Tag Archives: History

UK Disability History Month: war and impairment

1958 Adana printing machine (2)We’re in the midst of UK Disability History Month, which runs until 22 December. This year’s theme is war and impairment. To mark this, here’s an edited extract from Can You Manage Stares?, where Bill Hargreaves recalls his wartime work from running his father’s soap factory to entertaining the troops…

Soap maker

On Friday 13 December 1940, papers came from the Government, requisitioning the factory premises. The Luftwaffe had got to know where all the major aircraft factories in Britain were and so they were dispersed to other sites. One of these was my small soap works where they wanted to build Spitfire wings. We were told we had six weeks to get out of that factory and if we weren’t out they would come and forcibly remove all the machinery.

For six weeks I found myself having to cope with staff I had never had to cope with in my life, to pay them, to give them instructions, to make the soap, to fill orders, to take the orders, to see things were delivered on time and all this sort of responsibility at the age of 21.

The soap works duly closed. There was nowhere else to go, so suddenly I was out of work. Now my stepmother, to be fair to her, fought tooth and nail for me. She said, “You cannot take my son’s factory away. He is disabled. There would be nothing else for him to do.” “We can’t help that,” they said, “There is a war on.” And that was the end of my career as a soapmaker.

Counting nuts and bolts

My father took me to the nearest labour exchange but the manager said that there was nothing that he could offer. I was asked to take a job in the bus garage across the road, which had also been requisitioned. They were also making Spitfire wings and I was asked to go into the stores and sort out nuts and bolts. That’s all they thought I was fit for! I soon became very discontented with my lot.

In the end I created such a fuss about counting bolts and nuts that they said, “The only place for you is Birmingham,” but the bombs were dropping there and so many people had been killed. I said, “I couldn’t care less. I want to go where the action is.”

I obtained a post as a clerk with Vickers Armstrong at the great  aircraft factory in Erdington, where they produced 20 Spitfires a week and 40 Lancaster bombers a month.

I could not write sufficiently well and so they gave me a typewriter, which I was able to manage using two fingers. During the war the able-bodied in industry became very scarce indeed, and this gave disabled people like me a chance. As a result my employers decided to use my other skills, and I was promoted to head of a section dealing with the dissemination of modifications to Spitfire fighters and Lancaster bombers.

Entertaining the troops

I channelled all my energies into ventriloquism. During the evenings I was asked by the YMCA Travelling Theatre to go out and entertain troops in lonely gun sites throughout the Midlands area.

Most nights I used to finish work, go into the men’s cloakroom, change into a dress suit, white tie and tails, and put on stage make-up. The theatre was a large, specially adapted furniture van. When you let the side down, there was a stage with footlights and all the rest of it.  They had a piano and everything. We used to travel to a gun site, set up stage and start. Several times aircraft came overhead, the air raid sirens and the klaxon horns went and the audiences disappeared! There I was in mid-sentence suddenly without an audience and having to dive for cover myself.

I was finding myself through ventriloquism. People were seeing me as a ventriloquist and not as a disabled person. That was the making of me, really. That got me into society because I found something I could do better than most people. This was the key. I could shine. I found that my disability didn’t matter.

Can You Manage Stares? by Bill Hargreaves is available as an ebook. 

Twenty years on: Why I campaigned for The Spastics Society to change its name

Valerie Lang was the first disabled woman on the executive committee of Scope, then called The Spastics Society. She was heavily involved in the decision to change our name to Scope in 1994. Valerie is 74 years old and is still a member of the Scope Assembly. Here she talks about why Scope decided to change its name from The Spastics Society twenty years ago.

Valerie with Mum
Valerie with her Mum

I am one of the people who pressurised The Spastics Society to think about a new name. For some years, I was banging on about the word “spastic”’ and the fact that it had come to be used as a noun. I felt people saw us as “spastics” and not people. “Spastic” was a school playground term of abuse. ‘Oh you stupid spastic’ was thrown towards anyone who was considered a bit different. I’m not surprised that “spastic” became a term of abuse. To a child, someone who looks like me looks odd. We move differently, we have very mobile faces and we can sound very odd. People have to listen properly before they know what I’m saying. Children pick up and laugh at people who are different, they are quite conformist. I find, on the whole, children aren’t frightened of me when they are under the age of two or three, but somewhere between the ages of two and four, they develop an idea or concept of what people should look like. They begin to recognise difference. The first reaction is usually fear and the second reaction is to laugh to cover the fear.

Valerie Lang graduation
Valerie graduating

I even heard public schoolboys in Dulwich College calling each other spastics. If Dulwich College can’t teach its students to think about words, who could?! I wrote to the headmaster and he said he couldn’t control what his boys said out of the classroom. I just felt it had become unacceptable. I thought it was damaging to us, as individuals. It was a well-known term of abuse and I thought disabled people had enough to cope with without that. I felt that anything that allowed people with cerebral palsy to be viewed as a condition or type, rather than as an individual, was to be got rid of. But back then, a lot of people didn’t want to change names. They liked The Spastics Society and they felt safe with it. I must have been banging on about this for 5 or 6 years before the vote to change our name. Other people were also spearheading the campaign, including Bill [Hargreaves, Scope’s first disabled trustee] who gave a fantastic speech at the charity’s Extraordinary General Meeting. ValerieThe name “Scope” was chosen because it is value and judgement free. It doesn’t stand for anything. It would be more difficult to turn it into a term of abuse. At the time of the name change, we did a huge amount of publicity saying we were still the same organisation. We had a strap-line saying “formerly The Spastics Society” for a year after the rebrand. I actually think this strap-line was dropped sooner than it might have been. I have to admit that people have not learned to recognise “Scope” in the way we hoped they would. I sincerely hope that it will be very many years before we have to change the name again! But from the point of view of choosing a name which is not a playground term of abuse, and which we felt would not lend itself to such use, I believe we had no choice.

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.

Scope celebrates UK Disability History Month

As part of UK Disability History Month, Scope has worked with British Library Disability Voices to include over 200 hours of recorded testimonies by people with cerebral palsy, aged 50 and over, recorded for our Speaking for Ourselves: an Oral History of People with Cerebral Palsy project.

This two-year partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund trained 16 disabled volunteer interviewers to record the life stories of people living with cerebral palsy, and now these life story interviews are available to listen to online.

Disability Voices contains unique and moving memories from disabled people recalling childhood, family life, education and work experiences. There are insights into their treatment by medical professionals, the daily challenges of the workplace and of the attitudes of wider society, and their involvement in disability organisations and communities.

As well as providing useful learning material, Disability Voices expects to challenge and inspire a wide range of users: to help people relate their own experience to others in similar circumstances, but also engage with those who have little knowledge of the lives of disabled people in our society.

Ann Pridmore was one of the volunteer interviewers on Speaking for Ourselves: “It’s 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.”