The Way We Roll

A history of disability activism and disabled people in politics

September 30, 2022
A history of disability activism and disabled people in politics
The Way We Roll
More Info
The Way We Roll
A history of disability activism and disabled people in politics
Sep 30, 2022

Professor David Turner is a social and cultural historian with expertise in disability, medicine, gender and the body. He is our guest this month. 

David’s current research explores the history of disabled people’s political activism in Britain since the eighteenth century. In an accessible and illuminating conversation, he tells us of the earliest known recorded documentation of disability rights and political activism. This includes the book 'Biography of the Blind’, first published in 1821, written by the remarkable James Wilson. 

We learn why what was said to the British Government by disabled people way back in 1832, still resonates today. With David’s expertise and insight, we learn how 200 years of disability history can inform us today and into the future.


Home page including publications list 

James Wilson’s Biography of the Blind, pub. 1821 on Google Books. 

On Twitter @DrDavidMT

Disability History pod and video with Prof Turner 

Disability History: Thinking Differently About the Past resource page

Blog about how Prof Turner helped put disability in the teaching curriculum with one teacher 

Historic England History of Disability Year 1050 to present

Tom Shakespeare Collection: Disabled Lives

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Professor David Turner is a social and cultural historian with expertise in disability, medicine, gender and the body. He is our guest this month. 

David’s current research explores the history of disabled people’s political activism in Britain since the eighteenth century. In an accessible and illuminating conversation, he tells us of the earliest known recorded documentation of disability rights and political activism. This includes the book 'Biography of the Blind’, first published in 1821, written by the remarkable James Wilson. 

We learn why what was said to the British Government by disabled people way back in 1832, still resonates today. With David’s expertise and insight, we learn how 200 years of disability history can inform us today and into the future.


Home page including publications list 

James Wilson’s Biography of the Blind, pub. 1821 on Google Books. 

On Twitter @DrDavidMT

Disability History pod and video with Prof Turner 

Disability History: Thinking Differently About the Past resource page

Blog about how Prof Turner helped put disability in the teaching curriculum with one teacher 

Historic England History of Disability Year 1050 to present

Tom Shakespeare Collection: Disabled Lives

Announcer  0:08  
Welcome to The Way We Roll with Simon Minty and Phil Friend.

Simon Minty  0:15  
Hello and welcome to The Way We Roll with me Simon Minty.

Phil Friend  0:18  
And me Phil Friend.

Simon Minty  0:20  
A little heads up introduction. We are delighted that we've have Professor David Turner from Swansea University as our guest. He is a social and cultural historian. He has expertise in disability medicine, gender, and the body and we have a fabulous conversation with him.

Phil Friend  0:38  
We do indeed I read some of his writing before we met him and it's incredibly accessible and really interesting. And David's current research explores the long history of disabled people's political activism in Britain since the 18th century. He also leads a research project on older and disabled people's access to the arts and heritage. And I'm guessing David, that's more than just physical access. 

David Turner  1:09  
Absolutely, yeah. 

Phil Friend  1:10  
Now, David says, and I quote, "a key question guiding my research and teaching is what happens to our understanding of the past. When we place people normally marginalised from historical narratives at the centre of the story"? Now perhaps we can start there, David, I mean, how does our understanding of the past change when disabled people are placed at the centre of the story?

David Turner  1:35  
Well, that's a huge question to start with Phil, how long have you got for me to explain this? Well, we can get into more detail. And you know, later on, but I suppose you know, this all starts from this than kind of a conviction, I suppose everything and everybody has a history and all these histories matter. And so having more diverse and representative histories are important. It's important to show the richness and complexity of disabled people's lives in the past, because it helps to validate disabled people's experiences in the present and making those histories more widely available in museums, heritage sites, on TV, radio, podcasts like this is really important as well, because it helps people feel included. And I think it matters as well, because we still live with the legacy of the past. So we, you know, we often like to think about history is moving in this continual arc of progress. But recent events have shown that really isn't the case. Things like that, you know, think about the Coronavirus pandemic, when there were stories in the in the media about possibly hospitals having to ration care, you know, that this, you know, you know, takes us back to the days of eugenics, you know, something, you know, this idea that there was sort of popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, something we think we've kind of moved on from but it's, it's still with us, a lot of the public media debate about, about welfare and disability, it's often comes back to these old stereotypes about scrounging, and these have a very long history, you can trace them back at least as far as the 16th century. So, so these sort of, so the history is still with us. And I'd also say that disability history isn't just about adding people to history who aren't there in the history as we write, although that's a really important part of it. But it's also about the kind of questions we ask about the past. And so if we take a disability perspective, on events in history, or sort of themes in history, then it allows us to look at them in new ways. So histories of warfare, for example, disability is absolutely crucial to, to these kinds of histories, histories, of education, histories, of, of work and industry of just something I've been working on recently. Disability is really, really important to all of that. So. So I think it really matters. And, you know, it takes us to some really interesting places. 

Phil Friend  4:30  
I've had an opportunity to look at some of the work you've done. And for someone like me, I'm not very well read or educated, but I would say that the work you've done is very accessible. I mean, it reads well, it's easy. I'm saying this to the listener, don't you know, you hear sometimes history and big thick books, but this is this is really alive and one moment in it where you describe a seven year old a boy being dragged to work by his family, despite the fact that he's so disabled, he can't move. And he's been disabled by the factory he works in. And he's dragged off to work, because if he doesn't go to work, they get no money. So, I mean, those kinds of stories abound in the work you've done. And I think that makes it real makes it live. I certainly felt very sad whenI read that. But yeah, so yes, putting disabled people right in the middle of this story really, really matters. Sorry, Simon.

Simon Minty  5:30  
No, David, go ahead.

David Turner  5:31  
Well, just going to say that, you know, that's really nice that you find that work accessible. It's a lot of academic history, isn't that accessible to to the public. So I think I now see my job, as a professor specialising in disability history, to be doing this research that's uncovering new aspects of disability history is asking those kinds of new questions about the past. But it's also just as important, I think, to get those histories out there to both in terms of the teaching I do to the students, students at Swansea, and also to the general public. And it's also really important to support disabled people, anyone else is interested in trying to find out about this history for themselves. So how do we make the resources more accessible for studying disability in history, I think all those three things are really important, and you can't really be separated from each other,

Simon Minty  6:30  
we can make all this progress. And then when the chips are down, it gets difficult. There's almost like a reversion to a certain type of treatment of disabled people that you we think we've got rid of when we move beyond, but it can slip back. Where, I am interested, my specific question Is that because you're looking at disabled people's activism, that's kind of one of your, your passions. I haven't really got a direct question. But I'm interested in that history of disabled people activism, because whenever people ask me, I go, Oh, so 1979, UPAS and disabled wheelchair users social model, but it's the stuff before that.

David Turner  7:06  
Yeah, that's what I'm trying to try to uncover. It's kind of the long history of disabled people's political activists, and I suppose at the start I'd, perhaps distinguish between disabled people's political activism and disability activism? You know, I think I think what you just talked about there is disability activism, it's disabled, these are movements led by disabled people to, you know, with a focus on equality and, and the rights of disabled people. And, you know, and so, disabilities, you know, the central issue, but disabled people have been involved in political movements long before that, and not just sort of lending their support, but also bringing that disability perspective to those earlier movements. So, you know, and I think we kind of forget about that, to a certain extent, because we're very focused on the recent past, you know, the past 30 or 40 years of activism, where there's been huge changes and huge achievements, and, you know, so, so take a longer perspective, it's not about taking anything away from, from that recent activism at all, but it's about kind of putting it in a much longer history and looking further back in the past and showing that actually disabled people have often spoken out about things, and, and that there's some really rich and important histories out there.

Phil Friend  8:37  
I think there's an there's a, something that struck me about something you wrote, which is that today's disabled person talking as a campaigner, we we get very, very angry when people portray us as pitiful and sorry for us and that stuff. But reading the stuff about the factories and what was going on there. It was quite common from what you wrote, for the general public to have somebody shown to them, so that they would evoke feelings, that would then help them campaign for changing the law on factories and working hours and those kinds of so pity was used as a device back then. Now, we avoid that, but it's used against us, since people feel sorry for us what we don't want them to what's your what's your kind of take on that? David?

David Turner  9:30  
Yeah, so what you're referring to there, Phil, it's in the early 19th century, there's increasing concern about conditions in factories, and in particular about the hour the long hours worked by children. So there's a campaign which gets really gets going in the late 1820s, early 1830s to reduce the number of hours in factories and this is led by a kind of coalition of  different people. So they're sort of elite put some elite politicians, philanthropists involved, but they're also worker led organisations, called short time committees. And essentially they were, they were aiming to get the work, everybody's hours of work reduced. They know, they're campaigning for a 10 hour day, but they, but in order to make that argument, they rolled out these people who they saw as being victims of the factory system. So, so poor, ragged children, and disabled people. So often, these are people who've become that their bodies have been damaged, just by starting work as a really young age having to stand in, in the same position for long hours, you know, it has an impact on their, on how their bones develop. So they're often described as crooked in appearance, and in some cases, they're also injured in machinery accidents, as well. So you have people who've lost arms and legs as a result of these things. So, so these same people are useful in this campaign as kind of, in our symbols of everything that's wrong in the system, and you do have these mass meetings where disabled people are kind of brought up to the stage to show themselves so that, you know, so that people can sort of be outraged at the terrible things that have happened to them. So there is a kind of, so there's an element of exploitation in all of this. And, but it at the same time, it does give disabled people a voice in a really important political issue. So in order so, so it's not just the people are shown, there' brought up to stand there, and everyone gawps at their, their misshapen bodies, but actually, they then begin to tell their stories, because their stories are quite useful to this campaign, you know, they can come out and tell how terrible things are, then this is very useful. And and in doing that, they just help start to tell stories just slightly at odds with the main message of the campaign. So lets you know that yes, they're saying that the other their injuries and deformities are caused by the conditions in the factories, they work, but then they start to talk about other things like the kind of lack of support that from their employers, after they became too disabled, to work. They talk about what we'd now call the cost of living, and how it's more expensive to be a disabled person, something which people are all too aware of today, and, and so they you know, so this gives disabled people a chance to speak out, and kind of, not necessarily to kind of push a separate disability agenda, but to kind of enrich this campaign by bringing in these lived experiences, which are things which the which non disabled, supporters, reformers hadn't really thought they've seen disability simply as a kind of pitiable state. But, but then these factory workers start to tell their own stories and and these are recorded in government inquiries and select committee reports, you've got this incredible committee which is set up by the House of Commons in the spring of 1832. And disabled people can be brought down to London to appear in front of this committee to talk about their experiences and and then you know, they roll up their trouser legs to show their deformed limbs and it's just taken together it's an incredible document of working class disabled experience all that you know, it's problematic in some ways because the questions are asked often quite leaving but you know, read against the grain I think you can find out quite a lot about their lives and experiences she goes beyond that kind of pity stereotype. Yeah.

Simon Minty  14:44  
I'm my heart is swelling and my emotions are upsetting all at the same time. It is remarkable. And I'm reflecting today and we still know this big charities that when I speak to for fundraisers, they say if I go for pity I get the money. If I tell you independent and get on with your life I don't get the money says that there's a conflict going on. But once or twice I know in my career as a spokesperson, and maybe Philv would be similar. You find yourself on a platform or on a stage and you're talking. And you're going to hold up, this doesn't quite feel right, I feel I'm being used in the wrong way. I hadn't truly got the voice I there's something that is amiss and like, but I love the fact that you said they were put up there, and then their stories were slightly deviating from what was expected. And jumping ahead linked to this. The fact that I'm affected by this, you do have the answer being very personal data, but you do have some conditions, but don't necessarily call yourself a disabled person. Do you think it's important to have some sort of understanding? Or is, you know, the is academic research? So it can be objective advice, and a straightforward question. And then does it help or does it hinder? I suppose, as part.

David Turner  15:58  
But it certainly doesn't hinder. I think, I think that's yeah, yeah. I mean, I think you do need? Yeah, I mean, do you need an awareness, I think of what disabled people are going through today, I think you've got to be careful not to read the past through the lens of the present. And, you know, that's because there are all kinds of challenges for studying disability history. In one of the big challenge is, is that the meaning of disability isn't consistent over time. And, you know, what, what we might think of as disability doesn't necessarily map on to people's experiences in the past. So, you know, the, the kinds of things I have, I have a sort of a chronic eye condition called blepharitis, which is kept under control, pretty straightforwardly using steroids and other medication. But, but thanks to that, you know, that doesn't really affect my life in in any way, but had I lived 200 years ago, at the time of the Industrial Revolution, then that access to that kind of medical care wouldn't have been available. And, you know, there's a good chance I would have been classed as blind. And because the category blind is a very kind of broad one before standardised vision testing. And so and so, you know, we, yeah, this is the kind of first move away from your original question here a little bit. But, but yeah, I mean, I think, you know, we connect with disability and in lots of different ways, and I think those those experiences do matter, when we're, when we're studying the past, I don't think you have to be disabled or have, you know, have a close connection with disability to study disability in history, but you have to have an awareness I think of, of how the past relates to the presence, particularly if you're going to communicate that history to a wider audience. If you want that history to matter, then you do need to know how that history relates to what people are going through today.

Phil Friend  18:23  
Did you, David in your, in your work, one of the popular things that we now hear a lot more about or feels new? Is this idea of intersectionality? The different you know, where if you're a black disabled person, for example, or female, whatever? I don't see a lot of that in your papers. I haven't looked at it specifically for that reason. But I'm wondering, and what you do talk an awful lot about is class, working class people. And I'm wondering how that sits the the intersectionality stuff, what was it like say for a woman 200 years ago? That kind of thing? Do you have any comments to make about that sort of thing, the working class and female male that stuff?

David Turner  19:14  
Yeah, it's a really good question. And I think disability does, does connect with all these other social distinctions and divisions. So you know, and gender is a very interesting one. Because in the 19th century, disability is, you know, put on or being disabled, disability and disabled or words you have slightly different connotations in the past, but say, you know, describing someone as disabled, essentially what you're saying is that they, they are incapacitated from work and usually that's doing paid work and So, there's a lot more interest in men's disability than women's. And so there's more investment in protecting families from the male breadwinners disability or potential disability, then there is in, in, in women's disability, but but women were disabled as in the industrial revolution, as well. You know, so factories and coal mines up until 1842 employed women. Women worked in coal mines underground, in, in Scotland until the early 1840s. And you can see them becoming disabled through the kind of work they were doing often carrying heavy loads up to the surface, you know, just women's disabilities often taught in terms of talked of in terms of their childbearing role. And so, you know, so you know, that raises questions or is, at a time when women were expect, you know, the main role for, for women was to, to marry and have babies, you know, infertility and disability in that society. Yeah, and women work, you know, women did experience accidents supporting their husbands in the work they did. So, you know, I've just been reading a government report, interviewing people in the work in the West Midlands, in the iron manufacturing area, where we're women, many women have ruptures, because they, they, they're carrying heavy things to the home, sometimes often water from, from the pump to the house, and, you know, this causes disability as well, and these, and the ends, and women's disability can have a quite profound impact on family life as well. And that, you know, if women aren't able to perform that the traditional caregiving roles that are expected of them, then this put a lot of pressure on other members of the family to to perform.

Phil Friend  22:33  
Were there were there examples of women doing what you just were talking about, you know, going to rallies speaking about things being put up on stages that were women, in their own ways, being active in that kind of where were they largely excluded.

David Turner  22:51  
It's interesting, you get it did get women involved in the factory reform campaign. So there are some interviews with women before the select committee in 1832. And then there's a Royal Commission in 1833, which gathers more evidence on the ground. So it goes out to industrial areas and gathers evidence and you do get women and girls giving evidence to though to those inquiries. And giving very interesting evidence, but there are far fewer women coming forward to give evidence and that's not because they weren't there in factories. In fact, women are a very sizable part of the workforce in in the Lancashire cotton industry, for example, but they're not coming forward in the same kind of numbers. And there was some discussion of this at the time. And one of the one of the ideas or the reasons put forward to this as as women were worried about the about what kind of impact it would have on their marriage prospects, if they started talking about being disabled. So so the word that's used quite a lot in a time was about women being shy about talking about disability and and, you know, some of the some of the visible bodily deformities associated with factory work will be less visible in in girls and women anyway because of their clothing. So it's a deformity to the legs, for example, the cover by skirts where it's harder to hide that in, in boys and men so and yeah, and whereas men were sort of showing their bodies at meetings and in in Parliament's it's considered immodest to ask a woman to do same sort of things. So, so it's not the case that women weren't experiencing the same kinds of industrial injuries and deformities, and we do have some really vivid accounts of, of those things happening. But, but there are restrictions on women's ability to talk about these things, which just adds to this bias in our sources that, you know, it's that, that you can find disability in all kinds of historical documents, but you can't find all disability, that it's, you know, there's much more material and acquired impairments as opposed to congenital impairments. And there's, and there's much more about men than there is about women.

Simon Minty  25:44  
You preempted my next question, and I think we're gonna have to have you back because you had a lovely turn of phrase rather than definition of disability, the meaning of disability, and I think that's really powerful. I'd love to see what that meaning is. And you've also said, a lot of the examples that are acquired, I've noticed that rather than congenital but so I'm thinking of Tom Shakespeare, and Eugene Grant, both of them have got these sort of projects about historical people with dwarfism, and you know, the impact they made you put it in context, and I've loved it. But you're currently looking at what might claim to be the first History of Disability written by disabled person is James Wilson's book biography of the blind. This was published in 1821. And how, one I mentioned in the publication, but also, how difficult is it to find these records? And how reliable are they?

David Turner  26:38  
Well, we're very lucky, and that quite a lot survives. So this particular book, was published in 1821, it went through, I think, three or four more additions over the next 20 years or so. And, and all of these survive. And actually, some of these have been digitised. So you can, if anyone's interested in reading Biography of the Blind by James Wilson, then there's a digital copy on the British library's website. And that's been put up a link to that in the show notes. Yeah. How reliable are they, that's a big question for historians really? And in many ways, we don't know the answer to that question. I think what we can do is look at ways in which experiences are presented look at common ways in which people described their experiences and the experiences of other people to kind of look at these themes and how they, and you know, how they change over time, and these sort of ways of talking about disability. And, you know, we can look about look at the kind of information that people chose to talk about in relation to themselves and other people, and what that tells us about attitudes towards disability at a particular time. So James Wilson's Biography of the Blind, is, yeah, I think it probably lays claim to be the first History of Disability it came out in 1821. And it's so Wilson has a very interesting backstory himself. In fact, you know, the longest biography and biography of the blind is his own story, which he put at the beginning. And so he was born in, in Richmond in Virginia in 1779. So during the American Revolution, and his family is forced to flee North America because they were supporters of the British crown. And so at the end of the American Revolutionary War, they chose to leave rather than then stay and so they set off on a boat from New York to Liverpool, but on board on that journey. James's father had been injured as fighting for the British in the in the American Revolutionary War. He died as James's mother is pregnant, suffered a miscarriage because the shock of the death of her husband she died as well. And then, and then James caught smallpox and he went blind so

Phil Friend  29:21  
Not a lot of luck in that family was there.

David Turner  29:26  
That was quite an eventful journey. And, and so yeah, the boat sort of made landfall in Belfast. And so James was was put into care of a local nurse. And is given some money there, the ship's captain had to kind of whip round and they raised enough money to kind of see him through the first few years of his life and and so very what's his left alone in in Belfast but he adapted to to sight loss and a and, you know, he, he got a job as a as a delivery boy, actually he sort of you know went on to these vast journeys delivering things to people's houses and so he had this incredible sort of ability to kind of navigate this landscape, which I think would have been difficult for anybody because they are called poor quality of roads and things and but but he really became passionate about learning. And so he trained in upholstery, he was joined the, the Belfast asylum for the blind when it opens, beginning of the 19th century, and then he joined the Belfast Literary Society and, and he got someone to read to him. And so he devoured all this literature. And what he realised was that blind people weren't talked about in that in those books, in ways that really captured the distinct experience of being blind. And so so he set about raising money to write this history of blind people by a blind person. And so he's really advertising for subscriptions, and 1814, which is the way people often publish books in those days, and he got people to kind of buy it in advance and that money used to kind of 

Simon Minty  31:26  
People are doing that now. 

David Turner  31:26  
Yeah, that so yeah, crowdfunding, essentially. So I'd say yeah, this book came out in 1821. And it's, and, you know, and he said, it's, you know, he wrote, this is this is, you know, writing this to, to neglect my fellow, it's it to, to kind of lift my fellow sufferers out of neglect and obscurity, and, and, you know, to treat blind people as a class of men. And here's the agenda of that, and quite deliberately, because I'm very many women Biography for the blind, or they did add some in later editions. And, yeah, so. So over several 100 pages, and he's kind of go through history from, from Homer in ancient Greece, right up to people living in his own time. He talks about, he talks about their lives talks about, and he talks about disability in a really interesting way. Because he, because although he talks about blindness, being a great misfortune, and a bad thing, he also uses this kind of image of birth quite a lot in the book. So actually, when people become blind, they're sort of born as these new kind of qualities of character are born. And it's very much about character, and it's very much for overcoming, so it's so going to read it today, it's a little bit problematic, I suppose, in that you've got this collection of people who have distinguished themselves through their heroic overcoming and their strength of character, strength of will, and all that. So it is it is a kind of individual narrative and kind of super-crip narrative, but it's, but it's also it's, but it's quite radical in the context of his day, because people, you know, there's this kind of connection in people in most people's minds between blindness and misery, and blindness and poverty. So having all these histories of blind people who've excelled in various fields, in arts, literature, science, religion, some military leaders there as well, now shows that it really challenges that idea of blind people being incapable and and this is published at a time when, when there are these new blind schools being established, to kind of the view of kind of making blind people useful. And, and so it's about sort of supporting that, that kind of Endeavour and, and then after it's published, he seems to go on the world's longest book tour. So he spends the next 25 years kind of promote promoting this book. And, you know, and trying, again, trying to raise subscriptions to get it read, reprinted, and, you know, so so he's, at some point he moved out of out of Northern Ireland, he went  to Liverpool, I spent some time there. I'd spend some time in Birmingham, and then he kind of crops up towns and cities across England. And, you know, he seems seem to have a kind of a strategy. He sort of gets in touch with the local newspaper and says, Here I am in town, there's my book, and then they run a piece on what kind of what a useful piece of work this is showing that you know, the powers of human perseverance, so they overcome the most terrible adversity that anyone can possibly experience and you know, and he makes a living from it and when he dies in 1846, on one of his book tours in the dies in the Isle of Man, the press reports it right It's across the country. And it's you know, and he says I'll 1000s will, will mourn the passing of this wonderful, man. So, and he's not known about at all today. So it's a very extraordinary story.

Phil Friend  35:13  
Where's he buried, I've got to go and find his grave. Where is this?

David Turner  35:19  
We know he died in Douglas in the Isle of Man. So that's where I start when you

Phil Friend  35:26  
I mean, this is an enormous story. And at its time unique, no one else had done it, had they? I mean, what lessons do we have to learn from this? Do you think, David, I mean, what? What are the mistakes we're making now that we shouldn't make given the stories that you've come across? And some of the, I referred earlier did not to the pity thing and and that kind of stuff. I mean, what to today's disabled people and thinking more perhaps the campaigners? What is your huge body of work taught you that we should try and kind of avoid doing or maybe we should do more of.

David Turner  36:08  
I think it's one of the messages, I think, is that the many examples throughout history of disabled people pushing back and resisting ways in which other people in society talk about them. And I think James Wilson is a good example of that. And so, sometimes, I think, theres a tendency to think about advances in disabled people's rights as a very recent history, and, you know, and, and to a large extent, it is, you know, recent development. But I think the problem with that is that we tend to kind of see, you know, we've talked about disability history, and in binary terms, so there's, there's the, the era of the disabled people's movements. And then there's everything else that went before it, you know, and it's only when they say people's movement comes along, that things start to change. And, as I said earlier, it's not about sort of taking anything away from that at all kind of diminishing the achievements of activists, in Britain, in America and across the world since the 1960s. But actually showing that this is part of a much longer history, and that's activism or resistance is quite interesting term resistance, because as a flexible term, perhaps for sort of the many different ways in which disabled people have sought to sort to kind of speak out about how they're treated to kind of, to claim things they see as their rights. So one thing I'm interested in at the moment actually goes back before the industrial era, and I'm, I've been reading a lot of petitions in the 17th century were written, usually on behalf of the claimants because most of the claimants can't read or write. So they get someone into writing these things for them, but but the hundreds 1000s perhaps of disabled people petitioning to get support from, from the magistrates. So they usually arise when somebody feels like they should get poor relief in their village, but there's a problem has occurred. So you know, they're denied, or someone's saying they don't, they're not eligible, and then they take it up with higher authority. So they appeal to the justices and the peace to, to to get the support they need. And it's really interesting reading those, those texts, because often well, but it definitely, they use a variety of strategies, and one of those strategies is appealing to rights. So so one Petitioner talks, talking about that their, their their right to relief, because they're too sick or or disabled to work, and so, so that so so their argument is that this is there's by law, by by write reason, as they put it, and by the will of God. So it's a triple sort of headed approach, but it's really interesting to find, if it's not actually disabled people themselves writing these things, but actually, to think about seeds sort of evidence of disabled people in the past. Talking about disability in relation to rights, and another word, which is used sometimes in 17th century petitions. In relation disability is justice. And so these are terms we see is very modern. And, and so it is interesting to, to kind of, to think about how this kind of language of rights has evolved over time. And some of the, the campaign slogans of the modern disability movement have quite close links to things which have been used in the past. So, for example, rights, not charity. Now, that's very, very similar to the slogan that was used by the National League of the Blind in the 1890s. They were campaigning for justice, not charity. And so there's this kind of lineage, and even things like the social model of disability, you can find writers connected with the factory reform movements in the 1830s and 40s, articulating something very similar to the social model of disability, they're saying, you know, that their problems stem not from not from being disabled, you know, not not from that no, not not from the kind of the medical aspects of their condition. Or not that alone, but, but also for the way in which they're treated, and that they wouldn't be disabled if there are better opportunities for people who become injured in work to then go on and do other things. So they don't call it the social model of disability, but the social model, but what we refer to as the social model, disability seems to give a name to something that's long been there.

Phil Friend  41:37  
I think what's interesting, too, is that you talked about petitioners and justice and rights and those things back in the day 1700. I'm guessing most of the people doing this were poorly educated, many were illiterate. So how did they overcome that barrier? For a start, you know, to actually get something in front of somebody is would have been in itself a really difficult thing to do, let alone whatever the impairment was, they were managing education, presumably for the masses, particularly for those born with disabilities was non existent, I'm guessing.

David Turner  42:11  
Yeah. Yeah. And in many cases, as far as we can tell, people had a lot of support from neighbours, maybe the local clergyman people who could write on their behalf. Yeah, really. And that kind of support is really important. So so we're kind of so when we're looking at petitions, you know, we're looking at the lucky few, I suppose, who could who could draw on that kind of support from their neighbours, but, but that I think it's important in its own right, because it shows that disabled people weren't just sort of isolated in society that they could draw on support, because there is a kind of feeling amongst the population at large that yeah, if you, you know, if you're unable to work, then you need some kind of support. Everyone has a right not to starve. And so, yeah, and that kind of raises questions about the position of disabled people in society. And that's, again, that's not saying that disabled people weren't oppressed or treated very badly, and many of them were that time. But but that's not the whole story. And these petitions do show that people in quite desperate circumstances could at times draw on wider community support in order to suppress their case and the villains in this other kind of the local overseers is to being unfair in the way in which they are distributing support or their or sometimes the welfare householders are being blamed for not sort of paying the poor rates that they were legally obliged to, to do so so so yeah, yeah, you definitely needed that kind of support if you weren't able to write these these documents yourself but but often, people had to it wasn't just case of sending in a petitions and things people were had to go along and actually present them in person so So again, that might have stopped certain people from from bringing petitions because they physically might not have been able to actually get to where the magistrates were to deliver their case but but if they were then it made it more more powerful. Sometimes people actually wrote in their petitions as you know, I am lame as you can plainly see from looking at my arm and that sort of you know, that only really works if you if that person is there, presenting their petition in person.

Announcer  44:45  
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Simon Minty  44:53  
I'm gonna do a sort of slightly non academic question again, probably the future What's your kind of Obviously, you're working on the biography of the blind. That's clearly right now a future project, is there a kind of a dream or an extent?

David Turner  45:10  
Yeah, so the work I'm doing, I mean, hopefully will be published in some form or other and what I'm what I'm really what I'm working on at the moment is a history of disability aimed at a wider audience and that, yeah, academic writing, as I think I said earlier, it's it's often not easily accessible to the general public. And you know, so what I really want to do is write a book that gets this story out there to people and sort of so you know, more people know about James Wilson, and then the National League of the Blind and 17th century petitioners. So that's so that work that academic that me and other academics have been doing get to get out there to a wider audience and take and take this long view, as well. Because quite often I could academic writing is very specialised, so sort of things in depth, but not over a very long time period. So kind of thinking about how things change over time. You know, that's, that's what I really want to do in the next project.

Simon Minty  46:19  
You need a third visit for when you come back and talk about the new book.

Phil Friend  46:22  
We've got to get the diary out, I think, when are you hoping to? Do you have a date in mind for when this might see the light of day, David, I mean, you're obviously busy doing a lot of things now,

David Turner  46:33  
but I'd like this, if possible to be out in 2025. And in time for the 30th anniversary, the 1995 Act. So I think that's a good moment to actually reflect on that on the activism that led to that legislation, but also on the this deeper history.

Phil Friend  47:00  
And you would publish it wouldn't you on International Day of Disabled People would come out, auspicious day that we've come to. Yeah, I just think this is extraordinary. And and I, personally, I'd love to help get that word out there. Because what I've learned from you in this short time we've had together is that, in some ways, there's nothing new under the sun. It's a different world now than it was back then. But you know, when we think about the cost of living crisis, when we think about inflation, all the things that poor people, particularly in particularly disabled people are about to have to try and manage their way through, it was going on in 1700. It just, you know, it wasn't that different. What I guess we kind of finish in a sense by saying, so what do we learn from those people? How did they, the words you use was resistance and resilience and those kinds of things. Fascinating why I've never heard of some of these people having been immersed in this subject for so long, I find extraordinary. I'm very grateful to you for bringing it to my attention.

Simon Minty  48:06  
I think you're a bit like a sorry, this clunky reference at the Premier League, you know, football only started in the 1990s. And disability only started in 1979 is ridiculous, so much more. So thank you for enlightening us, David and get me passionate again, it's fabulous to hear some of these stories. And the similarities and the differences.

Phil Friend  48:30  
Very humbling to know. I'm gonna look up the book about the blind guy. I mean, for goodness sake, your dad dies, your mum dies, you go blind, and you get off the ship and start delivering all over Britain.

Simon Minty  48:40  
When you ask where he's buried, I believe that his coffin is on a tour. What he likes he wants to keep moving about.

Phil Friend  48:40  
Brilliant. I think I just like to thank you a) for what you're doing, because I think what you're doing really is important actually, and I look forward to 2025 to see what comes out then. But today particularly thank you for your time and for giving up your time for us to hear that story because it's been fascinating.

Simon Minty  49:09  
Okay, like and not only you're doing it, but you're you're making accessible that's the double win. So thank you so much, David, and thank you for being our guest it's fantastic.

David Turner  49:18  
Thank you very much.

Announcer  49:20  
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Simon Minty  49:24  
So pleased, we got David on

Phil Friend  49:26  
I'm agog I'm all agog. I am. I found that truly fascinating. And I can't wait for 2025 Yeah, when his book comes out brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

Simon Minty  49:40  
Thank you, David and for your time, your accessible style and just doing the work. It's amazing stuff. But that is it for this month. Next month. It is slightly unusual. We have no guests so it'll be me and Phil arguing and making each other laugh. So we're going back to the old stuff.

Phil Friend  49:59  
I'm looking forward to that I've got to find something to argue about first. But anyway,

Simon Minty  50:03  
I got plenty of things, don't you worry.

Phil Friend  50:07  
Anyway, if you want to get in touch with us, I'll give you the email address and Simon will do the rest of it, which is the email addresses, the

Simon Minty  50:19  
Youre a good egg cos I don't always, remember, we are on Facebook, we are on Twitter, we're on Instagram and we're on LinkedIn, we are everywhere. If you want to shortcut go to our beacons page, and do The Way We Roll and you'll get to YouTube you can sign up to the mailing list and all the other stuff. So until next time, thank you very much for listening. We hope you loved it. Let us know.

Phil Friend  50:41  
Yeah, take care everyone. See you soon.

Announcer  50:43  
This is The Way We Roll presented by Simon Minty and Phil Friend. You can email us at mintyand or just search for minty and friend on social media. We're on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn

Transcribed by

Pity and Campaigning
Personal Experience of Disability
James Wilson's Autobiography
What can we learn from the past?
The Future