Disability History Month: Unpacking medieval myths

Oil painting on struggle for inclusive education

Delving into disabled people's social history can help us understand modern attitudes to disability, argues Richard Rieser, coordinator of the UK's annual Disability History Month.

Richard Rieser, former teacher and equality champion, says the aim of Disability History Month is "to celebrate the achievements of disabled people, to look at the disablism and oppression that we've been subjected to over time in all sorts of cultures and to argue for the full equality that we are entitled to under human rights legislation".

With the Fourth DHM in full swing, physically disabled Rieser shares his controversial views on disability studies degrees, disabled people in the current political climate and why DHM is important in 2013.

What does the DHM logo mean?

Our symbol is the black triangle that people, including many disabled men and women, had to wear under the Nazis to designate that they were unsociable. We've turned it around to reclaim it and surrounded it with a yellow circle and our slogans.

Disability History Month logo

It's reclaiming the worst part of our history, when more than a million disabled people were murdered in Europe between 1937 and 1946.

When did you become interested in the history of disabled people?

I first got involved in 1990, when I wrote a book about it for the Inner London Education Authority. Parents were demanding something about the history of disabled people in the area, because lots of equality work had already been done on race, gender and class.

Then in 1994, I ran a conference with Save the Children on why writers, cartoonists and anyone who portrayed children either left disabled kids out completely, or their characters with disabilities were negative. We explored where those stereotypes came from.

It seemed a shame that this and other work had been done but was not being applied anywhere. Disability History Month is a good platform for it.

Don't disability studies courses teach people about the history of disabled people?

Richard Rieser Rieser - focusing on the practical

One of my concerns with disability studies degrees, is that most of what people are learning about can't be turned into concrete knowledge to improve the general public's understanding of disability. It seems to be very much about phenomenology and post-modernism, which pass most people on the street by.

I don't mind if that's the theoretical framework people use but they should be coming out (of the course) able to say, "the accessibility of transport networks has improved for disabled people by this much", or that it hasn't.

Nobody seems to be interested in that sort of practical research. In a way, Disability History Month is a conduit for people who want to publicise the practical effects of their research into the lives of disabled people.

How does DHM publicise such research?

This year we did a series of eight interviews with medieval historian Irina Metzler, where she unpacks some of the myths about the way disabled people were treated during that period. The stereotype was that disabled people were saints, or sinners whose only redemption was to go on pilgrimage to holy shrine. There's written evidence of 550 miracles in that period but there's also evidence that the vast majority of pilgrims returned in the state that they went.

More disability history features

Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh

What was the real situation for disabled people in medieval times?

Metzler says that disabled people were just part of the community. There was a very strong Christian charitable notion towards us. The local community supported people who couldn't fend for themselves and as a fall back, there were monasteries, convents and churches which provided support. This system broke down with the Reformation. When the care of disabled people passed to the state, from the first poor laws in 1388 onwards. You see this distinction between the worthy poor and the unworthy poor. As we were the worthy poor, it was always thought that many of us were faking it. It's a theme that you can see in The Sun and other newspapers today.

Why does DHM take place between 22 November and 22 December?

It was about finding a space in the calendar. We thought we'd have an irregular month, from the third week of November up to Christmas. The period covers International Aids Day on 1 December, the International Day of Disabled People on 3 December and International Human Rights Day on the tenth.

How did DHM get started?

Back in 2010, the organiser of LGBT History Month and the advisor on race equality suggested to me that we also needed a Disability History month. I put out feelers and within a very short time, 24 organisations including the TUC, disability coalitions and Scope, said they'd support us.

We held our first event at the Institute of Education, where we launched an oil painting on the history of the struggle for inclusive education. The concept was just then coming under attack, with the government challenging the bias towards inclusion. We can now say, four years on, that there has been a real attempt to force (disabled) people out of mainstream schools and colleges.

Why 2010?

Disability History month themes

  • 2010, education
  • 2011, disability struggles of the past
  • 2012, hate crime
  • 2013, celebrating our struggle for independent living: no return to institutional isolation

Because of the change of government. Not that New Labour were particularly good but at least we had the commitment from the cabinet office, the Prime Minister's report on the position of disabled people and the setting up of Equality 2025, which provided a target date to reach full equality for disabled people. As soon as there'd been a change of government, all of that was pushed out of the way.

We needed to gather people together to help them understand the huge struggles that we as disabled people had gone through to get any modicum of equality, including 17 attempts to get the disability discrimination act into law. We needed something for people to realise that the job hadn't been done yet and that we still needed to go on struggling. And we wanted to analyse where the negative attitudes (towards disabled people), still very prominent in society, came from.

Why did you choose independent living this year?

We felt that with all the cutbacks taking place, both in local authority and central government funding, the struggle for independent living needed to be better understood by a wider number of people. They need to know what's at stake for disabled people if their support gets taken away.

Awareness-raising calendar

  • January, Holocaust day and events around that
  • February is LGBT history month
  • March is International Women's Month
  • June is Travellers Month
  • October, Black History Month
  • Two weeks of anti-bullying awareness-raising at the beginning of November

What will 2014's theme be?

We think that next year we're going to look at portrayal over periods of time, including pictures, architecture, sculpture and moving image media.

How has DHM progressed since 2010?

All sorts of people around the country are putting on Disability History Month events. There are 60 listed on our website for 2013, in 2012 there were 80.

The amount of interest depends on which unions and big organisations get involved. Last year, the National Union of Students became very involved. This year, the National Union of Teachers sponsored some work we did to help raise issues of disability in the classroom, which is now on their website.

How can people celebrate Disability History Month?

We are just a group of people making this happen. We get no funding and we don't have the energy or resources to organise lots of events all over the country.

If you decide to put on an event, we'll list it on the website and we can provide you with posters, broadsheets, postcards, badges and speakers.

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