The History of Disabled People
The history of people with disabilities since 1050.
This section looks at how attitudes to disability changed after the Second World War. The National Health Service extended treatment and disabled groups campaigned for equal rights, inclusion in society and access.
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As the Second World War ended in 1945, many horrors emerged. They included the mass killing of disabled people in Germany.
In reaction to Nazi abuses the pre-war 'eugenicist' theories which had argued for the isolation and sterilisation of people with disabilities became increasingly reviled.
In England, public concern shifted to the 300,000 ex-servicemen and women and civilians who had been left disabled by the war.
The 1944 Disability Employment Act promised sheltered employment, reserved occupations and employment quotas for disabled people.
Initiatives to restore the fitness, mobility, daily living skills and morale of disabled servicemen and women spread to the rest of the disabled population. The new National Health Service extended rehabilitation services to workers disabled by industrial accidents.
Disabled people did not remain passive, and many campaigning disability charities formed in the 1940s and 50s. A new social movement was started by a 'silent reproach' march of disabled ex-servicemen in 1951.
In the 1960s and 70s, the civil rights movement in America inspired disabled groups to take direct action against discrimination, poor access and inequality. A 'social' rather than a 'medical' model of disability emerged and eventually, in 1995, the Disability Discrimination Act was passed.
The new social model was concerned with people's rights as members of society. The question of access was critical. Disabled people needed adaptations made to their environments if they were to be properly included. Separate facilities were built at first, but soon architects and planners took on the idea of 'universal design'. They created buildings and landscapes which every person could use every part of..
Great changes took place in sport. The inspirational refugee neurosurgeon, Ludwig Guttman (1899-1980), was in charge of Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. Here, patients paralysed in the war began to compete against each other as part of a pioneering rehabilitation method.
In 1948 a wheelchair archery competition was held on the lawns of the hospital. In this humble way, the Paralympic Games was born. The Games are now the second biggest sporting event on earth, and many elite disabled athletes have become sporting icons in their own right.
The era of the asylum finally came to an end after a series of scandals revealed neglect and abuse. In 1981 the Jay Report promoted a 'care in the community' programme for people with learning disabilities and mental health needs. Tens of thousands of people left the long-term hospitals and returned to mainstream communities.
The Victorian ideal of a safe institutional 'asylum' has been replaced by new visions of equality, inclusion and universal access. Their long-term impact will be seen in time.
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