Can be viewed on line at www.davidhevey.com/viewing
A look at the experiences of those disabled while fighting for their country in the two world wars, and the harsh, often brutal realities that confronted the vast majority of disabled people in the early years of the century. It covers World War I heroes reduced to begging in the streets; Horace Blackburn’s struggle to get work; Bill Surrey, in institutions for 77 years; Gladys Brooks, strapped to a steel frame for two and a half years; Snowy Harding, whose family could not afford a wheelchair; fighter ace Douglas Bader, who lost both legs; and the Guinea Pig Club.
A look at whether the creation of the welfare state made life better for Britain’s disabled community, and at the rights that disabled groups, including the blind and those affected by thalidomide, began to demand.
Snowy Harding’s life is a weird illustration of Bishop Berkeley’s dictum: “I am because I am perceived”. Or, in his case: “I am what I am perceived to be.” As a child in the 1930s, Snowy would race down 53 steps in the council flats where he lived in West Ham, east London, and rush off the mile and a half to the pictures with the other kids. Then, perceived by his pals as normal, he would play cowboys and indians on the street with them.
The kids just accepted that Snowy did everything crawling. He has suffered all his life from muscular dystrophy, and his mother could not afford a wheelchair. “I didn’t know I was disabled,” Snowy says, “until during the war, when I was 14 and the other kids were evacuated to families in the country. I was sent to an institution.”
How disabled and disfigured people have been perceived over this century is the subject of a new three-part BBC2 series, The Disabled Century, starting tomorrow.
The century opened with disabled people hidden away or tolerated in small communities. It was assumed that they had nothing of any significance to contribute to society.
The first world war changed that somewhat; a place was found for many performing menial tasks in the munitions factories, doing their bit to add a few more disabled to the world.
When the soldiers returned from the second world war, society realised it owed a debt to those disabled in that conflict. At least in the early stages, disfigured soldiers were taken care of, living together in communities of their own. Morale was fairly good since they were “able to face the stares together”.
The 1960s brought a new scourge: thalidomide. Mat Fraser tells how compensation cases were assessed. His mother brought him into a room where there were some strange gentlemen. One of them said: “There are sweets in the top drawer of that filing cabinet.” With only stumps for arms, Mat managed to find the sweeties in the drawer. “£15,000 compensation,” the man said.
Mat Fraser was one of the rare victims of thalidomide who was able to go on to public school. On his first day as a prefect there was a ritual where all the fags were lined up and he had to slap one. He kicked him in the face instead; Mat was more accustomed to using his bare feet than his shrivelled arms. Later, his father gave him boxing gloves and he became a handy kick boxer.
Old attitudes towards disfigurement still clung obstinately to those entrusted with the care of young thalidomide victims. They did not like the idea of those shrublike arms and insisted on prosthetic aids when the children were eating. When it became clear that they were infinitely more skilful handling their food without artificial limbs, a compromise was reached in some homes: there was a rule that decency must be observed on Saturdays and special occasions, so the children were harnessed up at weekends.
For all the liberating ethos of the 1960s, the old patronising attitudes to disabled people persisted; they were still treated as children, expected to be pleased with simple things. Their own courage in living with their disability was often put down to a matter of Christian faith. They were rarely offered opportunities to control their own lives.
It was in the turbulent 1970s – the winter of discontent, Edward Heath and his three-day week – that individual protest began to be heard; but there was still no effective organisation to speak for people with disabilities.
After a youth of dependent living spent in institutions, with few possessions and no experience of organising their own lives, thalidomide children were dumped on the community at the age of 18. Care in the Community was the slogan later, but where were the resources to fund it? It had one useful effect: for good or evil, disabled people lost their isolation and became a very visible element in society.
In the 1980s, there was a hurried attempt to hide them away again. In contrast to the second world war – when, at least for a time, the war wounded were honoured – the triumphalism of the Falklands war did not chime with blasted faces and severed limbs. So when it came to the Falklands victory pagentry, the disabled servicemen tended to be hidden behind the arras.
In the late 1980s, there were serious moves to achieve civil rights for the disabled. It looked as if they might be getting somewhere with the proposals for a disability discrimination act. But when the act was passed in 1995, disabled people once again felt cheated: there were no adequate provisions for imposing sanctions on offenders. “They could just laugh at our legal threats,” disabled groups complained.
The 1990s brought the issue of direct action for access to the forefront, and Londoners at least began to experience a new kind of traffic problem when disabled members of the Direct Action Network began to chain themselves to buses.
When director David Hevey began research for The Disabled Century it was hard to find archive material. “In the old days people did not film disabilities specifically,” he says. “It was not seen as worthy of being filmed, except in a circus. Before the second world war it was not really seen as a photograph issue.”
When he did get archive footage, instead of resorting to the conventional device of cutting back and forth from past to present, he hit on an ingenious device to underline the fact that for these people their tormented past was actively part of their present: he projected images of their past on to their breasts, their faces, pulsating on their skin. “That way,” Hevey says, “their past is a physical sign, almost a stigma on their body. We explained why we were doing it, and they were happy with it. It showed that their history is still active in them, a living issue.”
But they were not all stories of frustration and deprivation. For Les Price, a blind piano tuner, the future seemed forbidding when, in his forties, television sets began to replace the upright piano in the parlour. But he got a job in the National Library for the Blind, and one of his duties was to arrange for the transcription of books into braille. When in 1962 he was made head librarian, he saw a chance to achieve a great ambition: to have James Joyce’s Ulysses transcribed into braille.
“It was my proudest moment,” Les says. “Except, of course, Manchester United winning everything”.
However, initially there was a problem. The National Library for the Blind was founded in 1882 by a group of elderly women whose motive was to give enlighten- ment – mostly of the religious variety – to the blind. “Many of the transcribers were prim ladies, mostly retired school teachers,” Les says. “By 1962, it had moved somewhat, but there was a rearguard action that we shouldn’t give anything to the blind that was ‘dirty’. It was not the staff who objected, but the whole [transcribing] procedure was based on volunteers. I should say that they were very dedicated people, but Lady Chatterley they would not have touched.”
Molly Bloom’s soliloquy was out of the question. In the end, Les Price found an ideal solution: “The transcription was done by a Jewish lady, a member of the staff at the library.”
Despite their determination and ingenuity, the disabled people are still a long way from winning a just place in society.Two out of three disabled people live in poverty or close to it; fewer than one in 10 secondary schools have wheelchair access; six out of 10 disabled people capable of working are not in work.
BBC/The Disabled Century, Broadcast 3 x 40’ film series. BBC2/BBC4/BFI 3×40’. Director/producer David Hevey
Mind Mental Health Media Awards nominee.
“Brilliant…a really good example of the bigger and better philosophy.” BBC2 Channel Controller.
“Visually striking” Paul Hoggart, The Times.
“Beauty and eloquence perpetually forced the viewer to look and hear in fresh ways”. Robert Hanks, The Independent.
“Exemplary..Magnificent..I hope to see it leading the Bafta nominations”, Gerard O’Donovan, The Telegraph.
“First rate”, Jack Dee, The Guardian’s My Media column.
“On any level, the best programme on television this week”. The Independent.
“Extraordinary” Daily Mail.
“Social history at its finest” Polly Toynbee, The Guardian.