Disability history: The sword-thrower with no limbs

  • 26 May 2013
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An old soldier with a wooden leg telling a family about his experiences. Etching by W. Matthews after S. Jennen
Etchings captured people with disabilities before photographs

Using previously unused sources, a new daily 10-part BBC Radio 4 series uncovers personal accounts of disabled people's lives, stretching back to the Middle Ages. These challenge the idea that all stories were of triumph or tragedy.

It is often assumed that prior to World War I, when the return of thousands of disabled servicemen forced disability onto the political agenda, disabled people were hidden from history, shut away behind the walls of asylums with their voices silenced.

Now this silence is being broken by a new generation of disability historians.

Diaries, letters, advertisements and memoirs are now being used to access the voices of our ancestors, voices that challenge our preconceptions of how disability was treated and about what it meant to be disabled.

Disability is part of my own family history and as an academic historian I've always been interested in the lives of people traditionally left out of the historical record. In my research I have found that, rather than being hidden, disability was everywhere once I started looking for it.

In the 18th Century, disabled people with the highest profile were "freak show" performers who profited from public fascination in the varieties of the human body. We often think about such people as the victims of cruel exploitation, but it seems this was not necessarily the case.

Disabled performers could also be successful entrepreneurs, in control of their image and destiny.

Matthew Buchinger was known as "the little man of Nuremburg". He lived from 1674 to 1739 and achieved fame in England during the 1720s as a highly skilled artist, musician and card player, despite being born without arms or legs.

Buchinger performed for royalty and the nobility in London and engraved several self-portraits, which make no attempt to hide his physical difference.

His disabled body was a source of pride rather than embarrassment, and a lucrative source of income that propelled him up the social ladder.

His shows in which he "performed such wonders as have never been done by any but Himself" were designed to challenge his audience's expectations about the capabilities of a limbless person.

He impressed them by playing bagpipes and trumpet, performing tricks with cups and balls and live birds, was an expert at sword throwing, origami and more. There seems to have been genuine admiration for "freak" performers like Buchinger, but 18th Century attitudes towards disability could also be cruel and unsentimental.

Born in 1695, William Hay became a Member of Parliament for Seaford. He had a curved spine and restricted growth.

Hay wrote the autobiographical Deformity: An Essay (1754) in which he described the casual insensitivity of others towards him and mockery he had to endure as a disabled person when walking the streets of London.

In response, Hay sought to fashion a positive identity that made a moral virtue of physical difference. He challenged those who might see "deformity" as an illness by highlighting his own good health.

Living with difference had acted as a spur to self-improvement, making him better able to cope with life's adversity and more sensitive to the torments of others.

Direct, humorous and strikingly modern, his account shows how the search for identity has long been an important part of disabled people's history. His primary concern was with disciplining the able-bodied poor and using the workhouses to make them economically productive.

Hay did not see himself as part of a community of disabled people and, as an MP, did not campaign on behalf of his fellow "deformed". He thought of his own circumstances as being preferable to that of the "deaf, the dumb, the lame and the blind".

Engraving of an old sailor with a wooden leg, drinking in a tavern

Though Hay thought of himself as separate, by the 19th Century, disabled people began to recognise the importance of banding together for political action.

The series reveals the hardships and prejudice faced by disabled people in the past and will highlight their achievements. But it recognises that the history of disability is neither simply a story of tragic neglect nor triumph over adversity.

For the most part, disability history is about people's experiences of getting by and surviving in environments that could be ill-suited to their needs.

In 1864, Hippolyte Van Lendeghem - a young Belgian woman living in Clapham, south-west London - wrote a remarkable book, Charity Mis-Applied, decrying the educational segregation she had been subjected to as a blind person.

Van Lendeghem challenged the culture of low expectation that condemned the blind to menial careers, arguing that philanthropy ought to provide funds to supplement the incomes of disabled workers, allowing them to participate more equally.

She also argued that the "four-sensed" deaf and blind could not rely on their "five-sensed" neighbours to understand their experiences adequately enough to respond to their needs.

"We have been educating the blind and the deaf and the dumb in segregated schools," she wrote in 1865, "when we ought to have been educating the members of society, who have all their senses, how to understand the peculiarities and necessities of their four-sensed relatives."

Disability: A New History starts on BBC Radio 4 this Monday at 13:45 BST and can be heard every weekday at that time for two weeks. It is presented by Peter White, who is blind.

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