I was expecting a programme to mark the 50th anniversary of Alf Morris’s landmark Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act last year, but there wasn’t one – maybe due to the problems of filming during lockdown? – and, strangely, this programme didn’t even mention it. It was rather confused, starting by talking about physically disabled people, then switching to mentally disabled people, then switching back to physically disabled people and leaving the story of the rights of mentally disabled people stuck in the 1930s, but it made some interesting points.
It was very distressing to hear the story of the family from Birkenhead whose mentally disabled daughter was taken away by the authorities, against her will and theirs. Her brothers were under the impression that she’d died, and only learnt 70 years later that she was still alive, and had been in an institution all those years. By contrast, praise was heaped on Ludwig Guttmann, about whom we heard so much about during the London Paralympics, for doing so much to change attitudes towards physically disabled people in Britain … although the programme seemed quite critical of doctors who’d tried to treat those injured during the First World War. Maybe the most telling moment was at the end, when campaigners talked about able-bodied and physically disabled children wanting to go to school together, none of them wanting to be separated from their friends.
Ironically, the programme started by reminding us about when Cerrie Burnell, the presenter, who was born with half of one arm missing, became a presenter on CBBC, and some parents complained. Parents, not kids. It then went back to the late 18th/early 19th century, making the point that mechanisation and industrialisation made it difficult for disabled people to find work, and forcing many into the workhouse as a result.
Then it jumped forward to the late 19th century, to talk about a woman called Mary Dendy. Why had I never heard of her? Although she was originally from Wales, she ended up in the Manchester area, and was one of the founders of the “Lancashire and Cheshire Society of the Permanent Care of the Feeble Minded”. At this point, we left the history of physically disabled people and moved solely on to the history of mentally disabled people: as I said, the programme did jump around a lot. Mary Dendy was distressed at seeing people, especially children, just left in workhouses to die, and founded a settlement at Sandlebridge, near Alderley Edge, where mentally disabled people could be cared for. To that extent, she meant well … but she seemed to have no idea of mentally disabled people being able to care for themselves and make choices, and she wanted them kept away from society as a whole.
And then we came to the difficult subject of eugenics. As most people know, the idea of eugenics did have a lot of support in the first half of the 19th century, including from some very well-known and well-respected figures. Times change, thankfully. Although Britain never had a policy of forced sterilisations in the way that some countries did, the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 led to people being forcibly removed into institutions, and there was very much an idea that men and women should be segregated to avoid any possibility of their having children.
It remained in force until repealed by Harold Macmillan’s government in 1959 … long after the idea of eugenics had been completely discredited by its association with the Nazis. But we never heard about that, because the focus then switched to physically disabled people, and the argument that, especially in the inter-war period, able-bodied people were trying to “mend” physically disabled people and “cure” their disabilities.
I must say that I’d dispute the criticism of doctors who provided false legs for men who’d had legs amputated as a result of injuries and gangrene in the First World War. And, indeed, the general criticism of people with prosthetic limbs. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but I did find it quite odd. My late grandfather had a false leg. He had a leg amputated due to a combination of a car accident and poor circulation resulting from diabetes. Having a false leg was what was right for him. I don’t see why that’s any more “ableist” than a short-sighted person such as myself wearing glasses or contact lenses, or a deaf person wearing a hearing aid. Cerrie doesn’t want to have a prosthetic arm, and that’s what right for her, and it’s appalling that she was criticised for that when she was on CBBC. But, if someone else makes a different choice, then surely that’s up to them.
However, there were some horrific stories of the treatments to which people were subjected, often when they were only children – one woman spoke about having her legs broken over and over again, to try to get them to grow back straighter.
Then it moved on to the work done by Dr Guttmann, and then to the campaigns for disability rights. I do think it odd that the Alf Morris Act wasn’t mentioned, but the focus was more on the protest movements than the actual legislation. It was a shame that it didn’t go further back, really: it said “history”, but it did said next to nothing about anything prior to the early 19th century. But I think that the idea was to mark the 10th anniversary of the Equality Act, which was also last year, and to focus on what still needs to be done.
When we finally get out of this bloody pandemic, it’s going to be a different world, and, as happened after the Boer War, the First World War and the Second World War, we’re probably going to see a lot of social and economic change. Given all the economic problems caused by the situation, some of that will inevitably be bad, but hopefully some of it will be good too.
This wasn’t a particularly good programme, unfortunately: it jumped around a lot, it didn’t seem to want to give space to different viewpoints, and the position of people with mental disabilities wasn’t brought up to date. But, as I said, it did make some interesting points. It just could have been a lot better, because it had an important story to tell.