Disabled people are less integrated into society now than in the past, says historian

University of Leicester historian Professor Steven King to speak on Radio 4 programme exploring the lives of disabled people through history

Disabled people were much more integrated into society in the past than they are today, a Leicester historian will explain on BBC Radio 4.

Professor Steven King, Director of the University’s Centre for Medical Humanities, will appear on broadcaster Peter White’s A History of Disability series, due to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in late May and June.

He will also appear on Radio 4’s daily consumer programme You and Yours on May 31.

He will talk about his research into sickness and poverty since the 1750s – and will put forward the view that the more we have legislated for disabled rights, the more marginalised disabled people have become.

Professor King’s research draws from the archives of the local and national poor law – the precursor to the Welfare state – particularly letters written by the disabled poor.

The research feeds into a paper he is currently working, titled “Waste people? The disabled and their communities 1750-2000s.

Professor Steven King said: “In the past, the disabled were more keenly ingrained in society than is the case today because there were just so many of them and their lives were played out in the public domain. They were literally everywhere and even once the institutionalisation of groups like the blind and deaf began in earnest from the 1870s, the disabled were still everywhere.

“Despite the views of some historians and plenty of lay commentators, the disabled were often regarded with affection by communities. They had rights, communities had duties and the disabled were not pushed to the edges of their communities, no matter how trendy it is to think that we have moved on.

“The disabled have on the one hand been subject to the same sort of retreat from the public sphere as the rest of the population during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They have gone indoors and the rise of disability benefit has actually extracted the disabled from the workplace. On the other hand, the relentless expansion of the definition of disability and with it benefits for disability has undermined communal support for the definitively disabled.

“As we have legislated more and more for disabled rights and duties, so we have pushed the disabled towards the edges of their communities. This is not an argument for retracting lots of legislation and cutting disability benefit, but a call for honest debate not laden with feeble political debate, the overweening influence of the chattering classes and pressure groups.

“It is absolutely striking, for instance, that expressed as a percentage of the going wage, the benefits package to the physically and sensory disabled in the nineteenth century was much larger than it is now – and this for a society which was in effect taxing itself to pay for the benefits, rather than having central government thrust its hand into our pockets.”

Peter’s White’s A History of Disability series will be broadcast from May 27-31 and June 3 to 7 at 1.45pm, BBC Radio 4.

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