English Heritage is to launch an online resource later this year which will map changing attitudes to disability over the past 1,000 years through historic buildings.
The web resource, Disability in Time and Place, will include new research, explorations and interpretations of building information available on the National Heritage List for England, alongside photography from the English Heritage Archive, and testimony from disabled people.
Additionally, for the first time the content will be transcribed into British Sign Language, and available in video format on the website and on YouTube.
The resource will be launched on December 5.
Research has identified buildings with special significance to disability history – from churches built with ‘Lepers’ squints’ to meeting places for the first disabled self-help groups. The history of hundreds of buildings like these, which help tell the story of disabled people’s lives both in the community and in separate institutions, will feature on the site.
Stories explored in Disability in Time and Place will include:
People with learning disabilities at Hampton Royal Palace
Known as ‘fools’ and paid to amuse their royal employers, people with learning disabilities were valued members of the Tudor Court. A painting of Henry VIII with his immediate family from around 1545 includes two of his favourite ‘fools’, who enjoyed many privileges. They were seen as being close to God and appreciated for their reputation of speaking the truth.
Early self-help groups
The Guild of the Brave Poor Things was formed in the 19th century for young disabled people. Later known as the Guild of the Handicapped, its coat of arms was a crutch crossed with a sword with the Latin motto Laetus Sorte Mea, which translates as ‘happy in my lot’. In 1913, its Bristol members opened The Heritage, which was one of the first purpose-built buildings for disabled people in Britain.
The first schools for the blind
In 1791, Edward Rushton, himself blind through disease, opened the Liverpool School for Indigent Blind. It was the first school in Britain that equipped people with the skills they needed to support themselves.
Churches designed for deaf congregations
Built for the Royal Association in Aid of the Deaf and Dumb by Edward Maufe in the 1920s, St Bede’s Church in Clapham and St Saviour’s in Acton were designed specifically for the deaf. They have dual pulpits (one for the chaplain, one for the interpreter), bright lighting and raked seating so everyone could see. St Saviour’s is still used as a deaf church.
Bedlam, or Bethlem Royal Asylum
It can create many images of gothic horror in the imagination, but Bedlam was actually an institution that grew from a small and rough place housing only 40 inmates, to a place of pioneering treatments based in what we now know as the Imperial War Museum.
Disability in Time and Place project has been developed in partnership with the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), and a steering group of champions for disability rights and disability historians.
Deborah Lamb, director of national advice and information at English Heritage, said: “Buildings have a major part to play in telling the social history of England and Disability in Time and Place will cast light on a fascinating but perhaps under-researched part of our national history. From the small centres of religious care founded in the medieval period to the growth of the asylums in the 19th century, through this research we have explored how changing attitudes to disability can be seen very clearly in an array of building types.”