What role did disabled people play during industrial revolution?

By Neil Prior
BBC News

Patients at The RestImage source, Richard Burton archives
Image caption,
Researchers found examples of disabled workers during the industrial revolution

Wheelchair or guide dog users are a common enough sight in the workplace today, but what about 200 years ago?

Research by Swansea University and the Wellcome Trust has discovered disabled people were playing equally as big a role in the coal mines of the industrial revolution in Wales.

A blind lift operator and a collier with a wooden leg are just two of the examples found by Daniel Blackie and Mike Mantin during a five-year study into disability and industrial society between 1780 and 1948.

From 20 June they will be exhibiting documents, photographs and artefacts at Swansea's Waterfront museum.

But Dr Blackie, whose research focused on the first half of the period up to 1880, said that did not necessarily mean it was a time of equal opportunities.

He said: "There's a perception that people with disabilities faced enormous social and economic exclusion during the 19th Century, but what we've found is that isn't strictly true.

"We have numerous examples of people who've experienced disabling injuries and illness playing a full part in the mines, and coming up with ingenious ways of helping themselves to adjust.

"But what you quickly realise is that these aren't all people who are choosing to work. Some are, but many had little option but to return to work because of the financial pressure being off work put them and their families under."

Image source, National Museum Wales
Image caption,
Artefacts are going on display at Swansea's Waterfront museum

Dr Blackie added that part of the reason the history of disability in the mines had not been told before was because it was "hiding in plain view".

During the 19th Century there were about 100 non-fatal accidents in Britain's mines for every fatal one, each resulting in an average loss of around 30 working days, and many leading to permanent disabilities.

"Far from being uncommon, the reason it's difficult to find written records of miners with disabilities is that it's so ubiquitous," he said.

"If you'd have pensioned off everyone who had a respiratory condition or who'd received a crush injury then there simply wouldn't have been enough workers. And because it's so common people seem to have been far less shocked, and were more used to providing support networks through friends and family."

Dr Mantin said the dawning of the 20th Century brought mixed fortunes for injured and sick men, which seem to have fluctuated with the state of the economy.

He said: "Legislation towards the end of the 19th Century made mine owners liable for accidents and entitled workers to compensation, and that seems to have made bosses less inclined to rehire men with disabilities because of the perceived risk they posed.

"But a bigger factor was the demand for coal. During the depression fewer men were required and those with disabilities were let go first, but either side of the two wars there's a sense that every man is a valuable economic commodity and is therefore worth rehabilitating."

Image source, The Wellcome Library
Image caption,
Specific bandaging techniques were used on 19th Century miners

The Miners' Welfare Commission of 1920 helped establish convalescence homes such as The Rest near Porthcawl, Bridgend county.

One in Talygarn even featured a model coalface to re-acclimatise injured men - something which Dr Mantin said was telling.

"By the end of our period there's no doubt that workers' welfare has improved immensely, but there's still a sense that what's important in rehabilitation are the needs of industry rather than the needs of the individual," he said.

"A Second World War information film called Live Again insinuates in its title that life for injured workers was not worth living without treatment and the value of work.

"Its final shot is a triumphant scene of a patient holding a safety lamp and going back into the mines as a 'useful and normal citizen', so in many ways the challenges of stigma and perception which faced disabled workers were the same then as they are now."

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