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Dr David Turner

What happened to disabled people during the Industrial Revolution? How does our understanding of key historical events and processes change if we view them from the perspective of the ‘marginalised’?

The Disability and Industrial Society project led by Swansea University has attempted to answer these questions by undertaking a major study of experiences of disability in Britain’s industrial communities between 1780 and 1948. Focussing principally on coal, a sector that was vital to Britain’s industrial expansion, but characterised by its large numbers of injuries, this work has uncovered the hidden histories of hundreds of men, women and children left disabled by their experiences of labour. Loss of life in the coal industry is well known, but the scale of disablement - resulting from factors ranging from roof falls to chronic illness - is not. Our research has shown that the number of men, women and children left permanently impaired by working in, or servicing, the coal industry was much larger than those killed, with perhaps 100 non-fatal injuries for every fatality. Although safety legislation and inspections reduced mortality in mining, rates of injury and disablement remained high into the twentieth century.

Our work has challenged conventional stereotypes of disabled people as ‘dependent’ and uncovered their multiple roles in coalfield communities, exploring the ways in which they responded to injury or changed bodily capability. In fact, disablement was not necessarily the end of people’s working lives and some disabled miners even returned to work underground. While changing technologies and practices of work could affect impaired miners’ employment prospects, so too could measures introduced to ‘help’ them, such as workmen’s compensation introduced in 1897. Employers, aware that they were liable for accidents in the workplace, became more reluctant to take on disabled workers but were challenged by trade unions to meet their responsibilities. Sick and disabled workers faced many hardships in the era before the modern welfare state. Nevertheless, they were not helpless in the face of disability. Miners established voluntary societies that offered sick pay and medical care in return for small regular contributions. Individually, and via trade unions, disabled miners fought for better medical care and financial support, called employers to account, and challenged medical negligence.

Accidents and diseases led to early forms of disability activism across industrialising Britain. While coalminers fought for better support, other workers used the disabling effects of labour to protest against exploitation. In August 1832, thousands of factory operatives carrying banners depicting deformed workers marched through Manchester calling for shorter hours in textile mills. The Industrial Revolution was when disabled people began to find their political voice both individually and collectively. Disabled people were everywhere, but their stories are absent from conventional histories of industrialisation.