Why Disability History Month is important

Selina Mills

Selina Mills is our Relationship Manager. She tells us about her favourite blind figures in history and why celebrating Disability History Month should be important to everyone.

This month is Disability History Month UK. Starting quietly over 12 years ago, the project, which now has a huge international audience, was set up to “celebrate the lives of disabled people now and in the past”, challenge the myths and stereotypes that permeate our lives, and ultimately, ultimately help achieve equality. The more we have a voice, in the present and the past, the more we can share our identities and lives.

Why Disability History Month is important to me

Disability History Month is also an important month for me. Aside from my life working here at Leonard Cheshire, I spend most of my time in libraries and large history volumes.

I first started writing about blind people in history ten years ago. As someone losing her sight, I was amazed at how people’s behaviour towards me changed from straightforward to pity. And how little I knew about other blind people in the world, other than there were a lot of us.

I also wondered how and why so much legal, social and literary work was around disability, but we rarely heard the voices of disabled people themselves. Were disabled people so invisible, even in the past?

Ordinary disabled people are missing in history

Of course, there have always been usual famous blind suspects. I mean heroes such as Helen Keller, Milton, Homer and various excellent writers, poets, Paralympians, political leaders and lawyers.

But somehow, they are held up as exemplars of inspiration and genius, and the rest of us are at best invisible, and at worse, a burden on society. As I sat in the British Library, it was rare to find voices of ordinary disabled people, let alone blind ones. Blindness seemed to always be attached to great mythic heroism, like Tiresias from ancient Greek myths. Or to the activist Helen Keller whose narrative was, and still is, shaped as a saint but whose life was far more complex and complicated than the stories told around her.

Selina Mills sitting at a desk in the library

My favourite disabled historical figures

The good news is that disabled people are very much in history. You just have to dig a little deeper to find us, particularly women. My favourite so far has been Nandy the Neanderthal, who archaeologists found by the Tigris River. He turned out to have been struck with a disease that would have left him lame and blind but lived 20 years longer than the other skeletons found near him.

Then there are the dynamic blind nuns from the 12th century, who became blind from some plague. They managed to escape their home and persuaded the Emperor to build an amazing abbey in the mountains of Austria, which is still there.

19th-century figures

By the 19th century, we have quite a few clever blind women writing and advocating for disabled people or composing music. I have a few heroines, such as the French Thérèse-Adèle Husson, from 1824, who dictated a letter to an institution for blind men and women in Paris. She said that “the sighs of people around me are worse than my blindness”, which is a feeling I can totally identify with. Thérèse-Adèle’s notes were only found in the back of a cupboard in 2008, so we suspect there are many more stories out there. We just haven’t found them yet.

Over in London, and by 1860, we had the motivated Bessie Gilbert. Bessie, who was born blind, created, with funds from Queen Victoria, a sort of blind Men’s Co-operative. It made goods by blind people who kept the profits and shared them equally. With the arrival of braille, she also created a library that had books other than the Bible.

Why Disabled History Month should be important to you

So Disability History month is an important landmark not just for Leonard Cheshire but for all of us. Many people do not realise how much disability has been an active force in history. It has shaped our notions of law, medicine, truth, dark, light, goodness and evil.

In short, disability is an intrinsic part of who we are, whether disabled or not. While we might not have found more voices yet, we are here.

Selina's forthcoming book “Losing Sight: a history of blindness” (Bloomsbury) will be published in September 2022.