Last month was Disability History Month. Founded in 2010, it endeavours to highlight the history of disability. To help open up our collections here at The National Archives we have recently published a research guide to point out some of the sources that might be a useful starting place. For this purpose we have defined ‘disability’ widely in the way it has been historically treated to include sensory impairments such as blindness and deafness.
Without necessarily realising it, most people that use our records will have encountered the history of disability. Before working here I had unwittingly come across many instances of disability history while researching my family history. As many people do, I began with the census, one of our highest used series of records.
In this example from Chorley in 1871 the farthest column on the right holds the starting point of information regarding disability, listing as it does here Mary Blackburn who is noted as ‘deaf and dumb’.
From 1851-1911 the census included some kind of indication of mental and physical disabilities, including learning disabilities. Rather than giving statistics or just listing impairments, the census records give names, and to some extent identities, to people with disabilities from the past who would otherwise have been anonymous. It provides an overview of how individuals may have been affected by disability, and where censuses were taken in an institution, shows where the institutionalised disabled were housed. Although disability is an under-researched and historically marginalised issue, for many it is and was a fact of life. Therefore in our records it is an area of recurring interest.
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