Disability in History

Guild of the Poor Young Things
Guild of the Poor Young Things. Exercising, 1913

Disability in the History Curriculum

In yesterdays post about diversity, I wrote almost entirely about ethnicity. This was partly because that is the aspect of Diversity with which most people resonate the most and partly to see if anyone challenged the glaring omissions from the post. Luckily one person did message me and discussed additional areas. There was also a blog about Diversity that Glenn Carter published on his website which covered further areas.

The problem is that people do tend to view Diversity from a racial or ethnic perspective. Even on that, it is not particularly ‘right’ or ‘balanced’. Yesterday I made a tally of the number of times I saw a comment on social media that said something along the lines of ‘reflects my class’. I stopped at 50. Going to be blunt here: you cover the racial diversity in your own class, and you are reinforcing the problem. Cover diversity in our society, not your class of 30 people.

I said there that racial diversity is not particularly right or balanced. It is not. The resourcing and curriculum time spent on different ethnic groups simply does not reflect the actual makeup of society. There are all sorts of reasons for that, such as the current Black Lives Matters protests, but it is not representative of ethnic proportions within the UK.

From the Institute of Race Relations:

The most recent Census in 2011 highlights that in England and Wales, 80 per cent of the population were white BritishAsian (Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, other) ‘groups’ made up 6.8 per cent of the population; black groups 3.4 per cent; Chinese groups 0.7 cent, Arab groups 0.4 per cent and other groups 0.6 per cent.

So, in very simple terms, there needs to be a realisation that 16.6% of the population probably has very little, if any, curriculum content that relates to their heritage. That is wrong. That also assumes that Black History IS covered as I have never come across a school yet that does not have at least some inclusion of Black History in the curriculum.

But Diversity is not just about race. Those statistics show that no racial group makes up the largest minority grouping in the UK. If you aim at a Diverse curriculum, surely you include lots on the biggest minority group? After all, one in five people are part of that grouping and there is documented history of it going back as far as records go so no reason whatsoever not to incorporate it. Biggest minority grouping? Disabled people. By a long way. There are as many Disabled people in the UK as there are people from all ethnic minorities combined. You will see Disabled people every working day: you might not realise it though.

Guild of the Poor Young Things

Guild of the Poor Young Things. Exercising, 1913

At first thought, many teachers will possibly think that it is hard to find examples of where this could be incorporated into schemes of work. The opposite is true, you could swamp the curriculum with it so easily. How? You ever mentioned a war in a history lesson? Or the Royal Family? Or the poor? Or taught Medicine through time? Or been asked by pupils about Covid19? All of those and more provide evidence of Disability in history. Plus there are many other stories and examples that fit in quite nicely with existing units of work.



Leper Houses

Alms Houses

Monastery Hospitals

‘The natural fool’

Bethlem Hospital (later known as Bedlam)

Pilgrimage for cures

The Kings Touch

Battle Wounds and Battlefield Surgery


Impotent Poor

‘Natural Fools’ at court -Will Somer and Jane the Fool

Impact of dissolution of monasteries

Battlefield wounds and surgery

Religious meanings assigned to cognitive and neurological disabilities


Scientific developments changed the perceptions of some disabilities. Fits in with Age of Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution

Poor relief for destitute disabled persons

Bethlem develops

Royal Chelsea and Greenwich hospitals for disabled soldiers

Development of Battlefield Surgery and treatments of long-term wounds

Voluntary movements emerge, such as the Quakers who established York Retreat

The first school for the blind or dumb

The emergence of private ‘madhouses’

Peter the Wild Boy – taken to the court of George I


Pauper lunatic asylums


Professional alienists (now called psychiatrists)

Special Schools established

Emergence of philanthropic and charitable trusts

Guild of the Brave Poor Things

Henry Fawcett. Statesman, Academic, Postmaster-General – blind

Fawcett Memorial

Fawcett Memorial


Eugenics popular as a theory in the early 20th century

2 million servicemen had been disabled during the First World War

Plastic Surgery developed


New Almshouses built for servicemen

Disability colonies established

Sunshine Homes

Open-Air Schools

Disabled People in History

Albert Einstein, Woodrow Wilson, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, FD Roosevelt, John Milton, Lord Byron, Lord Nelson, Beethoven, Stephen Hawkins, Walt Disney, Lenin, Caligula, Prince John of the UK who only died of his disabilities 100 years ago, Edward Lear, Julius Caesar, Socrates, Joan of Arc, Alfred Nobel, Alfred the Great, Charles Dickens… and many more

UK Link


US Examples

Are explored in this pdf file – https://uk.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/26491_Chapter_1_Historical_Background_of_Disabilities.pdf

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