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Doing and Being

Episode 6 of 10

In his exploration of work, Peter White finds disabled people were everywhere in the 19th-century workplace. From June 2013.

Work and disability has always been an awkward fit.

Peter White says, 'When as a teenager I said I wanted to be a broadcaster, there was a sharp intake of breath. Shouldn't I be considering becoming a piano tuner, or a physiotherapist? That's what blind people did. I wanted to know what it was like in the past, when people had to work - or starve.'

What he discovers is surprising - disabled people were everywhere in the 19th century work-force. In some parts of the country, more than 60% of nurses had a disability. For other disabled men and women, earning a living meant creating a particular niche for themselves. Peter uncovers the career of the blind poet Priscilla Pointon, who made a living writing poetry about her life - signing up hundreds of people on a subscription list to become a wealthy woman. She was just one in a long tradition of blind poets.

Peter also discovers a treasure trove of letters from disabled people seeking work in the Victorian period, which have been collected by Professor Stephen King of Leicester University. They describe the indignity of being assessed by the authorities of the day, and their anger at being accused of faking disability. There are some striking parallels with today, when the debate about work and disability is in full swing.

With historians Steven King, Chris Mounsey and Julie Anderson, and readings by Gerard McDermott and Emily Bevan.

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

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