UK Disability History Month

It was really pleasing to see that nearly 50 MPs signed an Early Day Motion supporting the launch of UK Disability History Month.

At a time when, quite rightly, MPs and disability organisations were focussing on the cost-cutting present, it’s worth remembering that history is important – it’s what makes us who we are, and there are many lessons we can learn from the past.

It’s also important that children today learn that the way disabled people are perceived has changed enormously within living memory. That’s not to say there isn’t ignorance and prejudice (in some so-called comedy, for example) but now disabled kids can see themselves in storybooks and can watch cool role models like Ade Adepitan and Cerrie Burnell on TV.

If disabled people are not visible in the community, the result is that nearly 40% of people (who are not disabled and do not have a disabled family member) don’t know any disabled people.

History and disabled people

And it’s the same with history. I have always felt passionately that history belongs to the people so I was glad that I could work with disabled journalist Chris Davies for Scope’s 50th anniversary to ensure that disabled people’s voices were at the forefront of his book, Changing Society.

One of the people we interviewed was the first disabled trustee and employee of Scope was Bill Hargreaves. Bill had been trying to publish his truly remarkable life story for years but couldn’t find a publisher. I promised him I’d get it into print, but sadly he died before I could – you can read Bill’s story in Can You Manage Stares?

I was pleased to lobby successfully for the inclusion of Bill as the third person with cerebral palsy in the Dictionary of National Biography, after the emperor Claudius (possibly) and Christy Brown, the author of My Left Foot.

Speaking for Ourselves

This got me thinking about who else was being ignored by history? That’s why I set up Scope’s pioneering oral history project, Speaking for Ourselves, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Sixteen disabled volunteers recorded 36 life-stories of people with cerebral palsy over 50. These 234 hours of recorded testimonies are at the British Library Sound Archive.

Our DVD teaching pack was launched in May 2006 and already there have been over 3,500 requests for packs from schools, colleges, local authorities and disability trainers throughout the UK.

As one of our volunteers said, ”Speaking for Ourselves is an exciting and valuable project. Why? Because disabled people are not included in social history. As a disabled woman with cerebral palsy, this opportunity to record our history is long overdue.”

UK Disability History Month is also long overdue; long may it continue!

All of the interviews for Speaking for Ourselves are available to researchers and the general public at the British Library Sound Archive.