Heritage Consortium PhD student Andy Holroyde (University of Huddersfield with co-supervision at the University of Teeside) reports on a recent conference on Disability.

Only a few short weeks into my PhD, I was offered the chance to attend an interdisciplinary conference on disability in London. My own research is very much concerned with highlighting the heritage of disabled people, both in their own right and as part of our collective heritage. The history of disabled people has traditionally been neglected, their heritage considered unimportant. Fortunately, this has begun to change in recent years and, if this conference is any indicator, progress in this area continues to accelerate.

A horrifically early morning train, followed by several wrong turns and requests for directions, was rewarded with an insightful and inspiring conference on Disability and Impairment. The London Metropolitan Archives hosted the event, as part of the UK disability history month, which took ‘technology’ as its common theme.

Following some welcome coffee and biscuits, the morning session saw a range of topics explored, including the development of ‘Assistive Technology’ and a history of the Disability Discrimination Act. Tracey Gooch, from Leonard Cheshire Disability, then presented some of the organisations digitised archival material, including films produced by residents of the Le Court home in Cheshire during the 1960s. Perhaps the most exciting paper of the morning was presented by Vicky Green, Sue Ledger, Rowena Richard and Jan Walmsley, who showcased elements from the Living Archive Project. This project involves the use of a range of media, such as theatre, animation, film and music, to provide a new model living archive of learning disability history. Inclusivity is at the heart of the project, with people with learning disabilities involved in all aspects of the project including research. The team spoke of some of the challenges in maintaining this inclusivity but highlighted the importance of enabling people with learning disabilities to tell their history their own way. The groups, colourful (and very large) project development timeline provided much interesting discussion over the following lunch break.

The afternoon session focused on how people with disabilities have historically been portrayed. Simon Jarrett (Birkbeck, University of London), as well as explaining the origin of the go-kart, provided an interesting guide through images of disabled people in two sets of eighteenth-century pictures. These depictions seem to have reflected fears of social disorder and presented the common theme of the ‘deserving/undeserving’ disabled person. Ian Jones Healey, an archivist at the Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability, explored depictions of learning disability in photography. Taking a more contemporary view, Richard Reiser, the UK Disability History Month Coordinator, provided a passionate critique of the portrayal of disabled people in film and television. Richard noted that while there has been a recent increase in the visibility of disability in moving images, significant stereotyping remains and there is a long way to go until disabled people are sufficiently represented and accurately portrayed.

The final session of the day highlighted some new research in the area. As well as contributions from students and the National Archives, the session saw a paper by Jane Seale (University of Exeter) in which she reflected back on research undertaken in the 1980s and 1990s which hailed the computer as a vital technological ‘fix’ for people with learning disabilities. Jane questioned if this was indeed the case and called for research which could help evaluate what impact, if any, computers had, and what this could mean for the future. The final paper, delivered by Maria Oshodi, looked at the Flatland project, which seeks to provide an immersive theatrical experience for both sighted and unsighted individuals.

This event really highlighted the range of research into disability and I hope my own research will contribute to this area. Whilst the field of disability history might not yet be considered ‘mainstream’ in the United Kingdom, events such as this provide fertile ground for growth. The London Metropolitan Archives did an excellent job of hosting and I hope there will be many more such events in the future.

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