“I quite clearly remember being tied to the cot sides,” recalls Florence, now in her 70s, of the childhood she spent in hospital. “Literally, two wrists tied to the cot sides with cotton tape so as I couldn’t get up and I couldn’t sit up because they – the doctors – had decided that if there’s something wrong with your back, you have to lie prone.”
Florence was abandoned as a newborn when her mother discovered she would never walk. After an unhappy time in a children’s home, where she was picked on, and with foster families who were unable to cope with her disability, Florence was sent to live in a hospital. Before her eventual adoption, she remembers the 1950s Nightingale wards, “20 beds on each side of a ward, with the nurses stationed down one end” where she spent much of her time lying face down, secured to her bed.
Florence’s memories are among those featured in a project that encourages schools to create theatrical performances based on real stories of disability from people born in the 1940s, 60s and 80s. The Changing Lives, Changing Times project involved workshops at three Leeds schools over five weeks last summer and led to the development of teaching packs. These help teachers run awareness-raising workshops about disability and are being sent out to UK schools by the end of the year.
The drive coincides with Disability History Month, which starts today, directed by Richard Rieser, who runs World of Inclusion. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the work is run jointly by the centre for disability studies and the school of performance and cultural industries at the University of Leeds.
Sonali Shah, research fellow at the centre for disability studies and a former member of disability theatre company Graeae, explains: “The inspiration came from my interests as a disabled actor and disabled researcher. I have been, for many years, looking for a way to marry the two together.”
She adds: “Disabled people are parents, lovers, employees, employers, students, teachers, but often portrayed as pitiful and pathetic, unable to live ordinary lives. However, their ordinary lives are often hampered by barriers in society – social, physical and attitudinal.”
The project involved workshop contributions from a disabled dancer, David Toole, who performed at the Paralympics. Toole believes the medium of theatre allows people to “learn a lot without feeling they are being lectured to”. He adds that, during the workshops, he became aware that students were starting to understand the problems people with disabilities faced over the years: “This had more of an affect on those who had had no real contact with disabled people, either in their family or through friends.”
Claire Nicholson, director of performing arts at Cathedral Academy, Wakefield, one of the participating schools, stresses that a textbook-only approach to social history can be “quite dry”. She says the unique way that the project combines disability, social context and arts allows pupils to “really get into the psyche of the people”.
“Of course, schools are about education, but they’re also about fostering cultural and social understanding,” she adds, “… enabling students to be aware of everybody in society.”
The resource pack aims to develop understanding of disability history and culture in England since the 1940s. Targeted at children aged 11-16 and young people in further education, the pack includes a timeline of important places, people and events in disability history and a DVD featuring five disabled people’s real life stories (re-told by two professional disabled actors, Nicola Wildin and David Toole).
So what has changed? Much, says Shah, compared with the post-war period, such as an end to the policies that segregated disabled people and denied them human rights. “However,” she adds, “the stories showed how some disabled people and their families have always used their own drive and determination to resist policies and take alternative trajectories.”
Toole agrees that much has changed in the perception and inclusion of disabled people since his youth, and the Paralympics showed that disabled people, “given the right opportunities and backing, can achieve anything”. However, he fears for the future. “I am not a political person,” he says, “but even I can see the injustice of what is happening to many disabled people today through government policies … before the events of the summer, people generally – thanks to the publicity disabled people have been getting – had a view of them being idle and a drain on resources. Reducing funding or cutting benefits is really not the way forward. This is a massive backward step and actually takes us back to the bad times that we showed through the work of the project.”
Florence, who attended mainstream schools and work variously as a telephonist, clerk and typist before training as a social worker, believes disabled children today still face major challenges. As she told the project, “It is more accepted in schools and in social situations, but I think that the children internally still struggle. I don’t think you can take away that struggle and that is part and parcel of life as a disabled person. And I don’t think, in some respects, that some of that’s got any easier for the kids. I would say be your own person … stand up for yourself but acknowledge your disability and be proud to acknowledge it.”