by a steward and a chaplain. Inmates had two rooms each and in addition received an annual pension. The building remained largely unaltered until 1927 when the roof was replaced. In 1949-1950 the land at Brompton on Swale was sold. Today the charity continues to own and run Wandesford House as an almshouse for single Christian women, aged over 50, who are in hardship, need or distress.

Further Reading

Castiglioni, A. (1941). A history of medicine. London: Routledge.

Duffin, J. (2021). History of medicine: a scandalously short introduction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Manger, L. N. and Kim, O. J. (2018). A history of medicine. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Porter, R. (Ed.). (1996). The Cambridge illustrated history of medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Constraints and Barriers; Adaptations and Adjustments

Constraints and Barriers

Under the social model of disability, disabilities arise because a cultural norm is more difficult to adhere to with an impairment than without. This could be a norm that the way to access the upper floors in a building is by stairs, which are more difficult to navigate for a person who uses a wheelchair. Or it could be a norm that a school rule says students must hand write their examinations, which a person with paralysis affecting the hand or difficulties in coordination may find more difficult than others. Such constraints and barriers are often not erected with the intentional purpose of discriminating against or disadvantaging people with impairments and differences, but instead because the designer is following an established cultural practice and is ignorant, forgetful or unconcerned about the alternatives which may support some people.

Because such socio-spatial constraints and barriers arise through omitting consideration for disabilities and impairments, the documents which record them will often not contain discussion of disabilities; instead, they can be expected not to. Examples can, therefore, be particularly difficult to find. Alternatively, such research can look to designs, whether for example of physical environments or social rules, more generally and note their consequences for those with impairments, and perhaps whether disability was ever considered. Account’s like Gleeson’s (1997) adopt a greater degree of abstraction and suggest that socio-political forces are responsible for creating a plethora of constraints and barriers by constructing society around individuals who can generate the greatest productive value.

Physical accessibility at King’s Manor, a building operated by the University of York, has been challenging, particularly for access to upper and basement floors by stairs only. Despite the building previously being used as the Wilberforce School for the Blind, where increasing access was at the core of the mission, the buildings reports when considering how to develop the King’s Manor site, from debates over its new purpose prior to the university in the 1940s and 1950s through to buildings inspections later in the century, revealed no identified consideration for how to make the building physically accessible (UOY/YUDU/KME, UOY/YUDU/D/KMS, UOY/IC/1/2/21, UOY/F/YAT/5/12, UOY/F/YAT/5/12). This contrasts, for example, with the Student Centre currently under development at the time of writing, where full accessibility is one of the primary aspirations.

Exterior of the medieval Kings Manor building in York, now part of University of York, taken on a sunny day with a blue sky and a large tree in leaf in the right hand side of the image. Image copyright: Paul Shields, University of York photographer.

Regarding social barriers, one may be an expectation from employers that workers with impairments must meet a ‘normal’ standard regardless of the abilities and limitations they have. Such an attitude is seen in the procedures and working practices at the Rowntree confectionery factory in York in the late 1940s.  Managers kept a register of employees considered to be disabled, recording their role, medical presentation and their ‘work’.  Work is recorded as ‘Normal’ in most cases, or as a percentage of normal, the lowest here identified being ‘85% Normal’ (R/DD/TD/12/DD/M24). A man in his 20s, a casual worker in a junior position (‘Grade C man’) in the outside warehouse, is listed on this register and has ‘but very good worker’ appended to his entry (R/DD/TD/12/DD/M78). While this is susceptible to various interpretations, the potential that his lesser experience, junior position and impairment made him more liable to loss of employment invites speculation.

Adaptations and Adjustments

One approach to improving access for people with disabilities and impairments is by making adaptations and adjustments. This concept fits more within the social model of disability, recognising that a social practice causes the issue. Instead of a wide-ranging change in the social norm, however, adaptations and adjustments provide case-by-case alterations to accommodate people with disabilities, while keeping the norm in place.

Histories of access and adjustment, rare and brief as they tend to be, are often framed as legal or policy accounts, as currently legislation in Britain (and America) requires adaptations and adjustments in some instances, and thus they are viewed primarily as a legal (rather than moral or social) obligation (e.g. Essex-Sorlie 1994). However, that need not be so; society has adjusted to disabilities in the past without legal compulsion (Longmore and Umansky 2001), for example the provision of access ramps to some ancient Greek temples, especially healing sanctuaries, in addition to the stepped access (Sneed 2020), or the fact that sign languages are at least several centuries old (Woll 2013).

One scheme to improve accessibility was the construction of accessible footpaths for people who used wheelchairs or who were blind or partially sighted at Stoneycliffe Wood Nature Reserve near Wakefield in 1985-1986, held in the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Archive. After receiving a £500 grant from the CLA to improve accessibility, a double-width path with a rolled surface was constructed to accommodate wheelchairs, and a single-width path with an ash surface which ‘crunches’ underfoot was installed. The Deputy Mayoress of Kirklees, who used a wheelchair and had liked to visit the woods as a child, tested the paths, enjoying her visit and expressing gratitude at the efforts to increase accessibility, but noticing there were soft areas in the path which required extra covering. With regret, much of the site, especially in the north, was not adapted as it was judged that the terrain was too difficult to make accessible (YWT/5/97/1/1/2). Yorkshire Wildlife Trust have continued their goal to improve accessibility on their reserves up to the present, with the creation of fully accessible birdwatching hides, wheelchair-friendly boardwalks, and accessible toilets and indoor spaces at several of their reserves. The Trust received a Good Access award from Open Country recognising its inclusive access developments at its Ripon City Wetlands nature reserve in 2022, and finished work at Adel Dam nature reserve to improve access to boardwalks and to some of the hides the same year.

Black and white photocopied map showing the location of new paths around Stoneycliffe Nature Reserve. The location of the new paths is marked by small circles.

Adaptations and adjustments in work can be very important in supporting a person’s role. Long prior to the modern legislative approaches, the mediaeval church was supporting its ministers with disability and impairments to continue in their role so far as they are able, and providing a coadjutor to assist and cover functions they could no longer perform. The case study of Coadjutors under William Melton considers this further, showing coadjutors appointed to take over much or all of the minister’s duties, perhaps going beyond the familiar scope of a ‘reasonable’ adjustment as framed today. Adaptations have also supported children with disabilities and impairments to engage with their education, as at the Wilberforce School for the Blind.

Collection Highlights

Identifying resources with examples of constraints and barriers is challenging, because it involves searching for an absence of consideration of disability. Accordingly, two approaches are to work from known examples, if available, or to select general areas where constraints and barriers often exist and examine the archival records.

Architectural Records

Buildings in the past have been constructed in ways which are inaccessible for various reasons, often because the architect or builders never considered constructing accessibility into their plans. York, as a mediaeval city, contains many examples of physical accessibility issues. Buildings records for York and beyond are available across numerous archives, and can be searched by building name and location. Useful resources would include drawn plans and also textual material like personal correspondence during the building process, which may explain why a building was constructed in a certain way and (often) show no thought for accessibility. The David Green Archive, for example, contains a range of resources for York across the twentieth century, as do the architect’s records in the Atkinson Brierley Archive spanning the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, and the work of Pace & Sims in the twentieth century. The Merchant Adventurer's archive also includes information on improvements to their Hall on Fossgate in the early 2000s, to aid accessibility. 

Working Practices

Strict working policies may have disadvantaged workers with disabilities and impairments which affected how they undertook their work, where another policy or greater flexibility may have allowed them to perform their role effectively. Employment records for major companies may, therefore, contain useful information, ranging from records of individual employees, their health and workplace performance, to policy documents on working practices. Major company archives held in The Borthwick include the Rowntree and Co Archive, Terry’s of York Archive, Vickers Instruments Archive and York Waterworks Company Archive

Educational Practices

Like working practices, strict educational practices may have disadvantaged students with disabilities and impairments, where another approach may have allowed them to study effectively. School records may, therefore, contain useful information on educational practices and how students who encountered difficulties were treated, as well as more individual documents like school reports (which may also be found in family archives). The Borthwick holds archives from several schools, including the Records of Ripon Grammar School, Records of The Mount School, York, Records of the Blue Coat School, York, Records of the Grey Coat School, York, and Records of the Drax Charity Trust and School. Parish records also often contain documents relating to schools in the parish. 

Like examples of discrimination, examples of adaptations and adjustments can be difficult to identify in archival research as they comprise general or case-by-case actions by public and private organisations, which are unlikely to be highlighted as topics in archival documents. Two approaches are to work from known examples, if available, or to select general areas where adjustments are often made and examine the archival records:

York Diocesan Archive: Archbishops’ Registers

As developed in the case study of William Melton, the church often made adjustments to support the continued activities of its ministers if they began to experience barriers to performing their duties due to an impairment. For the Diocese of York, these may be found in the Archbishop’s Registers held by the Borthwick.

Records of the Wilberforce Memorial

The Wilberforce Memorial, established in 1833, was a charitable organisation primarily operating the Wilberforce School for the Blind in York. This provides an example of a specialist, adapted education and training for children who were blind or, to a limited extent, partially sighted. Further material on sight loss, blindness and partial sightedness is also available within the archive.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation Archive

As a major property owner providing facilities for the elderly and people with disabilities, organisations like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have over time adapted their buildings to increase accessibility, such as by installing lifts. Their archive contains several examples of installing lifts, including at Sycamore Court, Folk Hall, Poland Street and The Garden House from the 1970s onwards. Similar adjustments may be found by other providers of public facilities, such as other charitable trusts, parish records concerning parish buildings, and hospitals.

Further Reading

Burch, S. (2020). Access as practice: disability, accessible design, and history. Reviews in American History, 48(4), 618-624. 

Essex-Sorlie, D. (1994). The Americans with disabilities act: I. history, summary, and key components. Academic Medicine, 69(7), 519-524.

Gleeson, B. (1995). Disability: a state of mind? The Australian Journal of Social Issues, 30(1), 10-23. 

Gleeson, B. J. (1997). Disability studies: a historical materialist view. Disability & Society, 12(2), 179-202.  

Guffey, E. (2017). Designing disability: symbols, space and society. London: Bloomsbury Academic. 

Longmore, P. K. and Umansky, L. (2001). Introduction: disability history: from the margins to the mainstream. In Longmore, P. K. and Umansky, L. (Eds.). The new disability history: American perspectives. New York: New York University Press, pp. 1-29.

Sneed, D. (2020). The architecture of access: ramps at ancient Greek healing sanctuaries. Antiquity, 94(376), 1015-1029.

Woll, B. (2013). The history of sign language linguistics. In Allan, K. (Ed.). The Oxford handbook of the history of linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 90-104.

Denial and Discrimination; Care Support and Welfare

Denial, Discrimination and Disablism

Sadly, a major part of the history, and present experience, of disability, involves denial of opportunity, discrimination and disablism. This can take many forms and emerge in many environments, ranging from lesser access to the workplace (often associated with historical materialist analysis which argues that capitalism favours certain people for their greater productive potential (Gleeson 1997)), education, quality healthcare and leisure activities, to negative portrayals in popular culture (such as the common trope of portraying fictional historical villains with a physical impairment or scars (Donnelly 2016)) and interpersonal interactions.

Historical treatment of people with impairments and differences is beset with examples of discrimination. A major example in the last several centuries is the practice of eugenics, but such horrendous treatment long predates this, such as the supposed infanticide of newborn children with disabilities in ancient Greece. Such is the prevalence of discrimination in the historical experience of disability that, for example, that the opening forward of Stiker’s A History of Disability (1997) reads as a history of disability discrimination.

Employment has been a major area in which disability discrimination has occurred. David Jordan’s A new employment programme wanted for disabled people, a pamphlet produced for The Disability Alliance, outlines the situation in Britain in 1979. It indicates a 12% unemployment rate, 75,000 of 620,000 people, who were registered disabled but willing and able to work, although these figures are speculative because they rely on voluntary declarations. It is, however, relatively consistent with later figures for unemployment of registered disabled people, varying between 11-15% over the 1970s, compared to 2-7% of the total workforce. People with impairments were less likely to obtain senior and professional roles, and more likely to be in unskilled labour, as a consequence of educational disadvantages and prejudicial attitudes against professionally qualified people with disabilities. People with impairments worked fewer hours, and were lower paid; 15% of registered disabled men were classified as low paid, compared to 9% of men from the whole sample, and this low pay was legally mandated. The basic weekly wage required by Remploy in 1977 was £42.70, 47.6% of the average weekly wage for men in Britain; one sheltered workshop run by a non-governmental voluntary organisation, providing specialist employment for those with impairments, was found to pay just 50p per week (and provide accommodation) (JRRT/8/2/29/7).

Material on eugenics even exists within the archive. In 1914-1915, Bruno Lasker investigated various social practices in the United States of America at the request of Seebohm Rowntree.  His reports, entitled ‘Summary report on investigations of certain social movements in the United States’ can be found in the Rowntree Family Papers (RFAM/BSR/JRF/7/6/2). In Part E, Public Health, Section IX, Lasker identifies two main approaches to mental health, neurological conditions and neurodivergences: ‘mental hygiene’ and eugenics. In language which is too shocking, both in ableist and racist terms, to be justified in repeating here, Lasker first questions why eugenics is a much more prominent movement in the USA and Europe, attributing into to the national and ethnic origins of each country’s population, and also a conservative desire in America to address certain social problems by targeting the more vulnerable in society, rather than considering wider changes in environment and disrupting the existing upper socio-economic hierarchies. The practice of eugenics, applied to those considered ‘feeble-minded’ or ‘backward and mentally defective’, took various forms: ‘attempted segregation’, sterilisation (only actively pursued in California, but legalised in 12 states), ‘scientific grading’ of school students, and institutionalisation of children. By contrast, ‘mental hygiene proper’ was applied to cases of ‘mental derangement’ and ‘insanity’, and the approach is more individualised and treatment-focused, with a declining use of asylums.

There are also cases which are less clear-cut, where the person’s wishes and their best interests are ambiguous or unknown. For example, Margery Blakelocke is described as being unable to act in her best interests, and thus the court’s intervention was needed to prevent the continuation of a marriage when she was unable to give full and informed consent, albeit that the application was made by her husband. There is also the case of Isabel German, an anchoress who died in All Saints’ Church, Fishergate, York, in 1448. An anchoress was a person who committed to religious isolation, in a manner similar to a hermit. Isabel was sealed in a room in All Saints' Church, Fishergate and was tended to by another woman. It was from that 'cell' that archaeologists exhumed her skeleton. The osteological evidence indicates she had syphilis and a form of arthritis which came to fuse the bones in her wrist, therefore likely substantially restricting her dexterity. Why she undertook anchorage is unclear, but she was sustained by her life as an anchoress. Her case can be viewed in Series 10, Episode 6 of BBC 2’s Digging for Britain, including our contribution towards the historical research. 

Care, Support and Welfare

Care, support and welfare are various forms of assistance which can enable people with disabilities, impairments and differences to pursue their lives and activities. Care is often framed in a domestic context and centred upon ensuring necessities to live a comfortable life are fulfilled, although it is a function also performed by public bodies and socially. Support is a broad area of various contributions by family, friends, charities and public agencies. Welfare is typically seen as a financial contribution made by the state, charities and philanthropists to assist where a disability, impairment or difference restricts a person’s income.

In Britain, welfare support may be tied to the political agenda and post-Second World War emergence of the welfare state, but this was neither the beginning nor the full achievement of welfare support which has a longer and more complex history of development. Poor Laws, in particular, existed for several centuries prior (Hampton 2016). Before then, charitable and alms interventions existed in the Middle Ages (Metzler 2013), and Athens in the fifth and fourth century BC is one, albeit perhaps unique, example of a state seemingly offering welfare payments in ancient Europe, perhaps in place of ‘philanthropy’ under the patronage system (Dillon 1995). Evidence for care, a social practice not confined to those with a disability but also ubiquitous, for example, for children and those around childbirth, can be traced far into human evolutionary history with respect for individuals displaying skeletal evidence of physical impairment (Spikins, Rutherford and Needham 2010), although such actions were not necessarily motivated by ‘compassion’ for an ‘unproductive’ member of the community (Dettwyler 1991). More modern histories look more to care in an institutional setting, particularly for mental health conditions (e.g. Killaspy 2006), although such histories are closely tied to the history of medicine and medical treatment.

Care and support are often delivered within the home, and wills in particular can record evidence of this, with a person wishing to maintain after their death the support they provided to a relative in life. Ursula Simpson, for example, left a bequest for eight years for the maintenance and medical care of her daughter, Ellen Simpson, who was blind. Conversely, in a more unusual case, the will of Starkie Jennings shows the support family and friends could provide to help a person to make a will. After a stroke, Jennings experienced partial paralysis and thus was unable to write or speak at sufficient length to articulate his wishes in a will in the conventional fashion. Finding a legally acceptable way for him nonetheless to express his wishes, his will evidences that, through a combination of pictures (which Jennings, being illiterate, could understand without having the document read to him) and his short statements in reply to questions and making an ‘x’ mark (which, when studied closely, show the weakness and unsteadiness of his pen stroke), he was supported to produce a legally valid will.

Handwritten document on a single sheet of landscape format paper, with colour illustrations of Starkie Jennings' two daughters in the top two corners. There are hand-drawn buildings in pencil across the middle of the page, and the rest of the document, in black ink, details the will of Starkie Jennings and which daughter was to receive which items of his estate.
More about the case of Starkie Jennings is available online

Moving into the wider community, one example of support for those whose capacity to earn a living through work is limited is the case of Hannah Rhodes, a 56-year-old widow from Heworth. Writing in July 1817, she is one amongst many women who applied to Lady Conyngham’s Trust, for which the Borthwick holds the archive, for financial support. Since her husband’s death nine years before, she had supported herself through work, but was now lame in one arm and falling into difficult financial circumstances, so with the support of 21 signatories applied to the Trust for an annuity (LCT 3/3/1/2/2).

Handwritten letter in brown ink on a paper background, detailing the reasons why Hannah Rhodes should be admitted to the Trust.

There is also support to help people find and maintain work. One such example is the Hints for disablement rehabilitation officers: interviewing disabled persons (RFAM/BSR/UOY/21/8).

Black and white booklet with a picture on the cover of a man in a hospital bed, with another man in a suit sitting next to him, under the title 'Interviewing Disabled Persons.'
This guide, produced by the Ministry of Labour and National Service for its staff internally in 1943, provides a guide on how an officer should hold a discussion about finding and entering employment with a person with a newly-acquired impairment while they remain in hospital. The advice ranges from the tactless but sadly necessary “13. Avoid staring at the disabled person – particularly at his disability. This is apt to be resented”, to the pertinent “18. … You have to fit the disabled person, with his capabilities (not his disabilities), to the employer and the job” and the inspiring albeit generalising “20. The disabled ex-Serviceman is quietly but firmly determined to make good on his return to civil life. However severe his disablement, it never occurs to him that he will have no useful part to play in the life of the community. In many instances, indeed, it would be found that the disablement has brought a young patient down to earth, so far as his career is concerned, for the first time, and your interview with him may be the first time he has really seriously faced up to the future. In such cases, you can be particularly helpful. It may be that the future career of a useful citizen is in your hands. Encourage the lad to talk to you about his hopes and aspirations in life. You will be amazed to find out how eagerly he is guided by your advice if it is tactfully put to him, but avoid bringing pressure to bear on him to follow an occupation against his wishes”.

Outside of a military context, such support may be needed from a younger age. The case study of the Wilberforce School for the Blind, for example, demonstrates a type of support which could improve the life opportunities of a child with a disability.

More recently, the state has increasingly sought to provide support. In 1984-1986, Lord Henderson, a member of the House of Lords and reporting to John Major, then Minister for the Disabled, sought to establish an independent National Disability Council with a Royal Charter, “to represent organisations of and for disabled people, if only for the purpose of monitoring the implementation of [the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970].” In its detailed proposals, it was also intended as a national hub for providing and directing information regarding disability, promoting awareness and encouraging further research into disability amongst other functions. The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust funded the consultation process through a grant of £1,000, and thus their archive holds materials on the consultation (JRRT/4/605). Due to a lack of consensus from national representative organisations on whether to form the Council, the proposals could not be recommended to the Minister.

Collection Highlights

Large collections of resources relating to discrimination and disablism can be difficult to find, as they are rarely the unifying focus of a collection of documents, and they are normally marginalised rather than highlighted. In the past, conduct that we now consider discriminatory and offensive may have been widespread, if not ubiquitous, so consulting almost any material relating to disability may reveal outdated attitudes. In more contemporary history, as awareness of discrimination has increased, resources are more often from those campaigning against discrimination than those perpetrating it.

NHS Archive

The NHS archive contains a wide range of medical papers related to the administration and activities of NHS medical facilities in and around York. These range from pre-NHS papers in the nineteenth century to the present. The archive, covering general hospitals and more specialist facilities like former mental health asylums, will cover a wide range of care provided, including those potentially of interest to disability studies.

The Retreat Archive, Clifton Hospital Archive and Bootham Park Hospital Archive

Patients with learning disabilities and differences in the past have often been approached under the auspices of psychiatric care, and been subject to confinement in the family home or institutions, often under a veil of secrecy. Discriminatory labels like ‘idiot’ have often been used as diagnoses in the past, and these three York institutions have all used this term in admissions papers and records for some of their patients.

Disability Alliance

The Disability Alliance was a campaigning federation of organisations in the 1980s and 1990s supported by funding from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. Their work particularly confirmed public welfare and disability, although amongst these reports discussions of discriminatory behaviours and attitudes can be found.

Family Fund Archive

Family Fund was founded in 1973 to provide funding support for people and their families affected by the Thalidomide drug. The fund was administered by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (then known as the Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust). The archive contains records relating to people who experienced disabilities resulting from the drug, but also research into their medical and social conditions, which may reveal some challenging attitudes.

Family Records

The Borthwick holds numerous family archives, typically from the eighteenth/nineteenth century onwards but some stretching back into the mediaeval period. Amongst them are to be found documents like personal letters and diaries, which may contain first-hand accounts of disabilities, impairments and differences discussed more openly in a private communication than would be made public, and the type of care and support provided by the family. Legal documents like wills and death certificates may also contain more formal records of a person’s condition and care. Such archives provide a more personal, individual perspective rather than the third-party, institutional accounts of medical facility records.

Churchwardens Accounts

Churchwardens were officials attached to parish churches who performed numerous administrative functions, including disbursing church funds. Prior to the enactment of Poor Laws in the Elizabethan Period, the parish church played a role in supporting the poor. Accordingly, churchwardens' accounts sometimes demonstrate a concern for those particularly with physical disabilities. They therefore provide examples of early forms of welfare support.

Records of Lady Conyngham’s Trust

Lady Conyngham’s Trust is one example of a charitable trust which provided support to applicants, specifically women in its case, who were in difficult financial circumstances and could justify their application. Amongst the reasons given for applying are women who were unable to support themselves financially through work due to the development of a disability and impairment. It, alongside other charities like the Wandesford Trust also held in the Borthwick archive, provide an example of charitable support.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation Archive

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is a major charitable foundation operating in York. One of its major roles, over the twentieth century and continuing into the present, is to provide housing, particularly to the elderly, those with disabilities and those requiring forms of care.

Further Reading

Dettwyler, K. A. (1991). Can paleopathology provide evidence for “compassion”?. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 84(4), 375-384.

Donnelly, C. E. (2016). Re-visioning negative archetypes of disability and deformity in fantasy: Wicked, Maleficent, and Game of Thrones. Disability Studies Quarterly, 36(4).

Dillon, M. P. J. (1995). Payments to the disabled at Athens: social justice or fear of aristocratic patronage? Ancient Society, 26, 27-57.

Gleeson, B. J. (1997). Disability studies: a historical materialist view. Disability & Society, 12(2), 179-202. 

Hampton, J. (2016). Disability and the welfare state in Britain: changes in perception and policy 1948-79. Bristol: Bristol University Press.

Killaspy, H. (2006). From the asylum to community care: learning from experience. British Medical Bulletin, 79-80(1), 245-258.

Metzler, I. (2013). A social history of disability in the Middle Ages: cultural considerations of physical impairment. New York: Routledge. 

Pfeiffer, D. (1994). Eugenics and disability discrimination. Disability & Society, 9(4), 481-499.

Spikins, P. A., Rutherford, H. E. and Needham, A. P. (2010). From homininity to humanity: compassion from the earliest archaics to modern humans. Time and Mind, 3(3), 303-326.

Stiker, H.-J. (1997). A history of disability. Translated from the French by W. Sayers. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Campaigning and Activism

Disability, like other marginalised identities, has seen much campaigning and activism to improve the economic, social and political positions of those with disabilities and impairments. A disability history would be incomplete which does not recognise the agency of campaigning people with disabilities, and their allies, in bringing about change. Such agency might be especially important to recognise as people with disabilities are often portrayed as passive, receiving support and care and assumed to be incapable of upholding their own interests (Longmore and Goldberger 2000), a stereotype which running and participating in campaigns dispels. Such campaigns might be very sweeping, like the broad concept of the ‘Disability Rights Movement’, or targeted to represent people with a particular impairment, or to address a specific social issue. They may also encompass single events, or activities spanning decades.

Histories of campaigning and activism can be similarly diverse. They might, for example, address the broad concept of the disability rights movement, although as the movement had no unifying organisation or agenda under which to construct a history, such accounts collect examples of instances of disability campaigns unified by the general theme of improving the position of people with disabilities (e.g. Sabatello 2014; Scotch 1989). Or they may be more specific, looking at single campaigns, disabilities or campaigners (e.g. O’Brien 2016). The existence of campaigning and activism for people with disabilities prior to the rise of the US civil rights movement in the latter half of the twentieth century must also be acknowledged. One example, from the USA, was the formation of the League of the Physically Handicapped who campaigned for fairer employment and the elimination of employment discrimination against people with disabilities as the socio-economic consequences of the Great Depression persisted in the 1930s (Longmore and Goldberger 2000). And campaigns do not necessarily receive the support of everyone with disabilities; advocacy for euthanasia, for example, remains controversial today in its voluntary form, while abhorrent ideas of euthanasia programmes practiced in locations like Nazi Germany are utterly unsupportable (Kemp 2002). 

Many examples of campaigning documents can be found in the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust archive. David Jordan’s (1979) ‘A new employment programme wanted for disabled people’, written for The Disability Alliance, addresses the challenges faced by people with disabilities in finding and maintaining suitable employment. It records the discriminatory attitudes, expressed as statistics and individual opinions, towards people with disabilities, including beliefs in their inability to work, lower productivity or unsuitability for academic/intellectual/professional roles. It provides an overview of the systematic structural consequences of unemployment, underemployment and low pay. It then analyses the government’s present policies, largely the same as those developed in 1944 with the large-scale return of injured service personnel and the spectre of their widespread neglect post-First World War to not be repeated. These policies were based on the idea of registration, employment quotas, specialised reserved employment and rehabilitation, although these were widely flouted by employers and neglected by the government officials charged with enforcement. It recommends a series of reforms, with a new quota system, training and facilities, enhanced ‘sheltered’ and ‘enclave’ (specialist) employment, subsidised employment, grants to businesses for adapted workplaces, improved training, rehabilitation and retraining schemes, raised wages, repeal of laws privileging ex-service personnel with disabilities and legalising wage discrimination, and wider publication of relevant reports (JRRT/8/2/29/7).

Blue A5 sized document with the title 'New Employment Programme for Disabled People' in black capital letters across the top. There is no image on the front of the booklet - just the contact details for the creator in the bottom section of the cover.

More directly involved in campaigning and political pressure, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust also provided some financial support to the Deaf Broadcasting Campaign, who pushed for greater accessibility of broadcast media to people with hearing impairments.

Cover of DBC news, a black and white publication (stapled together with three metal staples on the left hand side). On the cover is a cartoon depiction of the campaigner Mary Whitehouse, with the headlines 'Mary Whitehouse: should subtitles be censored?' and 'Positive or Negative...? TVs images of the deaf.'

Collection Highlights

Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Archive

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust was founded in 1904 to undertake political and non-charitable work, which often involved supporting political campaigns and pressure groups. The archive of the Trust includes material relevant to a number of disability-related campaigning organisations, albeit only for the periods they received funding. Examples include: Mental Health Research Fund, 1966-1968 (JRRT/4/105); Thalidomide Legal Action, 1972-1973 (JRRT/4/241); Josephine Dodds: Hearing Impaired Children, 1973-1976 (JRRT/4/267); Disablement Income Group, 1980-1982, 1989 (JRRT/4/448); British Council of Organisations of Disabled People, 1984-1985 (JRRT/4/576); Lord Henderson: Disability Council, 1985-1986 (JRRT/4/605); Deaf Broadcasting Campaign, 1986-1988 (JRRT/4/621); and Disability Alliance, 1987-1992 (JRRT/4/655).

Further Reading

Kemp, N. D. A. (2002). ‘Merciful release’: the history of the British euthanasia movement. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Longmore, P. K. and Goldberger, D. (2000). The League of the Physically Handicapped and the Great Depression: a case study in the new disability history. Journal of American History, 87(3), 888-922.

O’Brien, N. (2016). Disability discrimination law in the United Kingdom and the new civil rights history: the contribution of Caroline Gooding. Journal of Law and Society, 43(3), 444-468.

Sabatello, M. (2014). A short history of the international disability rights movement. In Sabatallo, M. and Schulze, M. (Eds.). Human rights and disability advocacy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 13-24.

Scotch, R. K. (1989). Politics and policy in the history of the disability rights movement. The Milbank Quarterly, 67(2), 380-400.

Intersectional Histories

Disability does not exist in isolation, but instead often co-exists and may interact with other forms of identity. Intersectionality, the interaction of two or more forms of identity, is therefore an important topic. It is useful to read this guide alongside our other research guides. Below, some intersectional topics are considered, but other forms of identity and intersectionality exist too, and of course three or more types of identity could sometimes interact.

Feminist disability studies is a broad, multi-faceted field. It does, in part, consider the special subjectivities of women with disabilities, for example a prejudice against women with disabilities becoming mothers, but the field is broader. The feminist approach, drawing on the history and experiences of feminism, has been instrumental for example in challenging the notion that disability represents some form of social lack or limitation. There are also shared issues between disability and feminist theory, such as politics of inclusion, care or selective abortion (Garland-Thomson 2005). LGBTQ+ theories share with disability studies the challenging of dominant, normative, compulsory identities, and there are persistent social tropes which conflate the two, such as portraying people of queer identities as somehow ill or disabled, or stereotyping disabled people as asexual (McRuer 2013). Where the two interact, for example, gay men with disabilities have typically faced unique challenges negotiating with the concept of ‘masculinity’ (O’Niell and Hird 2001). Ethnicity and disability also have a historically disturbing intersection, with racist attitudes sometimes portraying people of other ethnicities as physiologically or psychologically ‘defective’, even resulting in eugenic attempts at sterilisation like those advocated by Margaret Sanger. Amongst many examples of challenges within the intersection, African American people living with disabilities in America have experienced greater suspicion about their disability and lesser access to healthcare (James and Wu 2006). Theories of ageing and of disability have developed quite separately, and while they may address some similar issues. This has not always been explored. The intersection operates, for example, under the ‘activity theory’ of ageing, in which acquiring a disability is considered ‘unsuccessful’, often regardless of the individual’s views on their own activity and successes (Leahy 2021)

Women and Disability

One avenue for researching the treatment specifically of women with disabilities is to consider charities for women. In York, Lady Conygham’s Trust provided relief for poor women who fulfilled certain conditions. For example, in July 1817, an application was made on behalf of Hannah Rhodes, aged 56, who was widowed nine years previously. She had supported herself through work but was now lame in one arm, which surgery offered little prospect of treating. As a result, “she [was] now in very reduced circumstances, though she has been remarked for her industry.” Supported by 21 signatures, she therefore sought an annuity for her maintenance from the Trust (LCT 3/3/1/2/2). The application shows how, for women applying to this Trust, emphasising their industriousness, widowhood, motherhood and unfortunate circumstances beyond their control were factors seemingly more likely to attract the Trust’s support.

Lady Conyngham’s Trust was not the only women’s charity in York. The ‘Hospital founded at York for the Maintenance of Maidens’, or Wandesford Hospital, was an almshouse for (unmarried) women in Bootham. Although many applications for residence (WH/5/1) are written to a set formula, some are individual. One applicant to live there was Elizabeth Monk, applying in 1752 and again in 1755.

Handwritten letter in brown ink on a paper background.

Aged 50 and unmarried in 1752, and having lost her inheritance, she had relied on working as a teacher for an income, but “her eyes being now very weak and bad and being likewise afflicted with rheumatick pains she grows everyday more incapable of maintaining herself.” The hospital would have provided a bed and subsistence, but it was not specifically meant for health care. This is shown in the case of Helen Watson in 1824, who wrote to request to leave her accommodation in the hospital as her poor health made it “impossible” for her to live alone there and she required the care of relatives. 

Ethnicity and Disability

One area of interaction between ethnic identity and disability is the presence of impairments amongst enslaved peoples on American plantations. The Borthwick Institute holds the Lascelles Archive, which documents the family’s plantation holdings, particularly in Barbados. A fuller investigation of the archive may reveal more detail, although the documents are generally more concerned with listing the enslaved population and their occupations rather than commenting on their health. One interesting document, for example, is the Inventory of sundries on Clarkes Court Plantation belonging to Gedney Clarke from 1771 (Lascelles 3/13). The inventory lists all the buildings, livestock and names all the enslaved people at the plantation. Although no impairments are directly identified amongst the enslaved people, their inevitable presence is inferable. Amongst the buildings in the Upper Works is a ‘Hospital 40 by 20’, giving its size.

Handwritten document, on thin paper causing the writing on the other side of the page to bleed through. The document is handwritten in brown ink, and includes a list of buildings on the estate.

As dwelling houses for enslaved people are listed alongside, this hospital clearly performed a more specialist function than just accommodation; a proportion of the 211 named enslaved people must regularly have been under this hospital’s care, especially given their age range and the physical nature of many of their occupations. Amongst the (enslaved) House Servants is listed Cynthia, a Sick Nurse, showing that there was enough demand on the plantation to require a dedicated role. Whether Cynthia practiced only in the houses of free owners and overseers, or cared for the enslaved population too, is unclear from this document.

LGBTQ+ and Disability

There is a disturbing history of homosexuality and other LGBTQ+ identities being treated as illnesses and medical conditions. This medicalisation of LGBTQ+ identities persisted in the 1970s, when representative groups were establishing themselves at University of York, and can be identified in the archived issues of student magazine Nouse from that time.

Issue 85, 1 February 1973, runs a two-page article announcing the formation of the York Gay Liberation Front. The article ends with a list of demands, including “that psychiatrists stop treating homosexuality as though it were a problem or a sickness, and thereby giving gay people senseless guilt-complexes.” The title ‘Gay Liberation Front’ was controversial, opposed for example in a letter by an anonymous author identifying as homosexual in Issue 87, March 1973, as it was seen to adhere to a specific, radical political position. In Issue 105, 21 November 1974, it was noted that the society had been renamed to ‘York Gay Group’ and that it held no particular political affiliation but instead was open to everyone. A big focus of the article is ‘coming out’ as gay and how the Society could help with that. It identifies that one of the barriers to people coming out is addressing the social misconceptions about homosexuality that they have had impressed upon them, “for example that homosexuality is an illness”. However, medicalised opinions persisted in the student community. In a response to the article in Issue 106, 5 December 1974, another student opposes the York Gay Group and homosexuality. Their opinion seems to be that “all of us have homosexual tendencies”, but most people do not act upon them. Those who do act upon them do so for five reasons, they assert. Reason 4 is purposeful non-conformity, Reason 5 temporarily giving in “to self-indulgence”. Reasons 1, 2 and 3 read:

“1) Physiological abnormalities including hormone imbalance and extremely rare cases of bisexuality (look it up in a dictionary!)

2) Physiological abnormalities of the brain.

3) Personal problems of identity (doubts and weaknesses), possibly associated with immaturity, and perhaps due to excessive social pressures, influenced (perhaps exploited) by other homosexuals or individuals lacking social or moral sexual discrimination. (Better look up discrimination in the dictionary as well)”

Their letter concludes:

“Homosexuals in categories 1), 2) and 3) need medical, psychiatric and/or social help. Those in 4) and 5) need enlightened social censure. No-one is helped (especially the sensitive) by your flippant, garrulous and outrageous collection of transvestites.” 

Age and Disability

A protected characteristic which often correlates with disability is age. Typically, such a discussion may highlight older people, although many people in such a category with an impairment may attribute it to their age rather than viewing themselves as disabled. Nonetheless, care and support for people who fall into this category is widespread. For example, there is the debate over institutional care, retirement communities or housing within the community reflected, amongst other areas, in the 1980s proposals for continuing care communities (JRHT/4/2/1/2). As a major contributor to social care, several of the Rowntree archives at the Borthwick hold relevant material. From the late-1940s, under the post-War welfare reforms, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation provided such accommodation at The Garth in New Earswick for local residents. Comprising adapted bungalows and flats, they were built with double doors and continuously-burning fireplaces, with a resident nurse available to provide care (JRF/4/1/9/7/14/5). In 1950-1951, a small residential home was established by converting the existing White Rose Farm house, after experiments with a small converted terraced house over the previous 12 months (JRF/4/1/9/7/14/2). Adequate heating at the site was a particular concern (JRF/4/1/9/7/15/8). The dairy farm had been acquired by Joseph Rowntree in 1902 as part of his proposals for a model village, and served as a care home until replaced by Hartrigg Oaks, “Britain’s first continuing care retirement community” (JRF/4/1/9/7/14/11).

Plan showing proposed alterations to a two-storey farm building, including black and white elevations to the north, west and east, and colour ground floor and first floor plans.

But age intersects in other ways too. The case study of the Wilberforce School for the Blind demonstrates specialist educational provision for children. And even subtle adjustments can support a child with a disability. One specific recommendation by the Deaf Broadcasting Campaign (JRRT/4/621) was that Blue Peter, the popular children’s television programme, should synchronise its subtitles with the spoken word, rather than having a time lag, because children with hearing impairments held their attention for longer when the subtitles were synchronised.

Further Reading

Garland-Thomson, R. (2005). Feminist disability studies. Signs, 30(2), 1557-1587.

James, J. C. and Wu, C. (2006). Editors' introduction: race, ethnicity, disability, and literature: intersections and interventions. MELUS, 31(3), 3-13.

Leahy, A. (2021). Disability and aging: towards a critical perspective. Bristol: Policy Press.

McRuer, R. (2013). Compulsory able-bodiedness and queer/disabled existence. In. Davis, L. J. (Ed.). The disability studies reader. New York: Routledge, pp. 369-378.

O’Niell, T. and Hird, M. J. (2001). Double damnation: gay disabled men and the negotiation of masculinity. In Backett-Milburn, K. and McKie, L. (Eds.). Constructing gendered bodies. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 204-223.