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History of Disability Collections

Find out more about the history of disability in our collections.

Introduction

When researching this topic, it is difficult to find source material relating to disability as many of the references are either outdated or descriptive, making searching for keywords difficult. As well as this, usually the only data available is through official or medical sources, with little from the disabled perspective. Therefore, detective work and creative thinking is needed to find these sources and experiences, especially with mental and hidden disabilities. Since disability history is an emerging area, new areas to look for information are coming to light, and examples are seen in Historic England's History of Disability and the The National Archives Disability history research guide. Historic England has a useful  Disability History Glossary that can be used in looking for historic documents.

Secondary works often provide primary sources in their references and bibliographies. Looking in other areas or collections will also be useful. Religious history collections include records of hospitals looking after disabled people and saints associated with different conditions. Military history is useful for looking at how people became disabled as well as employment history. Social Policy history is useful for looking at the changes in policy and culture that impacted disabled people and their culture. Where disability history is just one aspect among many themes in a source, searching the catalogue for disabled, disability and related terms is unlikely to identify it, so wider searches and shelf-browsing may be needed to uncover the wide variety of sources.

Creative thinking about terminology is also needed when searching databases. Often when talking about disability in the past, outdated and offensive terms were used, instead of modern ones. So in looking for sources, older terms will have to be used as well as the modern ones. Many learning, social or hidden disabilities were not recognised or identified correctly, with different terminology given to them than would be given today. Some online resources such as the Times Digital Archive and the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary have tools for looking at changing usage and frequency over time of disabled terms and their changing categorisation.

General works

A variety of sources are held for different disabilities and the policies surrounding them. These include Petitions, Parliamentary Debates and Proceedings, Reports and Acts of Parliament. See also the separate Guide to UK Parliamentary History Collections in the library. A few examples of Parliament records dealing with disability are listed below.

Drama Online

Drama Online includes plays which look at the concept of disability and feature people with disabilities, for example Nobody here but us chickens and Sauce for the goose. This is useful for looking at the cultural perceptions of disability and how they were portrayed on stage. These plays usually can be found by keywords related to disability, including outdated ones.

Literature Online

Literature Online includes historical literature and novels that portray fictional characters with disabilities. This is useful for looking at the cultural perceptions of disability and how they were portrayed in fiction. These texts usually can be found by keywords related to disability, including outdated ones. Below are some examples of literature that feature disability.

Mass Observation Online holds many records and original sources, some of which concern disability. These can be searched for using keywords linked to disability or in topic collections, such as the one below telling us about attitudes towards Blind people in 1947 through surveys:

Census material sometimes indicates an individual’s disability. The IHR library has access to some census material, although not complete coverage. It also has guides to census material. For the UK, see also The National Archives guide to census records

Online newspaper collections (onsite only) - both fully searchable:

Nineteenth century periodicals

Below is a selection of print holdings on the subject of disability, both general and subject specific works. Bibliography of British and Irish History is a useful tool for finding material. There are many online texts relating to disability research through resources such as JSTOR. These can be searched by keyword.

Resources on particular disabilities

Primary Sources

Listed below are some primary sources particularly those which can be found using relevant keyword searches on the catalogue. These primary sources include newsletters, plays and official records relating to deafness. Primary sources can be hard to find using the catalogue for the reasons explained in the introduction, and further research will be needed to find other material within printed and online editions of sources. The sources and the way they are described may include outdated terms such as dumb, and the thesauri of historic keywords highlighted in 'Finding materials' may be useful.

Journals

These are some subject-specific journals that can be accessed online through the library catalogue. There will also be relevant articles in more general periodical titles.

Secondary Sources

Here are examples of the books or chapters available on deafness in the library, with more available online through the catalogue. They can be found using keywords related to deaf topics.

Primary sources

A list of primary sources is available on the library catalogue and in other collections, like Drama Online using keywords associated with blindness. These primary sources include newsletters about blindness, plays with blind characters and official records relating to blindness. See the Disability History Glossary in ‘Finding Materials’ for more information. Some examples of sources are listed below.

Journals

These are some subject-specific journals that can be accessed online through the library catalogue. There will also be relevant articles in more general periodical titles.

Secondary Sources

Here are examples of the books or chapters available on blindness in the library, with more available online through the catalogue.

Primary Sources

A list of primary sources are available in the library catalogue and in other collections, like PsycBOOKS using keywords associated with mental health such as sanity. These primary sources include testimonies about mental health, plays looking at mental health and official records of mentally ill people. See ‘Finding Materials’ for more advice about finding material. Some examples are listed below of what can be found in the library alone while more can be found online.

Secondary Sources

Here are examples of the various secondary sources on mental health held in the library.

Journals

These are some subject-specific journals that can be accessed online through the library catalogue. There will also be relevant articles in more general periodical titles.

Primary Sources

A list of primary sources are available in the library catalogue and in other collections, like PsycBOOKS using keywords associated with Cognitive and Intellectual disability. However, most primary sources cannot be found using modern keywords. Therefore, when researching, outdated terms such as ‘feeble’ must be used instead to get a better understanding of the sources available. It may help to look up the development of modern terms and their historical meaning. As well as this, due to the lack of understanding in the past about intellectual and cognitive disability, there are few obvious sources about specific disabilities, especially unofficial sources. See the Disability History Glossary in ‘Finding Materials’ for more information. Some examples are listed below of what can be found in the library alone while more can be found online.

Secondary Sources

Here are some examples of secondary sources that can be found in the library relating to Cognitive and Intellectual disability. More sources can be found online in the catalogue using keywords relating to the topic. Due to the nature of the subject and the recent modern understanding of it, more sources looking at cognitive and intellectual disability can be found if the search term is expanded to include outdated or offensive terms, such as 'feeble-minded'.

Journals

These are some subject-specific journals that can be accessed online through the library catalogue. There will also be relevant articles in more general periodical titles.

For clarity, this topic also includes hidden or invisible disabilities which affect the person physically, acutely or chronically. This includes various syndromes and autoimmune diseases. 

Primary sources

There are few primary sources exclusively devoted to chronic disability, often described as diseases. Most sources mention it briefly or as a secondary topic, while physical disability is mentioned through outdated terms such as ‘cripple’. This is a selection of sources available in the library. It may also be useful to look at medical records to see how chronic illnesses were treated and managed.

Secondary Sources

These are some examples of the secondary sources on chronic and physical disability available in the library, with more available online through the catalogue, using keywords relating to chronic and physical disability. It may also be useful to look at medical history to find out more about the history of chronic illnesses and physical disability. 

Journals

These are some subject-specific journals that can be accessed online through the library catalogue. There will also be relevant articles in more general periodical titles.

Other resources

We have a strong collection of biographical listings at both national level and covering specific subjects (for example lists by profession, political figures, university alumni lists). 

The collections also include many personal narratives and biographical works.

Below are a few examples of historical figures who lived with different disabilities. More people who lived with disabilities can be found through the Oxford National Biography using terms related to disability, for example deaf or blind. A simple internet search can also help to find more disabled historical figures.

Within IHR library

Browse collection guides to find material relevant to your particular area of interest. Sources will be found across all the geographically arranged collections, but there will be particular examples in:

Other libraries, archives, organisations

Contact us if you would like help on finding or using our collections, or if you have any comments or suggestions about the content of this guide. We are happy to help.

You can also book a tour or training session.

Examples from sources

The following provide some sense of how disability is recorded in a range of historical sources. Please note that the following may include some terms that would be unacceptable today.

"Eadric the Cripple held it in alms from King Edward. Now Edward the son of Eadric holds it, and it paid geld for 1 virgate of land."

Undercleave, attached to the manor of Axminster, Domesday Book: A Complete Translation, ed. Ann Williams and G. H. Martin (London: Penguin, 2002), p. 278.

"The Worcester College for Blind Sons of Gentlemen, at the Commandery, Sidbury, is the only public school in Europe for the class indicated. It is designed for the conveying [of] a sound and liberal education by means of methods and appliances unattainable in homes and minor establishments ...The College building is pleasantly situated in safe and spacious grounds ... The library is composed of a rare and valuable collection of books in embossed type of various kinds, and complete apparatus for facilitating the education of the blind. There is in the city a Society for Providing Cheap Literature for the Blind ... The type used is the ordinary Roman character, divested of all ornaments. The Society is established for the purpose of supplying the blind with embossed books of instruction and amusement at a much lower cost than has hitherto been done."

Entry for Worcester in Littlebury's Directory of Worcestershire, 1873, p.797-8