Radio 4 discovers the untold history of disability in 10-part series

We wanted to explore what daily life was like for people with physical disabilities, but also to look beyond that, to ideas of beauty and deformity, wider concepts of what it means to be ‘able-bodied’ - which had an impact on real people, then as now."Elizabeth Burke, Producer
Date: 15.05.2013     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.10
Category: Radio 4
In a new ten-part radio series, journalist Peter White uncovers new historical sources revealing what life was like for those with physical disabilities in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Disability: A New History, starting on BBC Radio 4 on 27 May, is the first major series to explore the history of disability before the 20th century. It draws on a wealth of new research by historians across the country from sources including letters, diaries, advertisements, even jokes – all of which reveal what daily life was like for those with disabilities. This was an age before political correctness, and although some of the language used is robust, attitudes were often surprisingly compassionate.

The series sets out to challenge modern-day attitudes to disability, and the archive sources provide direct access to voices from the past. Throughout the series a rich variety of voices is heard: a man who complains he is the ‘only dwarf in Liverpool’; deaf children writing home from institutions; a wounded soldier, struggling to walk with a wooden leg; a society beauty disfigured by smallpox; ‘freaks’ who exploited their extraordinary bodies on the streets of London – and made a fortune. Dr David Turner from Swansea University is the academic advisor to the series and an expert in disability history. He provides academic insights throughout, in addition to a number of historians from across the country.

Elizabeth Burke, Producer, says: “The great thing about radio is that we can bring these voices to life, and give listeners a chance to hear first-hand sources – many of which have not yet been published. Some of these accounts are very funny, some are moving and inspiring. This is cutting-edge historical research – it amounts almost to a new historical movement. We wanted to explore what daily life was like for people with physical disabilities, but also to look beyond that, to ideas of beauty and deformity, wider concepts of what it means to be ‘able-bodied’ - which had an impact on real people, then as now."

For presenter Peter White there is a strong and genuine sense of personal discovery. As a blind man he has always wondered, where were people like him in the past? “I never realised disabled people had a history. History was what happened to everyone else,” White says.

Gwyneth Williams, Controller BBC Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra, says: “I am so pleased that Peter White, one of our most distinguished presenters, has decided to take up this unexplored area of history. I am looking forward to a challenging and original series which adds to Radio 4’s proud history coverage.”

Notes for Editors

Disability: A New History runs for 10 consecutive weekdays at 1.45pm over a two-week period from Monday 27 May, with an hour-long omnibus edition on Friday nights at 8pm. It was commissioned by Jane Ellison for BBC Radio 4. The producer is Elizabeth Burke for Loftus.

Academic Advisor: Dr David Turner of Swansea University, who recently published the first book-length study of physical disability in 18th-century England, Disability In Eighteenth-Century England: Imagining Physical Impairment.

Historians featured: David Turner, Stephen King, Joanna Bourke , Judith Hawley, Amanda Vickery, Tim Hitchcock, Julie Anderson, Irina Metzler, Naomi Baker, Chris Mounsey, Vivienne Richmond, Caroline Nielsen, Mike Mantin, Selina Mills.

Actors bringing life to the archived first-hand accounts: Gerard McDermott, Euan Bailey, Emily Bevan, Jonathan Keeble, Madeleine Brolly.

BW