Archive for the ‘History’ Category

UK Disability History Month – Language and Disability

Monday, October 24th, 2016

UK Disability History Month coordinator Richard Rieser writes about this year’s theme: language and disability

Schools and colleges should now be planning what they will do in this year’s Disability History Month (22nd November – 22nd December, though you can do work before and after). Let us know your events.

34% of disabled Year 9 students  compared to 26% of non disabled students, experience bullying through name calling, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Government. The ‘othering’ process that starts with name calling and devalues the disabled victim leads to social exclusion (21%), threats of violence (26%) and experience of actual violence (24%) – more than double that experienced by non-disabled students (11%). Schools have statutory duties to eliminate bullying. So examining the roots of disablist and pejorative language is an essential part of creating a climate of disability equality in your school or college. We have worked with the Anti Bullying Alliance to produce a whole range of resources to enable teachers to challenge language based disablist bullying.

Historically disablist language is common. In William Shakespeare’s “Richard III”, Scene I, Act I, Gloucester’s first speech before Richard was King is perhaps the most famous speech about the impacts of impairment on character, reinforcing the link between evil and disability.

“…Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;”

This followed Sir Thomas Moore’s much earlier account of “The Life and Death of Richard III”. Moore’s account was written to curry favour with Henry VIII, who felt very insecure as King, because his father, Henry VII, had claimed the crown having killed Richard III in the battle of Bosworth, so usurping or stealing the crown. Moore therefore embellished history and added to Richard’s ‘hunchback’ or scoliosis, (now proven with the recent discovery of his skeleton in a Leicestershire car park), a ‘lame leg’ and ‘withered arm’ (both made-up) and dubiously directly linked Richard to the murder of his brother, the Princes in the Tower and several others which suited  Tudor propaganda. Shakespeare produced magnificent literature in Richard, who is contradictory, both an evil monster /murderer and  a magnetic personality, attractive to women.

Throughout history, human physical and mental differences have been described in language and given meaning based on the thinking of the day, reinforcing powerful stereotypes which stretch down the years and still influence thinking about disabled people. This is the theme of UK Disability History Month  Autumn 2016. We will focus on the language and words used to describe disabled people over time. What were the historic attitudes and ideas which led to this language? This includes literature, theatre, history, oral history, coverage in the newspapers and other print media. Through the lens of language we will seek to gain a greater understanding of our oppression in the past and now. Through human rights and the social model approach to disability, barriers can be removed and attitudes changed.

Lame today is used by some young people to mean something that is good, being a reversal of the meaning not smart or impressive. In Shakespeare’s time it meant both having an injured foot/leg, make walking difficult  and not strong , good or effective. Overall this word is negative, sad and not a good experience. Halt was a word in common use then, meaning the same as lame, as was cripple, also meaning to move slowly, to be permanently injured or have no power.  The polarity of good and evil/ beautiful and unsightly in this language is found right across all languages and is a major contributor to the devaluation of disabled people. Generally, disabled people of that period would have had families, worked and not been distinguished from the mass of common people, unless severely impaired. Those not looked after by their community would have begged, though this became outlawed and the first Poor Law (1601) meant they had to stay in their local area and seek support from the parish. So the impact of the play “Richard III” (1592) would have been dramatically strong.  At a time when people generally believed in witchcraft and tangible forces of evil, it made a powerful link between disability and evil.

As part of this year’s UKDHM we have worked with the Open University and Access All Areas to produce a pack for schools around the film on the life of Mabel Cooper. Mabel was placed in a long stay hospital for the ‘mentally deficient’ at the age of four and stayed there more than thirty years. When eventually released under care in the community, she became a major advocate for people with learning difficulties and a founder of People First. The pack has developed activities for students from KS2-5 in English, drama, history, science, geography and PHSE.

Following Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species (1865), his cousin Frances Galton and many others thought they could speed up natural selection of human beings by stopping ‘inferior’ people from having children. This movement, eugenics, particularly focused on those they called ‘feeble-minded’, who could pass as part of the general population, but who carried the characteristics of mental deficiency, crime, immorality and destitution which could be passed onto to their children. Most people with more significant mental impairments – the mad, idiots and imbeciles – were already by this time kept in asylums and the workhouse and for those of upper and middle class in private small asylums. Eugenicist Mary Dendy, for instance, worked ceaselessly in Manchester to separate the feeble minded from other children and also adults in the home she opened in Sandlebridge, Cheshire.

In 1902, the Rev. Harold Nelson Burden, chaplain at Horfield Prison, and his wife Katharine, founded the National Institutions for Persons Requiring Care and Control, to care for mentally retarded children and adults. In 1908 they rented the Stoke Park estate, opening the Stoke Park Colony in April 1909. The colony was the first institution certified as a home for mentally retarded patients under the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, the Rev. Burden having been a member of the Royal Commission for inquiry into care of the feeble-minded which led to the Act. The colony was regarded as a leading institution of its type.

The agitation, actions and false thinking of Galton, Dendy and Burden and a small group of other eugenicist activists led to a Royal Commission on Mental Deficiency which was supplied with false scientific evidence by psychologists like Cyril Burt, who provided intelligence tests, and doctors like AF Tredgold, who provided the authoritative text on mental deficiency for the next sixty years. This was followed by more eugenicist fear and propaganda which led to the Mental Deficiency Act 1913 being voted through Parliament with only two votes against. This led to the licensing and shutting away for life of 130,000 people, a growth industry in diagnosis and labelling, and the setting up of over 100 large institutions many of which only began to close in the 1980s to 2000s – many of the children’s facilities just changed their name to special school.

The 1913 Act established the Board of Control for Lunacy and Mental Deficiency to oversee the implementation of provisions for the care and management of four classes of people:

“a) Idiots. Those so deeply defective as to be unable to guard themselves against common physical dangers.

b) Imbeciles. Whose defectiveness does not amount to idiocy, but is so pronounced that they are incapable of managing themselves or their affairs, or, in the case of children, of being taught to do so.

c) Feeble-minded persons. Whose weakness does not amount to imbecility, yet who require care, supervision, or control, for their protection or for the protection of others, or, in the case of children, are incapable of receiving benefit from the instruction in ordinary schools.

d) Moral Imbeciles. Displaying mental weakness coupled with strong vicious or criminal propensities, and on whom punishment has little or no deterrent effect”.

Some of these words, though unacceptable, are still in common use as harassing language, but most young people know nothing of this particularly nasty period of oppression. This year’s UKDHM gives us all an excellent chance to challenge such ignorance and rejoin the struggle for disability equality. The pack will be launched in Parliament at 11am on the 22nd November. UKDHM will launch that evening at 6pm at Kings Place, Kings Cross.

Richard Rieser

This is an expanded version of an article that appears in Inclusion Now 45. You can join ALLFIE to receive three issues of Inclusion Now per year.

How did I do as a blind dad?

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

I know, I’m not the only parent to worry about how good a job I’ve done.  But, being a father with a profound disability gives  me some additional pause for thought.  As Caitlin, my only child, prepares to celebrate her 21st birthday, it’s an obvious moment to take stock and recall some of the challenges of being a blind parent.

Since Caitlin left home for university, she’s begun to gain some perspective on her parents and upbringing.  During a recent trip home, Caitlin and I had a few very frank discussions about what it’s been like having a blind Dad and how my obvious limitations have affected her. Caitlin admits, she finds it difficult knowing how to introduce my disability to new people she meets.  She dreads the awkward silences and same old questions that can follow – and it pains her when these responses come from people she has reason to admire and respect.

“It doesn’t matter how many times they’ve heard the one about the blind man who climbed Everest,” she complains, “they still ask the most basic questions about how you get dressed and get around.  I can’t explain, it makes you sound sort of …”

“Helpless?” I offer.

“Yeah, I suppose that’s it.  And then, I think they must see me as unusual or different.”

Caitlin’s never enjoyed being different or standing out.  And, knowing this, I’ve always tried to shield her from the stereotypes and prejudice I regularly encounter.  As Community Care, the journal for social care professionals notes: “children whose parents have additional support needs can acquire labels which are stigmatising and isolating”.

That’s why we always tried to get Caitlin into schools with a positive record on the inclusion of disabled children.  If any difficulties arose, we reckoned we’d be pushing at an open door.  Once, when Caitlin was nine, I presented a session to her class about Braille.  It was well received, and each child left the room with a Braille alphabet card, a secret message to de-code later and, so I hoped, the impression that Caitlin’s Dad, whilst different, was also an interesting and articulate man.

At secondary school things were more difficult.  Caitlin acquired the acute self-consciousness of a teenager and any parental presence at school was viewed as a potential source of embarrassment.  We received detailed instructions from her on what to wear and what to say in order to mitigate any loss of face: and one of Caitlin’s stipulations was that I should never bring my white cane.

Caitlin recalls, when she was 17, inviting her first serious boyfriend back to the house.  “I hadn’t mentioned to Tom you were blind and, because you and Mum had gone out to the theatre, I didn’t think you’d meet.  But you guys came back early and I remember us all standing round the island in the kitchen, feeling extremely awkward.  Then Tom reached out to shake your hand and I had to look away because I couldn’t bear seeing what would happen next!”

“Yes,” I offer, “but all credit to Tom for how he handled it.  And, later, the two of us got on really well.”

One of the standard questions Caitlin gets asked is, “who cares for who?”.  It’s a fair point.

Having one or both parents with a disability can shift the boundaries of responsibility and dependence, and there’s evidence to suggest it may have a detrimental impact on children.  Research commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, examined the experiences of 60 young carers aged 16-25.  It concludes that: “Many children and young people who spend time caring for a chronically sick or disabled parent experience long-term problems in their own lives resulting from missed school and lack of qualifications or job opportunities”. The same study identifies an increased incidence of anxiety, depression and difficulties transitioning into adult life.

Caitlin never missed a day’s school on my account and she appears to be doing well at university.  However, it’s true that, when it came to the practicalities of child-rearing, there was often less available energy.  My disability meant there were tasks I couldn’t do and a whole lot more I could do, but only by slower and more circuitous routes.  Significantly, more than half the young people interviewed for the JRF research were living in lone parent families.  So, I’m lucky to have had a non-disabled partner to fill the gaps,  a job to bring in the money and a support network of friends for when the going got tough.

And yet, I still worry that my disability’s had some more subtle, psychological affect on Caitlin.  What about all those extra responsibilities she had to shoulder at an earlier age?  I try to remember when it was I first took Caitlin’s arm and she began guiding me.  We’re both surprised when I say, I think it may have been as early as six or seven.

Caitlin insists that guiding me has always felt like the most natural thing in the world.

“But surely,” I ask, “you must be permanently on the lookout for lamp-posts and hazards?”

“No more than when I’m walking by myself.  It’s like you’re an extension of me and I have a sense of the space we’re taking up.”

I remember, with pleasure, when roles were reversed and Caitlin was an extension of my body.  Once upon a time, before she got too heavy, I could simply strap Caitlin into the backpack and head off wherever I liked, using my cane.  I was in charge: the way Dads are supposed to be.

Collecting Caitlin from her child-minder’s every evening was something I loved.  I felt so proud, carrying her along while, over my shoulder, she  chattered on about her day.
So, it saddened me to discover that one of the other mums had been discussing with the child-minder how dangerous it was for me to be crossing busy roads with Caitlin.  I tried talking to the mother concerned, but she just couldn’t get it.  And it rankled with me all the more because I knew she was an intelligent, talented and sometimes sensitive person.

Caitlin describes a traumatic incident when she was six.

One day, standing by the window, she saw me coming in from work, blood streaming down my face.  My wife explained I was okay and that I’d had a collision with a carelessly constructed display outside a shop.  But, when a police car pulled up, Caitlin’s anxieties peaked.

“I can’t even remember what I felt.  Maybe, I felt angry with the shop-owner?  But I clearly remember sitting there, feeling distraught, wondering, what I could do to help.  And then it came to me: [Caitlin assumes the voice of a six-year-old] `I must write to the Queen`.”

My wife posted Caitlin’s letter and I assumed that was the last we’d hear of it.  Except, to Caitlin’s six-year-old way of thinking: if you’ve taken the time to write to someone, then, obviously, you expect a reply.  And, Caitlin’s confidence was rewarded.

“I remember the sense of proving you wrong, when I got a reply.  I remember Mum screaming with excitement as we opened the envelope!”

So, aside from spawning a royalist, how have I done as a parent?  Caitlin’s never suffered from any lack of love or attention, although thoughts about available energy influenced our decision not to have a second child.  Maybe there’s a connection between the young woman who now sees herself as especially “observant” and “sensible” and some of the added responsibilities she had to assume at an early age.  Although, as Caitlin points out: “I like being sensible – and who’s to say I wouldn’t have been sensible anyway”.

Mike Lambert, ALLFIE trustee

 

This blog is an extended version of this piece on the BBC website.

Are you a disabled parent? Have your say in the comment section below.

How Blind Victorians Campaigned for Inclusive Education

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Disabled people’s voices are often missing from mainstream history, but texts reveal that a group of blind activists fought for inclusive education during the Victorian times:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-ouch-29327232