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Finding a Voice

Episode 5 of 10

Peter White with a first-hand account of what it was like to live with disability in the 18th century, written by William Hay, an MP born with curvature of the spine. From May 2013.

Peter White draws on the latest research to reveal the lives of physically disabled people in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today - Finding a Voice: Peter discovers William Hay, an 18th-century MP born with spinal curvature who has left us a remarkably revealing account of his life.

Peter comments, 'This series has been full of surprises for me - surprises even after making programmes about disability for 30 years. But perhaps this discovery has been for me the most startling. It's a book which very few people know about, and even fewer have read - a personal exploration of what it's like to be disabled in the 18th century. It's full of insights we like to think of as modern.'

In his book 'On Deformity', William Hay describes his life as a disabled MP, in Parliament and on the streets. He reveals the daily humiliation of being a man of restricted growth and his fear of rowdy crowds. But he also proudly challenges the conventional thinking of the time that his disability makes him ill. He gives advice to other men in his situation about which careers they should follow. And he excels at self-deprecating humour - sometimes, he confesses, he feels like 'a Worm'.

Hay's essay is seen by historians as ground-breaking - because in William Hay, disability had for the first time found a voice. But Hay is a challenging role model for modern disability activists.

With historians David Turner, Naomi Baker, Tim Hitchcock and Chris Mounsey and readings by Jonathan Keeble.

Producer: Elizabeth Burke
Academic adviser: David Turner of Swansea University
A Loftus production for BBC Radio 4.

Available now

15 minutes