Tag Archives: Disability history month

“This child is spastic. Take her home.” – Disability History Month

Dr Lin Berwick MBE, counsellor, lecturer, journalist, broadcaster, homeopath, Methodist preacher is 66. She is one of a number of older disabled people who contributed to the Disability Voices website at the British Library Sound Archive as part of Scope’s Speaking for Ourselves project.

For Disability History Month, Lin remembers how a doctor labelled her as ‘spastic’ and encouraged her parents to have another child. 

“This child is spastic. Take her home…”

When I went blind

Lin went to a school for physically disabled pupils. When she lost her sight, she was bullied.

“When I went blind, the kids at the school were really nasty and I went through some horrible jeering and bullying, and people laughing at me because I walked into things. You know, I went to walk through a door that had glass panels and, because I could see the light through I thought the door was open, and of course it wasn’t. I sort of smashed my face, and then I walked into a brick wall and things like that, and hit my face again and I had tripod sticks poked into, and walking sticks poked into my face and handfuls of mud rubbed into my face, and kids saying ‘Can you see that, then, Berwick?’ It was horrendous at a time when you’re really frightened, because you’ve now suddenly got a new disability which you don’t know how to handle.”

‘Telephonist required’

Lin Berwick on phone
Lin Berwick on phone

Finding a job was another barrier Lin had to face. 

“When I got to the bank, it was one of these banks with these horrible revolving doors, which wasn’t easy, going through on a pair of tripods. Eventually, I found my way into the bank, and made my way to the accountant’s office, and when he opened the door he, said, ‘Oh, I know they told me you were disabled’, he said,’ ‘but I didn’t realise you were that disabled, but you might as well come in and sit down anyway’, and I thought, ‘God, this is a really good start to your first job interview!’ But I thought, ‘Well, I’m here. I’ve got one chance, so I might as well really go for it’, and he took my mother around the bank, showed her some of the obstacles, and we came back into the office and we started to talk about the work, and he proceeded to ask my mother every single question about my training.”

Becoming a Methodist preacher

God's Rich Pattern: Meditations for when our Faith is Shaken
God’s Rich Pattern: Meditations for when our Faith is Shaken

Even in her spiritual life, Lin faced prejudice when she tried to follow her vocation and become a Methodist preacher.

“The Secretary of the meeting said, ‘I think we’re going to have a problem with you.’ I said, ‘Oh yes! Why’s that?’ ‘Well, due to your disability, I don’t know how you’ll cope with the public speaking,’ so I said, ‘Well, as someone who’s done over 300 radio broadcasts, I don’t think you’re going to have a problem.’ ‘Oh,’ and he said, ‘And I don’t know how you’ll cope with the academic study.’ I said, ‘Well, I have ‘O’ levels, and I have the equivalent of a degree in Psychology.’ He said, ‘Oh, you can learn then!’ and I thought, ‘God, if this is the kind of prejudice I’m going to get, this is just amazing stuff,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I can learn’ and he said, ‘And then we don’t know how you’ll cope with the access to the church buildings,’ and I said, ‘There, I’m prepared to admit you have a problem, but maybe together, we can work at it.’”

Listen to Lin’s life story on the Disability Voices website.

Books by Lin Berwick

Find out more about the Lin Berwick Trust.

Read the rest of our blogs for Disability History Month

From callipers to climbing Ben Nevis – Disability History Month

Mountaineer and writer John Hawkridge is 68. He is one of a number of older disabled people who contributed to the Disability Voices website at the British Library Sound Archive as part of Scope’s Speaking for Ourselves project.

For Disability History Month, John remembers when he could run as a child and how in later life he tackled Ben Nevis.

Wearing callipers

John as a boy sitting on a step
John as a boy sitting on a step

Unfortunately for me I got selected to be fitted with iron callipers. So all of a sudden you find yourself in leg irons, and you know from being able to run, they’ve put you in these leg irons, and you can hardly stand up, never mind run. And they put you in them, and they tighten all the leather straps on you when you’re in. You know, it’s basically, it’s just a form of torture; they’re just forcing your joints against what they want to do. And so, you find yourself, you might be wearing your callipers ‘x’ amount of hours a day. Now bearing in mind I could take these callipers off and run, and run, hop, skip and jump, that weren’t something that I enjoyed at all.

Climbing Ben Nevis

John Hawkridge
John Hawkridge

By seven o’clock I was out and away, and heading up Ben Nevis. Initially there was no one else about, and I had the route to myself, but as time progressed it wasn’t long before people started overtaking me. Throughout the day I made really steady and positive progress, and up through a place known as ‘the Red Burn’, and then the massive, steep zigzagging path that went to the sort of summit ridge, or plateau, and then finally across this, where there were still snow and an ice field to be crossed towards the summit, and I ended up, I arrived on the summit about four o’clock. There were a few people there, and one that stood out was an American chap who, when he saw me coming, started dancing up and down, shouting, ‘What the Hell? I’ve flogged my so-and-so guts out getting to the top of this mountain, and what do I find when I get here? A so-and-so cripple. You’ve ruined my day.’ At which he screwed his stars and stripes up, shoved it back in his rucksack, and stormed off muttering to himself; ‘And I don’t know how the hell I’m going to get back down again,’ and I leant over and shouted to him, ‘That makes two of us!’”

Hear about John’s descent of Ben Nevis with broken walking stick and boot.

Rock-climbing films

In the mid-1970s I’d bought a good-quality Super Eight Cine Camera and had made films of some of the walks that I’d done and rock climbs; the two walks which I’d filmed being the Three Peaks of Yorkshire and the Dales Way – a 100-mile walk from Ilkley to Bowness on Windermere, and also I had some quite good shots of me rock climbing at Ilkley and Brimham Rocks.

In the late seventies I had been showing these films at various places, you know, if I had to entertain anywhere I’d take along me Cine and compiled a film and showed these films. And the fact that I’d been doing these activities had come to the attention of Yorkshire Television who sent a producer/director out to see me, with a view to making a film, and I remember well as he watched this Cine film, an half-hour film that I’d put together, and when it had finished he says, ‘This is absolutely fantastic, this is absolutely brilliant,’ he said, ‘but unfortunately we could never show this or make a film about this, because the public wouldn’t be able to take it…’

Climbing Everest

Books by John Hawkridge

Uphill All The Way book cover
Uphill All The Way book cover

His first book Sticks and Stones was published in 1987. This was followed by Uphill All The Way in 1991.

Listen to John’s life story on the Disability Voices website.

Find out more about Disability History Month on our website.

Language plays a central role in how we view disability – Disability History Month

Throughout Disability History Month we have been celebrating the lives of disabled people from the past such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Alfred Nobel and Frida Kahlo and explored the changing lives and experiences of older disabled people living in the UK.

In the final week of Disability History Month, Jack Welch, who campaigns to raise awareness of the challenges people with autism face, looks at the importance of language, the theme of UK Disability History Month 2016.

In the UK, we’ve made good progress in recent decades to provide legislation on the rights of disabled people. Despite these changes there are deeper challenges and barriers people with visible or invisible conditions still encounter.

For someone like myself on the autistic spectrum, the obstacles to get the right level of support in a mainstream school and identifying what reasonable adjustments are needed in employment are just a couple of examples that many, like myself, have to confront.

Disability hate crime

From recent research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, figures on disability related hate crime are worrying and attitudes towards disabled people are still of great concern. Disabled people aged 10-15 were almost twice as likely to have experienced a crime compared to non-disabled people (22% contrasted with 12.4%).

If levels of hate crime are still happening at this rate, despite recent developments and more positive portrayals of disabled people as we’ve seen with Rio 2012, we need to redouble our efforts to make people more aware of using language that is respectful of disabled people.

Jack smiles at the cameraI experienced a disability related incident on London underground recently. I was left shaken and frustrated at other people’s ambivalence and that they choose to look away. Those who verbally attacked me were younger than me. Scope’s End the Awkward research, shows younger people often have difficulty in approaching a disabled person. What role can schools and education play to improve this attitude towards disabled people?

So what can we do? Newspapers and other media outlets still use phrases like ‘suffering with autism’. I have autism, I don’t feel I ‘suffer’ from it.

Language plays a central role in how we perceive individuals with certain conditions and that in turn reflects our behaviour when we meet a disabled person.

We all must consider the language we use and how it can affect disabled people, and we need to begin from a young age. It’s more difficult to confront and combat prejudice at a later stage.

We need to prevent negative attitudes from developing and leading to the incident I experienced.

Find out more about Disability History Month on our website.

Jack has started a discussion about the importance of Disability History Month on Scope’s community where people can share their own experiences and discuss the impact language has on their lives.

My brother used to carry me on his back to school: Disability History Month

Alan Counsell is 79. He is one of a number of older disabled people who contributed to the Disability Voices website at the British Library Sound Archive as part of Scope’s Speaking for Ourselves project.

For Disability History Month, Alan remembers his struggle to get an education and find a job:

Being carried to school

The Headmistress at the school had refused to take me, and my Grandmother was formidable, absolutely formidable, where I was concerned: and through that visit I got to go to school, with the rest of the family; and my brother, can you imagine this –  I thought nothing of it until I got older. I was five; my brother was about nine. He used to carry me on his back to school in the morning. Came for me during playtime, that means he carried me around because I couldn’t walk; carried me home at lunchtime, carried me back after school after lunch, and carried me back after school in the afternoon. That’s a bit much, you know, for a nine-year-old, to carry a five-year-old, and he did that every day and never complained.

I wanted to be a librarian

I wanted to be a librarian, and the careers officer Mr Jolly said, “No way, no way, could you ever do anything like that,” and what came back was a voice from the side, and that was the headmaster, who said, “Now then, how can you say that, because you don’t know our Alan: he can do whatever he wants.”

Working in a subnormality hospital

In the end, I got into trouble one day, big trouble, and I was absolutely furious because of my own experience. I couldn’t stop thinking that had the education authorities have had their way, when they said I was mentally defective, I could have ended up as a patient in that hospital; and that was a rather daunting thought: and they had a block, a ward, called ‘H Block’, and, you know, they had ABCD wards. H was a ward for low-grade patients; that meant their intelligence was very low, and they also had behaviour problems. Many of them had to be restrained for a time; every student had to do at least one month on H Block, and my first day there I just lost it. I went into orbit, oh, terrible. We had to feed the patients, and the staff on the ward got a main course and a dessert and mixed them both together, and fed it to the patients. I couldn’t do that. I kept thinking, ‘This could be me’, you know, ‘this could be me’. There’s no way I’d want my food like that: so I refused to do it…

Alan Counsell at desk
Alan Counsell at desk

In 1969, Alan became a teacher at Meldreth Manor School. He continues to have a keen interest in education, through visits to schools and through his writing and training.

Listen to Alan’s interview on the Disability Voices website.

Books by Alan Counsell

“The contributions and achievements of disabled people are largely left out of the history books” – Disability History Month

We continue to mark Disability Month with a blog about artist Frida Kahlo, an early 20th century artist whose work explored her feelings towards being disabled and how it affected her body as well as celebrating the life and culture of her native Mexico.

Sam Pugh, who is part of the Scope for Change campaign group and president of the Oxford Students’ Disability Community, writes about why Kahlo is her hero and why she should be remembered during Disability History Month.  

“I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you.” – Frida Kahlo

There are few disabled people as loved and iconic as Frida Kahlo.

It is thought she was born with Spina Bifida, a congenital defect of the spinal cord, and as a child she contracted polio. She was severely injured as a teenager in a bus accident, with her injuries causing her lifelong pain and ill health.

Frida Kahlo's painting Tree Of Hope - An abstract self portrait with the sun and moon in the background
Frida Kahlo’s painting Tree Of Hope

Following her accident she was unable to leave her bed for several months – it was during this time that she became serious about her painting and marked the start of her life as an artist.

Frida is famous for her surreal and intimate self-portraits, many of which express her pain, frustration, and anger towards her disabled body, but also her acceptance and self love.

Frida the revolutionary

Frida was a revolutionary, not just in her political leanings and open bisexuality, but in the frank way she depicted her disability. At a time when disability was very much hidden and a taboo subject, Frida Kahlo exhibited to the world the impact of her own impairment in striking detail and was unabashed in her portrayals of disability. She was a beautiful, intelligent, and fiercely talented disabled woman.

Frida Kahlo's painting The Broken Column - Showing the artist topless with a column running through her torso
Frida Kahlo’s painting The Broken Column

Frida Kahlo’s image is instantly recognisable, but this isn’t the case for many of the disabled people of our past. The contributions and achievements of disabled people are largely left out of the history books, and it is vitally important that we educate ourselves and others.

Frida Kahlo's painting Without Hope - showing the artist in bed throwing up a mass of body parts
Frida Kahlo’s painting Without Hope

Society’s attitude towards disability has for hundreds of years been one of shame, distaste, and suppression. Disability has always been something that has been hidden and stigmatised, and this is why Frida Kahlo’s depictions of her own are so striking.

Self Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Farill - Showing the artist sat in a wheelchair next to a portrait of an elderly man
Self Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Farill

Celebrating disabled people

By celebrating disabled people who have contributed to society throughout history and recognising their achievements, we can challenge the negative attitudes and stigma related to disability and disabled people that are still so prevalent in society today.

Disability History Month gives us the chance to do this, but we cannot rewrite the history books in a month. Recognition of the existence and contributions of disabled people is something we should strive to do every day, both from history and in the present.

We are so often excluded and stigmatised, and face particular hardship in education and employment as a result of these attitudes, which add barriers to us reaching our potentials. There is still a long way to go until disabled people receive truly equal treatment, and this isn’t something we can achieve until we rid society of the prevailing belief that disabled people are incapable of making positive contributions to it.

Celebrating historical figures such as Frida Kahlo and remembering their great achievements will not just change our attitudes towards the past, but allow us to alter our attitudes towards disabled people today and encourage a society which will never hold us back from achieving.

Read the rest of our blogs for Disability History Month

Disability is often written out of history. We need to ask why

As we continue to mark Disability History Month, Bekki Smiddy writes about  chemist and inventor Alfred Nobel. His legacy are the Nobel Prizes.  Nobel experienced epileptic seizures throughout childhood and here Bekki talks about her own experience of epilepsy and why it’s important we recognise that disability is not a bar to achieving great things in life.

I was diagnosed with idiopathic generalised epilepsy when I was eleven, after several years of unexplained seizures. I had no idea what any of it meant. And I didn’t really care. What I did care about was the way people had started to look at me.

Before I was diagnosed, I figured epilepsy meant I fell down and couldn’t remember sometimes, it wasn’t a big deal. It was other people that made it a big deal.

Every time the word epilepsy came up, everyone in the room would look at me.

My classmates would whisper the word “freak” as I went by.

I got sent out of the class by my teachers for having seizures.

I felt embarrassed and ashamed for something that was completely out of my control.

Leaflets on epilepsy are filled with medical jargon and only explained what was going on with my brain, and scared me with talk of Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy Patients (SUDEP).  What I needed to know was how it would affect my life, how it would change it, and how to not feel so alien.

Looking through history

When first diagnosed I searched for historical figures who had epilepsy. I needed to know that I wasn’t going to be limited; that I could still achieve what I wanted with my life. That I wasn’t “wrong” somehow.

Throughout my adolescence and education I used it as rebuttal for those that attacked me or belittled me for my epilepsy.

We have been authors, military and political leaders, philosophers, scientist, composers and painters. Having a neurological condition didn’t have to hinder me in any way.

Nobel didn’t hide his disability, in fact he wrote poetry about what are perceived to be childhood epileptic seizures.

“…the convulsions followed, til I gasped

upon the brink of nothingness – my frame

a school for agony with death for goal”

But it appears to be written out of his history like so many “invisible conditions”,

Disabled people need role models

Epilepsy charity websites I viewed had sections listing famous people with epilepsy. Yet, it is missing from many disabled people’s biographies. We all need role models, but especially disabled people as we struggle for equality and to enjoy the same life chances as non-disabled people.

Disability History Month is important because many people don’t see disabled people as an oppressed group or understand that the language often used and how our impairments are described, can be so damaging. When people talk about the economy being ‘crippled’, or say that someone is “having a fit” when they mean a tantrum can be so hurtful.

We need to know more about the lives of disabled people and I hope that Disability History Month will help dispel the myths and help improve attitudes.

Read the rest of our blogs for Disability History Month.

“All disabled women should be sterilised” – Disability History Month

Psychotherapist and writer Antonia Lister-Kaye is 85. She is one of a number of older disabled people who contributed to The Disability Voices website at the British Library Sound Archive as part of Scope’s Speaking for Ourselves project.

For Disability History Month, Antonia looks back at how attitudes have changed to disability during her extraordinary life.  

I was kept in a chicken incubator!

Antonia with nanny
Antonia with nanny

My mother was a Christian Scientist, and she didn’t like doctors. I think it was explained to her that we must at least have a nurse. My father got a chicken incubator from his brother, who was a farmer, rushed to the house, and I never went to hospital. I was kept in a chicken incubator in my father’s study, and they did have this nurse, that was a compromise, but my mother didn’t see me for weeks and weeks, because she was quite ill. I don’t think she wanted me anyway. I know she didn’t, because she was only very young, and, you know, didn’t know much. She wouldn’t have had me if she’d known anything. But I think that’s how I came to be how I am.

“All disabled women should be sterilized.”

My mother-in-law was absolutely furious because I had a disability, and she thought it was genetic. A fortnight before my baby was born, she suddenly said, ‘Well, you know, personally, I think all disabled women should be sterilised.’

Teaching in a night school under Apartheid

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki

One of my students, for a short time, was Thabo Mbeki, the former President of South Africa. He was a very clever man, and he was a very beautiful man, too. He was about 19, I suppose, when I taught him. We followed syllabuses from London External Examinations. You could do exams which were called ‘London External Degrees’, in those days, and we based our teaching on those. I taught History, and they were all mad keen to do the French Revolution and the feudal system, that was their two favourite topics… I think I only taught him for a short time, but there were equally interesting students, but he was the cleverest.

Hear more of Antonia’s experiences of the apartheid regime. 

Legalise cannabis campaign

Antonia smoking a joint in a Amsterdam cafe
Antonia smoking cannabis in Amsterdam

My naughty daughter, Frankie, used to get hold of cannabis; this was in the seventies, and bring it home and smoke it, so I said, ‘Oh hey, give us a go,’ and because I knew people who smoked cannabis in the fifties, in Hampstead, you know: well, they do everything in Hampstead, before they do it anywhere else, and so she gave me a joint, and I smoked it.

I did, I’m not a smoker, so I didn’t inhale properly, but I said, ‘God, Frankie, the pain’s dropping out of me fingertips,’ and so she said, ‘Oh Mum, isn’t that interesting? Have another one. I’ll roll you another one.’ … and after that, I read an article, in The Independent, written by somebody with MS, called Liz, who lived in Leeds, and she wrote about the marvelous effect of cannabis on her MS, so I thought, ‘God, I must find out more about this lady…’

Listen to Antonia’s life story on The Disability Voices website.

You can also buy Antonia’s memoir, Broccoli and Bloody Mindedness on Amazon. 

Read the rest of our blogs for Disability History Month.

Did you know America’s longest serving President was disabled?

Today is the start of UK Disability History Month, which runs from November 22 to December 22. The theme this year is disability and language. Scope will be marking the month by publishing a number of blogs which tell the stories of disabled people throughout history.

We will explore the language used when talking about disabled people, the lack of recognition of the achievements disabled people have made and asking what impact this has on the way we view disabled people today and the impact this has on the life chances of disabled people.

We have asked young disabled people to tell the stories of historical figures they admire.  Featuring Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Frieda Kahlo and Alfred Nobel –  people who have made a huge impact on our world. We will also feature blogs from older disabled people who talk about how their lives have changed over more recent decades.

The people we have chosen to write about have made such an impact in the world of politics, science and the arts and their legacy lives with us today. Yet despite all they have achieved, why do so few people know they were also disabled?

How many people are aware that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America’s longest serving President and a political icon, used a wheelchair due to a bout of polio?

Why do we know so little about disabled people’s achievements?

As part of Disability History Month we want to explore why this is the case. Why do we know so little about disabled people’s achievements and why do we not celebrate them?

So much of the discourse around disability is negative and this can have a huge impact on how disabled people see themselves.

We all need role models and people we can look to inspire us and show us what can be achieved and this is particularly important for disabled people who already face prejudice when it comes to finding work or ignorance about what is needed to enable someone to live independently.

20% of the UK population are disabled and yet research carried out by Scope shows that nearly half (43%) of the British public say they do not know a disabled person. We hope that over the coming weeks as you read about the lives of disabled people, past and present, that you will have a better understanding of the lives of disabled people, challenges disabled have overcome but also of the challenges which remain and which prevent disabled people from reaching their full potential.

Find out more about Disability History Month on our website.

Read our blog about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “Could a disabled person be President or Prime Minister today?

Could a disabled person be President or Prime Minister today?

Layla Harding is part of the Scope for Change campaign network and is a 2nd year Masters student. To mark Disability History Month she writes about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the longest serving US President, who was disabled as a result of Polio.

I vividly remember during one of my Sixth Form lessons when a teacher passing through my history class as we were learning about President Franklin Roosevelt’s role in World War 2  said “Imagine having a cripple in charge of the country?”

As a disabled person who uses walking aides and sometimes a wheelchair, I felt that this poor attempt at a joke reflected many of the opinion’s FDR would have faced in early 20th Century America. But this was 90 years later. Surely we should have moved on in our views on disability?

I hate the word “cripple”; I find it offensive and derogatory and it has no place in today’s society. Leaving behind terms like “cripple” paves the way for more positive discourse around disability. For a teacher to be using this term, even jokingly, shows how far the disability movement still has to go.

The importance of language

Today marks the start of Disability History Month and the theme is language. It’s so important we have this month to celebrate the achievements of disabled people and raise awareness of the importance of language when we discuss disability.

Many today will not know that one of America’s greatest Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was disabled. Not surprising considering he felt he had to hide his disability for fear of the reaction he would get.

In 1921, aged 39, he was diagnosed with polio, resulting in permanent paralysis and leaving him unable to walk without support.  This seemed to spell the end of a promising political career but he went on to become Governor of New York and America’s longest serving President.

Throughout his political career he hid the fact that he was disabled. It was believed that it would be “a political liability if he were seen as this helpless man in a wheelchair” (Jay Winiki). His steel braces were painted black and covered by the clothes he wore. As a disabled person, I was shocked and disappointed to find out the lengths FDR went to hide the fact he was disabled; but I don’t feel he had a choice given the fear of public reaction.

He would use sticks to carry himself along whilst being supported by someone, which made people believe he could walk. He gave speeches sitting down or leaning against a lectern. Photographers who took pictures of him in his wheelchair would have their film confiscated.

Did FDR hide his disability?

Some challenge whether FDR did hide his disability, claiming he would talk openly about his condition and that it was discussed in the media. However, James Tobin believes that FDR didn’t want to be seen in public in his wheelchair because it was “just too potent a symbol of disability”.  Even today society sees a wheelchair as something one is forced to rely upon rather than something which makes it possible for people to get around and live independently, as I do.

Watching the recent US Presidential Election has had me thinking how disabled people are hugely under-represented in politics. Would a candidate be able to be open about being disabled today?  Considering the attitude of my teacher who felt able to use the word “cripple” and the emphasis placed upon Hilary Clinton’s health during the recent US election, I am not so sure.

Being disabled is not something to hide

School should be an environment in which a young person should feel safe and encouraged to expand their minds, and not feel disability is a barrier to achieving whatever they want.

For a teacher to make this comment was wholly inappropriate. Figures would suggest that few in the teaching profession identify as disabled but reliable data is difficult to find. But we need more disabled people become teachers so that they can show students a more positive view of disability.

I wouldn’t think twice today about challenging  such negative language because like FDR I know that being disabled is not something to hide and does not have to be a barrier to anyone achieving their goals.

Find out more about Disability History Month on our website.