British Library gives voice to Disability History Month 2011

Posted on 22/11/2011 by


As part of UK Disability History Month, the British Library is making available a new online package of oral history interviews – Disability Voices– which charts the experiences of disabled people.

The Disability Voices online interviews have been collated from a number of project partnerships and collections gathered over the past decade, and more will be added as the collections grow. The British Library has an active policy to make sure that the views and memories of people of every background, culture and occupation are represented in its collections. The British Library holds a number of oral history collections which document the personal experiences of disbabled people, both old and young.

UK Disability History Month aims to raise the profile of disabled people’s rights and to advocate disability equality through celebrating the historical and contemporary struggles and achievements of disabled people globally. The Disability Voices web resource gives a fascinating insight into the lives of some disabled people in the twentieth century and through oral testimonies, the challenges and discrimination, but also triumphs, which disabled people have experienced.

Disability Voices brings together a series of extraordinary rich and diverse interviews from a number of sources including:

  •  Speaking for Ourselvesan Oral History of People with Cerebral Palsy was a two-year partnership led by Scope, one of Britain’s leading disability charities, and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2004 and 2005. The project trained sixteen disabled volunteer interviewers to record the life stories of people living with cerebral palsy. 36 life story interviews with those involved in the establishment of Scope and over 230 hours of recorded testimonies by people with cerebral palsy, aged 50 and over, were collected. Ann Pridmore from Leicestershire was one of the volunteer interviewers on Speaking for Ourselves: “It’s an exciting and valuable project. Why? Because disabled people are not included in social history. As a disabled woman with cerebral palsy this opportunity to record our history is long overdue.” Speaking for Ourselves Project Co-ordinator Phil Mann adds: “It is vital to be able to explain ‘what it’s like’ and I hope others will gain inspiration and awareness from hearing about the lifelong experience of living with Cerebral Palsy.”
  • Unheard Voices: Interviews With Deafened People – this collection of interviews captures the experiences of people who have become profoundly deafened and family members of people who have become profoundly deafened. The project was co-ordinated by Hearing Link, the UK hearing loss charity that provides information and support. It involved nearly 70 interviews being conducted over a two-year period (2008 and 2009) by 16 volunteers who have direct experience of hearing loss (either personally or through a partner). It was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The interviews are personal and revealing and illustrate how people manage when either suddenly or over a period of time they or their loved one loses most or all of their hearing. The interviews were audio recorded and supported by a Speech to Text Reporter, who provided a live text version of the conversation on a monitor. Colin Lennox from Dumfries was one of the volunteer interviewers: “Hearing loss affects millions of people but the impact it can have on someone’s life is still not well recognised. It is therefore highly gratifying that the British Library is to hold transcripts of these interviews – they are very powerful and revealing. I am delighted to have been part of such an important project. They say everyone has five minutes of fame – perhaps being part of this oral history was mine!”
  •  Paralympians Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson and Danny Crates were interviewed for the project An Oral History of British Athletics, a rolling programme of life story interviews with British athletes.
  • Geoff Webb’s extraordinary self-recorded autobiography provides a moving account of living with polio. As a result of the illness Geoff Webb, was paralysed and placed on a positive pressure respirator. This recording was made shortly before his death from cancer and the manner in which he speaks is dictated by his respirator.

Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History, British Library said: “In the last decade the oral history department at the British Library has made it a core aim to develop its collection of histories of disability. In addition to the very successful partnerships with Hearing Link and Scope, we have gathered significant collections relating to mental health services users (with Mental Health Media), which sit alongside a number of deposited collections from broadcasters and recordings relating to disability policy. We have also been careful to enshrine testimonies of disability within all our projects, such as the largest UK oral history project; the Millennium Memory Bank. This drive meshes with the wider efforts made by British Library to achieve genuine equality for disabled people both within its workforce and for those who access its services, which was recognised in 2009 by the receipt of a platinum award from the Employers’ Forum on Disability.”

Disability Voices contains unique and moving memories from disabled people recalling childhood, family life, education and work experiences. There are insights into their treatment by medical professionals, the daily challenges of the workplace and of the attitudes of wider society, and their involvement in disability organisations and communities. As well as providing useful learning material to professionals, Disability Voices expects to challenge and inspire a wide range of users: to help people relate their own experience to others in similar circumstances, but also engage with those who have little knowledge of the lives of disabled people in our society.

You can visit the archive here, and you can also read Oral History Archive Assistant Elspeth Millar’s blog post on the collection here.