History of disability

Dr Steven Thompson, Department of History and Welsh History, Aberystwyth University.

Dr Steven Thompson, Department of History and Welsh History, Aberystwyth University.

13 October 2011

The Wellcome Trust has granted a research team almost £1m for a project which will bring together academics from Aberystwyth, Swansea, Strathclyde, and Northumbria Universities to explore the history of disability and industrialisation. 

The study entitled ‘Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields’ will focus on how industrialization shaped perceptions and experiences of disability between 1780 and 1948 and will create a research programme of international significance.

Dr Steven Thompson of Aberystwyth University will be part of the research team led by Professor Anne Borsay supported by Dr David Turner, both of Swansea University, in the £972,501 project, which will run from October 2011 to September 2016.

Four themes will be addressed by the team: the effects of economic and technological developments; the role of medical and welfare services; the consequences of politics, trade unionism and social relations; and the implications of these historical factors for the literary genre of coalfield narrative.

The project will produce a number of books and articles, as well as a web page of statistical data.  The public engagement programme in Wales will ensure that the research findings are accessible to all, and will include public lectures, a roadshow, an exhibition, and a workshop for health and social care professionals.

Dr Thompson said, “This is an exciting and ambitious project that we hope will make an important contribution to understandings of disability in contemporary society.  We aim to focus our attention on one of the most iconic and indeed harmful industries of the industrial revolution and show how disability was understood and experienced in this particular area of British life.  A team of researchers will undertake detailed historical study over the next few years to reveal the human cost of coal and the price paid in sickness, injury and disability.”

Professor Borsay said: “I am delighted to have this opportunity to progress the neglected field of disability history. The team is excited by the challenges of interdisciplinary, comparative research across three coalfields and looks forward to presenting the findings to a wide audience. We are grateful to the Wellcome Trust for their generous support.”

A disabled people’s panel will be convened eight times during the tenure of the award to ensure that the research and public engagement is informed by disabled people’s perspectives.

Dr Turner said: “For disabled people today, the project’s findings will challenge understandings of disability by demonstrating that attitudes and policies are socially constructed, and therefore open to change.  The project will also contribute to current debates about welfare relief and ability to work by revealing the changing role of social, political and medical factors in determining eligibility for assistance.”

There will also be a research associate role created at Aberystwyth University and in each of the collaborating universities.