Panels and Abstracts: Day 2

Wednesday 23rd March 2022: 11.45 - 17.00 GMT

13.30 - 14.40 - Creating a Difference: Art and Activism

Dr Jenni Hunt, 'Different Truths'

Given the widespread nature of disability across historic communities, any history which leaves out disability is only able to show a small part of reality. However, due to choices made in historical recordkeeping, stories around disability often appear to be absent. Museums want to tell these stories and in doing so they are able to engage with current key social issues, and present a moral stance, rather than aiming to remain neutral.

Initially considering some of the challenges that museums face when displaying disability, this talk goes on to show how museums can successfully address these stories, working with disabled individuals to represent their stories, and the lives of disabled people who have come before, and placing a value on lived experience. This enables museums to be socially activist, engaging with current issues and drawing links to an often-overlooked aspect of history.

By doing this, museums are able to present views of disability that do not simply reinforce harmful negative stereotypes, but instead show the shared humanity of disabled people, and their role within our shared past.


Jenna Allsopp and Mattie Kennedy, ‘Documenting a DIY intervention into the invisibility of learning-disabled narratives in amateur film archives’

Based on current doctoral research, this paper documents the DIY intervention of Scottish amateur filmmaker, Mattie Kennedy, in the invisibility of learning-disabled narratives in British amateur film archives. Of the 14 regional and national film archives in the UK, catalogue searches bring up very limited results of films made by people with learning disabilities. The vast majority of films held by these archives in learning disability contexts are made as documentary films about disabled people, not by them or in partnership with them. This jars with the fact that Brighton-based learning disability film festival Oska Bright screened 99 films from 17 different countries at their 2019 festival.

Inspired by feminist herstory archiving practices, Kennedy began to archive material and ephemera related to their own practice in order that future generations of learning disability filmmakers will have access to their own history. With funds raised as part of this research project, in 2021 Kennedy made a short film documenting the archive in its current state, which will be screened as part of this paper. The film outlines Kennedy’s motivation for starting the archive, who they want to access it and their hopes for its future.


15.30 - 17.00 - Heritage Making: Curating Disability Focussed Collections

Linda Marsh and Katie Sawyer, '"Accessing Our Own History: Disabled People's Archive"'

Disabled people, until recently, have mostly been the objects of research, rather than being researchers ourselves. This has been the case in the archives, libraries and the museum sector as well as academia. The Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People Collection, which is part of the Disabled People’s Archive, was independently assessed in 2020 as the largest UK collection of the lives and activism of disabled people. In this paper we will briefly outline the process by which the Disabled People’s Archive developed, the need for disabled people having control of our own archives, and the importance of our history being accessible to us. We will outline the barriers to disabled people accessing our own history, and consider how archives and collections can make themselves more open to everyone.


Dr Aparna Nair, 'A Faithful Friend!: Representations of Guide Dogs in 20th Century Visual and Material Culture'

In the years immediately following the First World War, a range of representations of the blind veteran/soldier accompanied by a guide dog circulated in the Americas and in Western Europe. These photographs and illustrations constitute an interesting shift in the representations of disability away from the lens of pity/charity to a far more independent and mobile narrative of disabled experience, which was all facilitated by their guide dogs. This paper focuses on these kinds of visual representations of blind people with guide dogs, as well as books, films, comics, trade cards, postcards, and objects including ashtrays, tea towels and pins from across the twentieth century.

With these objects, I ask this question: how were material, visual and popular culture drafted into the effort to popularise guide dogs as living prosthetics for disabled handlers in the second half of the twentieth century?  I argue that these visual and material representations were deliberately utilised by a range of actors to challenge pre-existing ideas of the blind person in public spaces as “dependent” and as mendicant as well as to challenge constructions of the dog in public spaces as a public health threat, disease vector or nuisance, and instead to supplant these negative associations with more empathetic, symbiotic, “acceptable” relationships between blind handlers and guide dogs. I examine post-World War Two era books, films and comic books (like “The Blind Boy of Steel,” DC, 1959) which also focused on the affective relationships between disabled people and guide dogs, as well as the ways in which guide dogs were utilised as the engines that transformed “unproductive’ disabled people into hyper-productive “supercrips.” But, I also point out how this category of representations tended to privilege white disabled experiences, and counter it by examining how African-American newspapers and magazines like Jet and Ebony used photographs to narrate the stories of disabled/blind African Americans and their service dogs. I also examine how institutions that trained guide dogs sold tea towels, postcards, pins, and ashtrays both to raise the profile of these dogs and public associations of dogs as sentient disability technologies.


Nicola Lane and Philip Milnes-Smith, 'Idealism and stigma in the case of a ‘Training College for Crippled Boys’'

Through exploring the short history of the Stanmore Crippled Boys’ Training College we will explore the impact of the stigmatisation and shame of difference, and society’s need to present an idealised version of normalisation. 

This joint presentation draws on both Nicola Lane’s personal experience of attendance at Roehampton Limb Fitting Centre, and subsequently the Prosthetic Rehabilitation Unit (PRU) at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Stanmore (RNOH), and the archival research skills of Dr Philip Milnes-Smith.

Having experienced the painful erasure of amputee history when Roehampton’s historic workshops, fitting rooms and walking school, and the entire St Mary’s site totally disappeared after demolition, Nicola was keen to ensure history would not be repeated when the RNOH Stanmore buildings housing the prosthetics and orthotics departments were scheduled for demolition.   Built in 1936, this accessibly designed complex had originally been the Stanmore Crippled Boys’ Training College.

Nicola and Philip’s project aims to document and celebrate a site of disability heritage and identify surviving objects and archives, to counter the under-representation of disabled people themselves, but also the invisibility of the skilled technicians whose craft supports them, and the wilful choice to overlook built environment designed specifically for them.