Our Wendy Box

On this webpage, you will find:

  1. A blog post that explains how we collected and researched our Wendy Box.
  2. A visual 3D model of our Wendy Box.
  3. An invitation to share your experience if you have cerebral palsy.
  4. An audio recording of the blog post spoken in English.
  5. A video with researcher Nadia Awal.

If you wish to personalise how you view this webpage, click on ‘Accessibility Tools’ in the top menu to change the font, font size, colours, and to use the ‘playback’ function.

Please note: this webpage includes the word ‘spastic’, which is an outdated, offensive term that has been used in a derogatory way. We use it here as it is integral to the history of the object we are going to discuss. 

Representations of Disability: the Wendy Box

When we embarked on creating our new 1940s-1960s town we knew from the outset that we wanted it to be representative in every sense of the word. Representative of what the Black Country was like, representative of the diverse communities who lived and worked in the region, and representative of the positive and negative aspects of changing social attitudes.  

Researcher Nadia Awal shares an example of how we will soon be representing disability on our site.

‘Real lives, real stories’ is our guiding mantra. To do this meaningfully, we conduct detailed research and develop interpretation in consultation with representative communities. This approach has been embodied in our work towards collecting and displaying a ‘Wendy Box’, also known as a ‘Spastics Society Collection Box’.   

The Wendy Box was first considered for display because we found a link to one of the buildings in our new 1940s-1960s town, Spring Hill Post Office, a replica of the building that stood on Penn Road in Wolverhampton. We decided that a post office should be part of the town because they were a key fixture of the high street.   

By 1965, there were 25,000 post offices in the UK, representing a peak in the history of postal services. Spring Hill Post Office was identified as an option because it represented this story, and because it sold an array of products including toys and models, allowing for other histories to be explored.   

Once we’d decided to replicate Spring Hill Post Office, we started to explore how (and if) we should display the Wendy Box, as a detailed photograph of Spring Hill Post Office from 1965 shows a Wendy Box outside the building. 

Image of Penn Road, Wolverhampton from 1965 featuring Spring Hill Post Office.

A historic image in black and white from 1965 shows Penn Road, Wolverhampton, featuring Spring Hill Post Office.

Conducting research

Through our research we found that the boxes were introduced by the National Spastics Society in the 1950s. The charity was named and formed by parents of children with cerebral palsy, the name for a group of lifelong conditions that affect movement and co-ordination (NHS definition)  

It changed its name to The Spastics Society in 1963. The charity created the collection boxes in the 1950s to encourage monetary donations. The young girl depicted in this object, known as Wendy, was one of a family of boxes which portrayed children with cerebral palsy.   

The term ‘spastic’ is linked to the medical term ‘spasticity’, which means tightness of the muscles caused by prolonged muscle contraction. It refers to just one of many symptoms of cerebral palsy.   

While the boxes were created with a positive intention, these depictions are now viewed as patronising and insulting. In the case of ‘Wendy’, her expression is pitiful, her one hand is downturned, and she is wearing a calliper, alluding to her physical difference. The portrayal suggests that she needs your help. The representation elicits pity in the viewer, not an opportunity to learn about the charity or to see people with cerebral palsy as individuals.   

Over the years following the creation of the boxes, the word ‘spastic’ was used as a derogatory, cruel insult. People with cerebral palsy disliked the depiction and campaigned for their removal.   

Valerie Lang, who has cerebral palsy, was instrumental in the removal of the boxes. Now an honorary life member of the charity, Lang has stated:  

“My memories include my fight and ultimate success in getting rid of what I regarded as the little, begging girls, the dolls. I waged almost a one-woman battle against them for years and years…we got a sub-committee formed to discuss those, and on the committee was the inventor of these little dolls, and, poor man, you’d have thought I was murdering his children, he felt so strongly, but we got rid of them…  

It wasn’t until more of us were grown-up, concerned about our image and making our way in society, that the idea of begging children began to be offensive.”   

The boxes were phased out from 1979. Instead, the charity started to focus on positive images and messages of people living with cerebral palsy. Additionally, the charity took note of the derogatory connotations of ‘spastic’ and changed its name to Scope in 1994. The name change was accompanied by a major commitment to involve people with cerebral palsy in the running of the charity.   

Today, Scope takes a pan-disability approach, works closely with people with lived experience, and campaigns against barriers of inequality. Scope strongly promotes the social model of disability, rather than the medical model. The medical model states that people are disabled by their impairments or differences. The social model, which was introduced in the 1960s, states that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference, and removing barriers creates equality.  

Gathering ideas and opinions

Once the research was collated, we started to gather ideas and opinions. Colleagues from across the Museum worked together to consider how the object should be displayed and interpreted. We consulted with our Community Access Panel and Scope.   

We discussed proposed methods of interpretation and display, and asked people for their opinions on what approaches we should take. Those we consulted shared insights based on their own memories. One individual explained that they heard that the inclusion of the black cat at Wendy’s feet symbolised good luck (by donating to the charity you would be giving people with cerebral palsy ‘good luck’).   

Others recalled that, as children, they would be taken to their local high street to buy a treat, and then actively encouraged to put their remaining pennies into a collection box.  We reflected on how this linked to Spring Hill Post Office – perhaps children purchased the latest toy and were encouraged to put their change into the box.   

Finally, we discussed how the shopkeepers who displayed these boxes will have done so with good intentions: to raise money for an important charity. We agreed that any interpretation should be nuanced and reflect multiple perspectives.  

The key points from the consultation were that we should continue to consult the community, continue to engage with Scope, and ensure our interpretation is multi-layered to make it as accessible as possible. All the people we consulted agreed: the Wendy Box should be displayed because the public should learn about this significant history.

FINALISING OUR APPROACH

The consultation has informed crucial decisions on physical aspects of display. It was unanimously agreed that the donation slots should be sealed off. Given that people with cerebral palsy fought against pitiful representations of cerebral palsy prompting charitable donations, it was felt that we could not repeat that history. We also discussed how and where we should use the word ‘spastic’, which prompted an array of ideas which will be built into the interpretation.   

Collectively, the research, consultation and consequent recommendations will inform the interpretation of the Wendy Box to ensure that our visitors learn about changing social attitudes.  Exploring historic attitudes of disability allows us to challenge disablism. We can demonstrate how disability should be viewed in terms of the social model of disability, and not the medical model.   

Our approach to displaying and interpreting the Wendy Box will be reviewed periodically to ensure that we continue to reflect and engage with the ever-changing society which we aim to serve.   

With thanks to Scope and our Community Advisory Panel for their valuable time and constructive support. 

Find out more:

Share your experience

We would like to know more about the experiences of people with cerebral palsy in the Black Country during the 1940s-1960s, to inform our research and interpretation. If you would like to share your experiences, please get in touch:   
 
  • Tel: 0121 557 9643  
  • Email: [email protected]  
  • Address: Collections Team, Black Country Living Museum, Tipton Road, Dudley, West Midlands, DY1 4SQ  

Listen to an audio recording of the blog post

Play Video

A video with researcher Nadia Awal