Out of Sight: Disabled children in 1900 to 1950

Excerpt from the book by Steve Humphries and Pamela Gordon.

Out of Sight Children and Experience of Disability 1900-1950
By Steve Humphries and Pamela Gordon; published by Northcote House 1992 for Channel 4 series). The following extracts are taken from this interesting oral history book.


In the early half of the century, most disabled people were children. There were around 50,000 children with physical disabilities, the vast majority of whom were from workingclass homes. Many came from the poorest families in the slums, for much physical impairment was a consequence of severe deprivation and hardship. This close association between poverty and disability in the minds of charities and government officials helped fuel extremely hostile attitudes towards them. Many of the prejudices made about the undeserving poor by middle class reformers were heaped upon them. They were part of the ‘great unwashed,’ who were ignorant, immoral and feebleminded. In short they needed to be saved from themselves and from their families. One of the main aims was to instil in them a discipline which would prevent them from begging, living on poorlaw handouts and becoming a public nuisance.

Stereotypes which closely linked moral and physical ‘degeneracy’ were strongly reinforced in the early part of the century by the new and fashionable science of Eugenics. Eugenicists often represented disabled people as helpless, ignorant or insane. They claimed that mental and physical disability was a heredity problem passed on through so called ‘defective’ families. This ‘bad stock’ was thought to be undermining the strength and efficiency of the British race because people with disability were reproducing at a much faster rate than the ablebodied. This reproduction of the ‘unfit’ was thought to be one of the main causes of the poverty, unemployment, criminality, alcoholism and idleness which preoccupied many Edwardian social reformers.

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