Disability history: Modern advances and historical devices

Black Country Living Museum (BCLM) shares examples of items linked to disability history and details the Curating for Change scheme, in a blog post written by Claudia Davies, Curating for Change Fellow at the Museum.

Disability History Month, which runs this year from Wednesday 16th November to Friday 16th December, focuses on the history of the disability rights movement and commemorates the achievements of disabled people.

Attitudes towards people with a disability have improved in recent years. Historically, those with disabilities were deemed less important to society than those without a disability.

The medical model of disability sees a disability as a medical problem that should be prevented, cured, or seen as a charitable cause. In contrast, the emergence of the social model of disability, developed between the 1960s and 1980s, argues that it is the barriers in society that exclude and discriminate against them.

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in 1995 was the first UK legislation that protected disabled people against various forms of discrimination. This was a major breakthrough.

The Equality Act in 2010 replaced the DDA and other anti-discrimination laws with a single Act. This made the law easier to understand and strengthened protection for anyone with a ‘protected characteristic’. This includes disability, as well as age, gender, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

Assistive Devices Through History

Today, the wheelchair is one of the most common assistive devices for people with limited mobility. Inscriptions from Ancient China and Greece suggest that wheelchair-type furniture has been used from at least sixth century AD. Wheelchairs have undergone design changes over the years.

Line drawing of Farfler wheelchair.
Fig.1 Line drawing of Farlfer wheelchair.

In 1655, the first self-propelled wheelchair was invented by German paraplegic clock-maker Stephan Farfler. The wheelchair was based on a three-wheel chassis and worked by turning handles attached to a geared front wheel using a system of cranks and cogwheels.  

Photograph of John Dawson's bath chair.
Fig.2 Example of John Dawson’s bath chair.

In 1783, the ‘Bath Chair’ which was developed by John Dawson, consisted of two wheels joined by an axle under the seat, with a small pivoting wheel in front of the supporting footrest which could be steered by the rider. This was developed to enable those with limited mobility to have access to spa water and mineral water treatment. Others were designed for the same purpose, but this was the most popular model.

BCLM’s collections include a 1930s folding wheelchair made by Allwin. Allwin (Richards, Son & Allwin Ltd) was located at Sidway Works, Granville Street, Birmingham and were best known for their prams.

Photo of BCLM's Allwin folding wheelchair.
Fig.3 BCLM’s Allwin folding wheelchair.

The design is similar to modern day wheelchairs, and consists of a metal frame, wooden arms, green fabric for the seat, and black Dunlop tyres. There is evidence of wear and tear which suggest that the wheelchair has been well used. The rider would have required assistance as they would not have been able to move around in the wheelchair independently.

Curating for Change

Currently, there are 14.1 million disabled people living in the UK. Nearly 20% of working age adults are disabled with disabled people more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people.

The inequalities are further accentuated within the museum sector workforce, with only 4% defining as D/deaf or disabled.

BCLM have partnered with Screen South who are running Curating for Change through the Accentuate programme to begin to address the significant gap in access and employment across the heritage sector. Accentuate provides ground-breaking opportunities for D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people in the cultural sector.

Curating for Change is a project to create strong career pathways for D/deaf, disabled and neurodiverse curators, currently seriously under-represented in museums. 16 Trainees and Fellows will explore disabled people’s histories while gaining skills for careers in the sector.

I am one of the Fellows on an 18-month fellowship on secondment to BCLM. I was born profoundly deaf and wear two hearing aids, and I hope to use my lived experience of disability to make change in the museum sector.

  • Nias, K. (2019) History of the wheelchair. Science Museum. 1st March 2019. [online]
  • Curating for Change [online]
  • Government (2020) Family Resources Survey: financial year 2018/19 [online]