Disability history: A look back on our project…

Over the last two months we have been writing blogs based on our chosen topic of child disability and disability in a broader perspective. We will now reflect on our project as a whole so far thinking about what we’ve done well and what improvements could have been made. These are our personal views towards the project:


For me, disability history was something that I‘ve never looked at and it was good to get involved in something that not many historians have touched upon. We have always looked at significant events in history rather than focusing on a person’s identity. I enjoyed looking at primary documents in the archives, it’s an authentic experience- as it makes you realise that history is very real and not just based upon history books. I believe that disability history is something everybody should learn about, including the discrimination faced by disabled people and the solutions that we can find to help them lead a more fulfilling life. I wrote two blogs for this project introducing people to Disability History Month and Children In Need. I liked informing people about Disability History Month as it is not a widely known event and I believe it’s important to learn what the perceptions of disabled people are today as well as in the past. This project has given me the inspiration to write a new blog, maybe not based on disability history but on a completely new and different topic.



Before starting this project, I had given no thought to disability history. Although the topic is quite specific, we’ve all been able to find our own interesting topic within disability history. For example, I enjoyed writing my Victorian literature blog. I was able to look at contemporary well-known novels and get the reader engaged with the theme of disability. I enjoyed using social media for public output and not only receiving feedback from fellow students, but also from people within the historical field. It was interesting to follow our progress with our Facebook and Twitter pages and pleasing to find that the public were interested in our topic. Blogging gives you the chance to be less formal in comparison with an academic essay. I am also thinking of running a blog based on another topic of interest, perhaps based on my dissertation.



Before becoming a part of this project, I had briefly touched on disability history within the Tudor period. Disability is not something that directly affects my life, I have no close family members or friends who consider themselves disabled but, as David Turner has taught us, it eventually affects us in one way of another, whether it be in our family history or our futures. That for me is a key factor as to why disability history should be more prominent. One key issue that as a group we wanted to address was not to speak for the Disabled, but to share their stories and inform people of disability history without telling our audience what we want them to think or hear. We wanted to spark debate and change mind-sets on and hopefully we have achieved these aims. If we could alter anything in our project, it would be more variation in our output such as Q and A sessions. We could have also targeted a younger audience, to how see they feel about certain topics within disability.



This module has certainly broadened my mind into an unknown and sensitive area of history which I knew little about. I have enjoyed using the archives and believe their use will help me next year with the dissertation. Early on in this module I wanted to look at something different and interesting to gain an audience and I chose to write a blog on animal assisted therapy, being an animal lover myself and knowing many others who also are. I enjoyed looking at something different and I particularly enjoyed the opportunities this project has given me in writing blogs and using a media output to gain a following, as it is something I am not very confident with. Also giving a presentation at the end and seeing how well we have all done gave me confidence in my presenting skills which is something I struggle with. I have also gained knowledge of an interesting topic that before I knew very little about, but when you just scratch the surface you realise the true emotion and depth.


We’d like to thank David Turner for providing us with an enjoyable course, Mike Mantin and Daniel Blackie for their support and the ladies at the Richard Burton Archives for their help!

Thank you for reading our blogs- we’ve enjoyed writing them!


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The Portrayal of Disabled Children in Victorian Literature

The portrayal of childhood disability in 19th century British literature is very useful in providing information on how disabled people were viewed and presented at that time. In Victorian Britain, disability was increasingly becoming more of an interest, and ‘afflicted’ and ‘defective’ bodies were the focus of many plots of popular literature and drama. By looking at literature involving the topic of disability we not only get an insight into attitudes towards disability, but also the language that was used to describe disabled people at the time, and how that language may differ from the present day. The term ‘cripple’ and sometimes ‘deformed’ are often used, but deaf, ‘dumb’ and blind people are probably the group (within the category of disabled) that are written about the most. Terms that may be seen as offensive in today’s standards weren’t as offensive at the time. In terms of studying childhood disability in the Victorian Britain, looking at literature is helpful as the innocent, afflicted child is a common theme in Victorian literature. Disabled children are seen as “innocent” or “blessed” or “angels”, whilst being unfortunate at the same time.

They are generally presented as being accepting of their condition, and are portrayed as heroic and sweet, and able to rise above their misfortunes. Their patience and acceptance of their disability comes across as powerful to the reader, and they are likely to become the hero or heroine of the novel.

Let’s think of a well known example that relates to all of these points…

Tiny Tim

The loveable character Tiny Tim from Charles Dickens’s classic novel ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a perfect example of the ‘innocent’ , ‘sweet’ and ‘unfortunate’ character that is portrayed in many Victorian novels. Despite his disability, Tim is still clearly an active member of his family, taking part in their religious and festive traditions, even his crutch is described as an “active little crutch”. Despite his suffering, he remains happy, grateful, and lively, which encourages sympathy and admiration from the reader.  Through ‘A Christmas Carol’  and the character Tiny Tim we also get an insight into religious perspectives of disability at the time.  The common view was that God was responsible for your disability, and that you have blessed with it and should therefore learn to live with it and be the best you can be. Tim regularly joins his father in going to church and hopes that people will notice him, because he is a cripple, and they should “remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see”, referring to the miracles of healing performed by Christ as recorded in the Gospels. He hopes that others can see him as a reminder of the doings and miracles of Jesus.


Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843) (London: Puffin Books, 2008).

Iain F.W.K. Davidson , Gary Woodill & Elizabeth Bredberg, ‘Images of Disability in 19th Century British Children’s Literature’, Disability & Society, 9:1 (1994),33-46.

Animal assisted therapy and the disabled: How our furry friends have helped us today and in the nineteenth century

In Britain, we are a well-known society of animal lovers- many of us owning a beloved pet which we view as much a member of the family as mum, dad, brothers or sisters. Nowadays, seeing a dog leading a deaf or blind person, or a child with autism going to animal therapy where they learn to fly falcons or ride horses is not uncommon. Pets commonly represent an entire stage of a person’s life, their devotion even being proved to lower blood pressure and aid treatment for heart attacks and strokes. However, how does this fit into the nineteenth century and children? Evidence has emerged that animal therapy was used in this century, after the ideas of enlightenment emerged of using more moral and rewarding ways of recreation.

The nineteenth century

This topic has mainly been written about by psychologists and philosophers and is interesting to look at from the perspective of a historian. There is definitely a lack of focus on this area of disability history. For example, a mental asylum in England called the Society of Friends used animals like rabbits as a focus for the person on something other than themselves and for peaceful interaction, which I am sure we can all relate to today. Animals that were used were not the mainstream cat or dog as we see taken into hospitals for patient recreation nowadays, but usually rabbits, sea gulls and hawks. Later, after the British Charity commissioners reviewed the terrible conditions of asylums throughout the country, in the 1830s they concluded that the institutions be filled with, “sheep, hares, a monkey or some other domestic or social animals.” It was believed that animals were perceived in a calming and healing way and that some of the mentally ill spoke to them if no one else would listen to them, and, in a way, aiding their problems.

More sympathetic attitudes towards animals and the idea of wilderness and animals threatening survival began to fade and were replaced by enlightened views and a more positive opinion of nature and its calming effects. It was seen as escapism from the pollution and strife of urban living. In literature the poems of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge reflected these views and animals in particular were perceived as having free souls and being able to embrace nature in a way we could not.

For children, animals being an important part of social development became important at this time, as written about by John Locke in 1699 that animals encouraged them to develop feelings and responsibilities for other people. Reformers came to perceive animals as useful for children in learning to control and reflect on their own “beast-like characteristics,” by learning to control their own animals. This links in with Charles Darwin’s theory on evolution- On the Origin of the species 1859 – which was truly revolutionary in that it stated how we’re all animals which therefore helps us to understand why people believed in a view that animals helped us to express ourselves.


Today, there is more of a widespread recognition of animals and their abilities in helping the disabled and so evidence is a lot easier to find than in the nineteenth century. But ideas seem fairly similar and reminiscent of the early-enlightened views. Charities have been set up to provide animals in hospitals, such as Pets as Therapy established in 1983, where in the UK they have 4500 active dogs and 108 cats helping 130 000 people a year. Even dolphins and horses are now used in this extraordinary way. Animals are rewarded for their work, notably with younger children who can become isolated from their disability, where they help them to become more independent, confident and less isolated. Children feel more confortable talking to animals as animals do not judge and their companionship helps children who are blind, deaf, with autism or ADHD. They are unsung heroes in aiding mental health and well-being.




Altschiller Donald, Animal-assisted therapy, third edition, (California: Greenwood publishing group, 2011) pp. 3-7.

Fine Aubrey H ed, Handbook on animal-assisted therapy- theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice, second edition, (London: Elsevier, 2006) pp. 11-13.




Disability History Month 2014

Today marks the beginning of Disability History Month, where the history of the challenges faced and experienced by disabled individuals and their struggle for equality in a world where difference is feared, is brought into focus. We would like to bring your attention to this important event because it is due to Disability History Month that we have decided to do this project to shed light on how disabled people, especially children, have been treated and perceived in the nineteenth century. It is surprising that we had never heard of this month before, which shows that we need to spread the word about the importance of disability history, as it is everybody’s history. It is also vital that we make people aware of the discrimination that disabled people have faced throughout history in order to make sure that this does not happen again in the twenty-first century, where humanity and acceptance are the key values of our society.


This is the logo for Disability History Month, courtesy of the BBC.

 ‘Our symbol is the black triangle that people, including many disabled men and women, had to wear under the Nazis to designate that they were unsociable. We’ve turned it around to reclaim it and surrounded it with a yellow circle and our slogans.’  – Richard Reiser, National Coordinator of UKDHM

(Taken from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-ouch-25188538)

This year, the theme for Disability History Month is ‘War and Impairment: The Social Consequences of Disablement’ which discusses how war caused individuals to become disabled and how they were perceived in society. The theme is about making people aware of disabled individuals as a consequence of war to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War, where many soldiers were physically or mentally affected by the horrifying events and loss of life which took place. It is also a very current issue, as the increase in medical knowledge in the twenty-first century means that more men and women of war survive and are able to lead better lives than ever before. Please spread the word about Disability History Month as it is important that we recognise and treat disabled individuals as equals in society who deserve to be treated with respect.

For more information about Disability History Month, please visit their website at:


For more information about DHM’s theme for this year, please follow the link below: 


Day at the Archives

After a trip to the West Glamorgan Archives today we found 3 useful documents relating to our research topic of disabled children and young people in the 19th century. Although it’s difficult to find testimonies from children of the time, there is primary material available from other perspectives, particularly from the people in charge of the institutions that cared for children. The written sources from children that are available need to be treated with care, as words were often put in their mouths to make the institutions look successful. We’ll discuss the documents we’ve found, to keep you updated with what we’re up to!


1. A sermon preached by the Lord Bishop of Saint David’s in Aberystwyth, 1849


This sermon was written on behalf of the Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Swansea, in order to promote and improve the work of the institution, which had been running since 1847. We found this useful and relevant for our project, as it focuses on the religious aspect of disability which we’ve looked at in lectures. The main point the Bishop is trying to make is to “Bear ye one another burdens, and so full-fill the law of Christ”. He’s suggesting that you should make the most of your disability or ‘burden’, as it’s the law of Christ. This document is an example of the growing religious concern over disabled children. In the Victorian era, blind and deaf people were seen as particularly vulnerable as they were unable to connect with God. Devotion and worship to God, as quoted by the Bishop, needs to be “animated by the confession of the lips and ears”. It’s no wonder then that the Bishop is promoting the Cambrian Institution and urging for charitable assistance in order for it to continue and improve its work in helping deaf children.

2. Reports on the Cambrian Institute of the Deaf and Dumb

Cambrian Institute

This book of the Principal’s reports from the Cambrian Institute describes the progress of each child, reporting on their improvement (if any) in their health and behaviour, including applications for clothes and any other supplies certain children were in need of. It shows us that the Institute relied on money from the community to help pay for these resources, and showed how they struggled to obtain them. The book also tells us of the organisation and surveillance over the children at the Institute, suggesting that they genuinely supported and cared about the children that they were looking after. The problem with this document is that it may be censored; the people in charge of the institution may not want to give away the problems and negative aspects that are taking place, as they want to protect their reputation. But, they did  mention the misbehaviour and ill health of the children at the institution. One misbehaved member, Mary Davies, is mentioned in this report: “I am sorry to have to report the mis-behaviour of Mary Davies…she…uses indecent signs to the children…’. She also entered the Institution at aged 19 ‘…with an intellect of a doubtful character…’ Unfortunately, she was asked to be removed from the institution which only shows how important the Cambrian Institute found their reputation.

3. ‘My Dear King’

My Dear King

The third document we looked at was a collection of newspaper cuttings including information from various archives from Desmond Thomas, about his disabled father Idris,who lost both of his feet following a disease of his bones which lead to their amputation. This document is useful because it gives an account of a person who lived with a disability and had his life changed from the kindness of King George V himself, who seemed interested in his story and donated £5 so he could obtain two prosthetic feet. Idris also thanks Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra for “providing the gift of hope, of life, of pride, of dignity and most of all a reason to survive to a young man, who was later to walk unaided by crutches or sticks.” He also thanks them all for “letting him be my dad”, expressing the importance of family life and their gratefulness towards prosthetics that were being invented in the early 20th Century. Idris explains how after being carried into Buckingham Palace by footmen, the people he encountered were “just like my own people- everybody was so kind to me, I did not feel a bit frightened.” The various newspaper articles seem to highlight George V’s sympathy and how he “delighted the youth by cordially shaking his hand, displaying the utmost tenderness and sympathy,” which seems to be more in favour of the King rather than gaining sympathy for Idris. The Daily Chronicle in fact referred to the story as a “pathetic little drama,” and goes on to say how initially Idris did not see the King but someone on his behalf and the King only granted him 15 minutes of his time. This seems to bring more attention towards the King for giving his time and money to help. We also notice offensive terms by today’s standards such as “Morriston Cripple”  and “The King and his cripple” which encourage pity for Idris. Idris’ story is fascinating, useful and poignant as it showed how even in the next century disabled young people were seen as being weak and frail. But it also shows how kindness of others and donations from people helped them to ease their suffering and how medicine was developing to what it is today in inventing prosthetics which changed the course of disability history forever.

We’re happy with our findings so far, and look forward to finding more evidence and sharing it with you! All images are courtesy of the West Glamorgan Archives, Swansea. 

Drawing Parallels Between ‘BBC Children In Need’ and Nineteenth Century Welfare for Disabled and Disadvantaged Young People

On Friday Night at 7:30pm you may have tuned in to watch the annual BBC Children In Need charity event where over £32.6 million was raised for children and young people who are disadvantaged in the UK. Through the increase in technology, Children In Need has become a nationwide charitable event, raising more awareness of the rights of children – i.e. to be ‘safe, happy and secure and able to reach their potential’ – throughout the UK than ever before. However, if we look at the support for children back in the nineteenth century, using South Wales as an example, there are clear differences and similarities.



During the nineteenth century, Britain had a mixed economy of welfare which included home support, government support and support from charities. BBC Children in Need is a classic example of charity support which, like today, was a lot more important to disabled and disadvantaged children than government action in the nineteenth century, as the Poor Law was not very generous with their relief funding. Charity organisations focused on young people today depend upon the money raised through Children In Need to help fund local schemes and projects for children. In Wales during the mid-nineteenth century, outdoor relief programs were seen as cheaper and possibly more helpful than building institutions for the sick and disabled, which were the product of government action. Due to the dislike of the Poor Law in Wales, an emphasis on caring for ill and disabled children at home became the main form of care.

Children In Need focuses on the difficulties that children face throughout the UK which raises awareness of the vulnerability of children and of the need for financial support to make their lives better and more fulfilling. This view of disabled and disadvantaged children was also present mainly in the late- nineteenth century. More focus was in fact given to the welfare of children across Britain during this period. In Wales, the increase in population during the nineteenth century only revealed the ineffectiveness of the present welfare system, which saw a need for the establishment of hospitals, such as The Children’s Hospital at Merthyr Tydfill which was founded in 1877.


One of the key differences between Children In Need and the welfare support given to children in the nineteenth century was its ‘inadequacy’ as Steven Thompson describes it. Even though the workhouses and institutions did provide support for the disabled and disadvantaged children, it does not compare to the brilliant care given to children today. Doctors today are more understanding and know a lot more about how to care for children than they did in the nineteenth century.

Children’s issues in the twenty-first century have been brought to a wider audience with the introduction of television broadcasting, which nineteenth century charities did not have the benefit of using to raise awareness of disabled children and the need for funding. Instead of just supporting and helping children through their difficulties, nineteenth-century organisations were promoting ‘self-help’ where they would focus on helping disabled and disadvantaged individuals to help themselves. This is different from Children In Need, where the aim is just to help as many young people as possible.


Therefore, nineteenth-century welfare for disabled and disadvantaged young people is similar to Children in Need in that an awareness for the happiness and safety of children was brought into the spotlight. Even though welfare for children in the past has been criticised by historians, we must never forget that there were many charitable organisations and good and kind people who did want to make children’s lives better. The stereotypical view that conditions for children were poor and ‘inadequate’ in the nineteenth century can certainly be questioned. Children In Need only reflects how important people’s generosity and kindness is in helping young people through difficult times.


What this project does and thinking about disability in the past.

Disability as a topic is a sensitive and, even at times, a controversial one. Why is it so controversial? Well, simply because people percieve and think about disability in different ways. Sometimes (when we don’t even realise it) we portray people who consider themselves to have a disability as objects of pity and the person we are objectifiying may take offense to that opinion. It could be argued that most of us define people and their lives by their disability rather than looking at the individual person as a seperate entity from their disability.
It is important to remember that not every person who had a disability in the past lived a life of extreme difficulty or even sadness because they were disabled.
As mentioned previously, we are under the guidance of D.M Turner, an historian who specializes in disability history and he showed us a source (image and text provided below) which we thought may interest you and we will provide a small analysis of the source to hopefully show how we must be careful at not generalizing disability.

4749e0f1dfc862e860e68c87599fb354Link to original document and web page – (http://www.nineteenthcenturydisability.org/items/show/7)

Perhaps when we think about disability in the past, we vision those with a disability in rags, on the street begging and homeless. This is not the case for the nutmeg grater above.
If you read the linked document underneath the image, you quickly learn that this nutmeg grater viewed himself as a merchant, who wants to earn his own living and be a seller, not a beggar.
The merchant is smartly dressed, and postioned upright, arguably in a soldier like manner. From the image alone we know the nutmeg grater wants to viewed as a business man, who is more concerned in selling his goods than being an object of pity. Perhaps we shouldn’t believe that people with disabilities in the past solely relied on the generosity of others and had no prospects, this nutmeg grater shows that not all those who were disabled were not prosperous.
There are more sources out there to defy stereotypes and generalisations of disability in the past and as project we want to convey disability in a different light. If this nutmeg grater was one of thousands of those who were disabled, how many more people with disabilities can defy the stereotypes? We aim not to ‘speak’ for the disabled as such but to provide a loudspeaker to their stories, so their voices and lives are heard, as a project we do not want to tell you how they lived in the nineteenth century, they will tell you, if you are willing to listen.

‘Disability is everywhere in history, once you look for it’. – Douglas Baynton

Hello and welcome!

Hello and welcome to the blog!

The aim of this blog is to document findings on the research of disability in the nineteenth century. This blog is run by four students at Swansea University along with the guidance of D.M Turner, an historian who specializes in disability history. We will make visits to archives, research and also read upon disability in the nineteenth century and present this information through this blog and various other outputs (links will be posted). We hope that the readers find this topic as interesting as we do as we believe that disability in history deserves wide scale attention and also appreciation, to perhaps change the way we think about disability in the past and hopefully how we think about disability in the present.
We hope you enjoy this journey with us and feel free to ask any questions or get in touch!