Man in a wheelchair being pushed up a ramp into the back of a van
A man in a wheelchair is pushed up a ramp into the back of a van run in front of the railings of Buckingham Palace © Historic England AA076601
A man in a wheelchair is pushed up a ramp into the back of a van run in front of the railings of Buckingham Palace © Historic England AA076601

About the Disability in Time and Place Project

For as long as English society has existed, people with disabilities have been a part of it. They have shaped and influenced its landscapes and buildings, just as its landscapes and buildings have influenced and shaped them. Disability in Time and Place is an attempt to tell part of this particular story of England.

In this section

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Watch highlights of the Disability in Time and Place launch at the Graeae Theatre, December 2012.

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From 'leper houses' to disability rights

Our journey begins with the hundreds of 'leper houses' which peppered the medieval landscape, a sophisticated institutional response to the devastating disabling consequences of the disease. It ends with the closure of the last asylums and the campaigns of the disability rights movements of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Throughout, we show how some of the buildings and landscapes recorded in English Heritage's collections, lists and archives have been influential and important in the history of disability.

Disability in Time and Place is divided into six chronological sections. In each section there is a general historical account of disability during the period, accompanied by four features which show how and where people with disabilities lived, whether in special buildings or in their communities.

We also try to understand what it meant to be a disabled person at different times, the many ways in which people understood and reacted to disability and how disabled people saw themselves. We examine how these changes influenced and were influenced by building construction and design. A legislative and historical timeline places these events in their wider historical context.

Language and terminology

Any historical account of disability must grapple with the problem of language and terminology. Words used to describe different types of disability at different times can sound highly offensive to modern ears. They reflect the attitudes of their time, but they also reflect the changes which take place in the meanings of words.

Words such as 'lunatic', 'idiot', 'defective', 'moron', 'cripple', 'leper', 'imbecile' and 'cretin' were all once widely used public terms for different types of disability. Over time their meaning has changed in popular speech to abusive and degrading usage.

To retain historical accuracy these words have been used in the context of their time, but always in inverted commas to indicate that their use is no longer acceptable. There is a glossary that explains changes in use of words over time.

Contributors to the project

We have worked with a steering group of disabled people, disability historians and many external advisors for this project. Disability in Time and Place is not a definitive or comprehensive history of disability, nor does it suggest that this history is only about buildings. It does offer an introduction to this important part of the story of England and tells a little known social history of some well-known buildings.

The history of disability is intimately connected with local history. We hope that people will be inspired to visit the buildings described and, most of all, that some will undertake their own research in this important historical field.

Access to buildings featured in these pages

Please note, many buildings featured in Disability in Time and Place do not offer public access and can only be viewed from the street. For access information, please see the document below.

We welcome your feedback on this project. Please email any comments to [email protected]


Disability in Time and Place was written by Simon Jarrett for English Heritage*. He is a member of the Social History of Learning Disability Research Group based at the Open University and a postgraduate student in the history of ideas at Birkbeck College. His special interest is the social history of disability in the pre-asylum era, particularly the 18th century. Follow Simon on Twitter @SimonJarrett6

*On 1 April 2015 the part of English Heritage represented on this website changed its name to Historic England.