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Disability History Month 2023

Posted by Francis Whitehead on November 16, 2023

Graphic with text in middle that reads "Disability History Month".

Disability History Month is an annual event that takes place from the 16th of November to the 16th of December this year. It creates a platform to focus on the history of disabled people’s struggle for equality and human rights.

This annual event is celebrated by lots of people in the disabled community, as well as keen historians. It wants to shed light on how those with disabilities were treated and perceived centuries ago, the progress we have made since then, and the progress we are still yet to make.

This Year’s Theme

The theme for this year’s Disability History Month is ‘Disability, Children and Youth’, which focuses on how children and young people with disabilities were treated then and now. UKDHM is asking young disabled people to share their experiences, whatever school, or college they attended.

Darren Cryer, who grew up in the 1980s, wrote an article on the treatment he received as someone with cerebral palsy. He iterates how in school he was called words now considered slurs in the disabled community, thanks to children misinterpreting and mocking a clip from Blue Peter that celebrated the life of Joey Deacon, who also had cerebral palsy.

However, upon joining Friends Reunited, he was surprised to see all the people who went to his school now personally messaging him to apologise for the way he was treated. Not only does this article show how the language people use has changed, but it also shows the attitudes towards those with disabilities has changed for the better as society has progressed and greater awareness has been made.

Joey Deacon himself was a victim of poor treatment all his life. Because of his cerebral palsy, he was deemed ‘mentally sub-normal’ and spent most of his life institutionalised although he was highly intelligent, with a lack of support or stimulation. When he was finally released, he wrote an autobiography, ‘Tongue Tied’, with the help of three friends, which told his story about the fifty years he spent institutionalised for simply appearing different.

It was such a success that a new strategy was devised to assess someone’s intelligence, so no one could be wrongly institutionalised in the future.

Despite being a figure of ridicule and mockery among children in playgrounds, he left behind an unforgettable legacy.

Disability in the Past

In early times, children born with disabilities were hidden and sometimes even killed. Feelings of shame and guilt were often associated with giving birth to a child with a disability. Sometimes the disability was blamed on the sins of family members and was seen as something that needed to be cured or eliminated.

Those with disabilities were often institutionalised or put into asylums, often segregated and never truly integrated into the rest of society.

In World War II, with the rise of Adolf Hitler’s horrific Nazi ideology, he brought the T4 killing program into action where thousands of disabled people were mercilessly killed in concentration camps. Between 250,000 to 1 million were murdered by the Nazis’ false hopes of building a ‘master race’.

Disabled prisoners were identified with an upside-down black triangle, sewn onto their shirts with the intention of quick identification so they could be eliminated. In an act of empowerment and reclaiming history, an inverted version of this symbol has now been used by UK Disability History Month, and recently “The Black Triangle List" was created to keep track of welfare-related deaths due to cuts by the Department for Work and Pensions.

UK Disability History Month, with the Black Triangle inverted.

The impact of the return of disabled veterans after World War II and the fights for the civil rights of women and racial and ethnic minorities contributed to changing perspectives on disability in the United States. Growing numbers of people with disabilities and their advocates saw that it was not disability but rather an inaccessible environment and the negative attitudes of others that were the greatest contributors to the restrictions they encountered.

Two wounded First World War veterans who both entered Parliament, the double amputee Jack Brunel-Cohen and the blinded Ian Fraser fought for disabled ex-servicemen's rights and the deaf MP Jack Ashley campaigned for the rights of disabled people.

It’s astounding to think that this was only almost 80 years ago, and even more so it’s incredible to think about the progress we have made as a society, but even more can be made.

Today’s Youth and Disability

In 2 research reports from Scope, young people felt that the public attitudes towards disabled people in the current day were mostly negative. Frequently, there was a lack of awareness or understanding of someone’s disability. This was particularly true for those with less visible impairments, or ‘hidden disabilities’.

The young people interviewed in these studies gave examples of the public suggesting they are ‘exaggerating’ or ‘faking’ their disability, and some even had to go to lengths to prove the fact they have a disability. These attitudes damaged confidence and any sense of independence they had.

Financial worries were also frequently mentioned in the study, especially due to the current cost of living crisis we are facing. They faced extra costs as a disabled person. These included:

  • equipment, such as wheelchairs
  • transport, such as taxis
  • medical, such as medication
  • home, such as laundry
  • clothing, such as needing to buy extra thermals
  • food, such as buying ready meals instead of cooking
  • holidays, such as buying travel insurance

The process of applying for Personal Independent Payment (PIP), or of moving from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to PIP, was also said to be challenging and frustrating, another difficulty disabled people face.

Difficulties Young People Face Later in Life

A large part of young people’s lives is education, and these negative attitudes can extend to this sector, with disabled young people not getting the correct support or adjustments made to their learning. Students have said staff have assumed they’re lazy and have lacked trust in them, and an inflexible culture has required all students to attend physical lectures, even when they are physically unable to.

These attitudes negatively affect disabled young people and prevent them from progressing with their studies. Low expectations from staff discourage disabled students, and this has led to some disabled young people leaving education.

Even more so after education, the jobs market for disabled young people is difficult to navigate.

Youth unemployment is at its highest since 2016 at 14.5%, making access to the jobs market for disabled young people even harder, and even when a job is found, nothing detracts from the fact that the Disability Pay Gap is currently £2.05 an hour – or £3,731 per year for someone working a 35-hour week.

Young people also worry how their disability, and the current cost of living crisis will affect how they live independently. Some people with disabilities said they thrived in an independent environment, such as in their own house, but with the pay gap, cost of living, and financial worries all affecting how someone lives, it’s not always the easiest thing to obtain.

This is why we need to show our support for those in the disabled community, especially young adults and those growing up in this current day.

Get Involved

You can get involved with Disability History Month by taking your own deep dive into the history, and recognising the leaps and bounds we have made in progress.

You can also spread awareness to the cause on social media, using the hashtags #DisabilityHistoryMonth and #UKDHM.

UK Disability History Month also encourages those to spread awareness in community groups, public sector organisations and trade unions.

From the progress we have made to become a more inclusive and supportive society, there is still progress yet to be made. That’s why this Disability History Month you can lobby for change and show your unrelenting support for the disabled community.

And remember, the struggle for equality isn’t just for this month, it’s for the whole year.

Get in Touch

How will you be celebrating Disability History Month? Ability Superstore would love to know! Don’t hesitate to get in touch with us today.