Bringing archives to life

Bureaucratic registers often contain scanty details about the ordinary people they record. Further digging can bring these to life.  The fascinating ‘Seeing our History’ project does this.  The project traced the lives of blind people living in Edinburgh and south east Scotland in the early years of the twentieth century.  Starting with the names and details on a ‘Register of the Outdoor Blind’ between 1903 and 1911, researchers traced the parents, children, lives and deaths of blind and partially sighted people on the Register.  The project’s findings have been published in two books, ‘Feeling our History’ and ‘Hearing our History’ and a series of podcasts. You can find out more about the project, the publications and podcasts on its webpage here:  Insight Radio

The researchers unearthed details about blind people’s work and family lives, which echoed some of the material that I have been finding in my research on early twentieth century sickness benefits.  A recurring theme across my research, and arising also in the ‘Seeing our History’ material is the complex nature of the concept of ‘work’.  Many, although not all, of the blind people in the Seeing our History material were those who were considered ‘unable to work’, because of other impairments or old age.  ‘Able bodied’ blind people at that time were often offered work in the workshops and asylums run by organisations such as the Edinburgh Blind Asylum: making baskets, ropes, mattresses and furniture.  Those who could not find work through the Asylum subsisted on income from a range of occupations and family support networks.  Some of these found work on the street, working as musicians, hawkers and turning mangles to assist with the weekly washing.  But work in the Asylum workshops was dependent not only on physical ability but on willingness to comply with the organisation’s strict moral code.  The Seeing our History project reports on the case of a man and a woman who were evicted from the Asylum because of their unseemly relationship.  They subsequently married and their story is powerfully told in ‘Feeling our History’.  This story is interesting to me because of the way in which access to work was entwined with moral behaviour.  Other workers lost their jobs at the Asylum because of alleged drunkenness or theft.  So a person’s ability to work was dependent not only on their physical and mental abilities but on their willingness or ability to meet strict moral expectations of behaviour*.

In my own research on appeals against refusal of benefits in the 1920s, I have found examples of blind people who had been working but were now trying to claim sickness benefits.  The discussion about their ability to work often focussed on whether or not work which had previously been available to them was still possible.  So we find a man who had been blind since childhood and who had worked for a local charity for blind people.  When he developed other physical health issues he was no longer able to do this job.  The adjudicator in his appeal decided that he was no longer fit for work, although they felt the need to add that he should ‘undergo some form of training for such light work as he can undertake’.  However, in another case, involving a young woman, it was felt that she should not be obliged to enter an institution for blind people to retrain as a basket maker or similar because this ‘would probably cause her nervous upset which would probably retard her recovery if not actually make her worse’

What does this tell us about ‘capacity for work’?  The stories in the Seeing our History project are mainly from a period before the 1911 National Insurance sickness benefit scheme.  They connect with those in my research because they reinforce, again, the appreciation that a person’s capacity for work can only be understood in the social context in which they live.  Two people with apparently similar impairments can be very differently capable of work, depending on what they have done before, their skills and education, their family support networks and, crucially, the work available to them.  Work may be unavailable because of the local labour market but it may also be unavailable because of the moral and other expectations of local employers.  Ideas about how and whether people should retrain for work also depends on ideas about men and women, their age and potential capacity for working in the future.

I am very pleased to have found the Seeing our History project, leading me to these fascinating stories and an insight into a creative use of archives to bring them to life.

* full information about these histories in Hutchison, I (2015) Feeling our history Edinburgh, RNIB Scotland and Hutchison (2015) Hearing our history Edinburgh, RNIB Scotland and on the project website

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All mod cons

Can you imagine a world where married women had to prove that they were unable to do housework before they qualified for benefits?  This was the UK in the 1970s.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Not the 1920s or even the 1950s. In 1975, at the same time as the Sex Discrimination Act, legislators in the UK came up with a social security benefit which made specific rules barring married women from claiming unless they could prove that they could not do the housework.  This was Housewives Non-Contributory Invalidity Pension (HNCIP).  To be fair on the legislators, the idea was to make a benefit available to women who had been unable to collect enough national insurance contributions to qualify for Invalidity Benefit because they had been out of the labour market.  But the main benefit Non-contributory Invalidity Pension (NCIP) was only available to men and single women. Married women had to pass the extra ‘housework’ test.  The thinking was that married women did not expect to work outside the home, that they would be financially dependent on their husbands and that they should only qualify for a state benefit if they were unable to do their ‘normal work in the home’.

So what did these housewives have to do to show that they couldn’t do their housework? The claiming process was the same as for everyone else trying to get an invalidity benefit:  they needed a certificate of ‘incapacity for work’ from their doctor but then they also needed to fill out a lengthy claim form.  This form included questions about ability to dust, iron, stand in a queue, keep the home clean and tidy and other such ‘normal household duties.  It also asked whether the claimant need to use any ‘special appliances’ to carry out such duties.  Critics of the scheme pointed out that it was not clear at all what a ‘special appliance’ meant and whether or not it included such things as hoovers and automatic washing machines.

Disability campaigners and feminists at the time recognised the discrimination in this system and published detailed criticisms of it*.  Eventually, as a result of campaigning by various organisations, the practical difficulties identified by the policy makers and increasing pressure from equal opportunities policies, HNCIP was abolished and replaced by a non-contributory benefit which the same for all men and women: Severe Disablement Allowance (SDA) in 1984.  This benefit had its own problems which I’ll write about another time.

All mod cons or living in a slum

While HNCIP still existed, policy makers took the whole problem of assessing capacity for housework seriously and conducted inquiries and reports into whether it was possible to make the household duties test work better.  In one of these reports the authors pointed out that questions about the ability to carry out ‘normal household duties’ depended very much on the social circumstances of the claimant:

‘In the matter of shopping, a definition would have to cover the different requirements of a housewife with a car and a telephone on the one hand and on the other hand of another housewife living in a tower block half a mile from a bus stop with neither car nor telephone.  Similarly a definition of cleaning duties would have to embrace the cleaning required not only in a modern purpose built bungalow full of mechanical aids but also in a slum tenement with neither hot water nor inside toilet facilities’

National Insurance Advisory Committee (1980) Report of the National Insurance Advisory Committee on a question relating to the household duties test for non-contributory invalidity pension for married women, London: HMSO. p10


This may seem very dated to us today but illustrates very well how the social model of disability is better able to describe the challenges that disabled people have than a purely medical one.  It is obvious that someone living in a bungalow with ‘all mod cons’ will be more able to keep their house clean than someone living in a slum and that a woman with a car and a phone can more easily do the shopping than another woman living in a high rise flat without these.  If only policy makers could see that the same issues apply to assessing people’s ability to do paid work.

*For example, Lister, R. and Loach, I. (1978) Second Class Disabled – a report on the non-contributory invalidity pension for married women, London: Equal Rights for Disabled Women Campaign.

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Inclusion or exclusion?

Sometimes my research feels as if it is being conducted in a bubble. I am looking at a fairly small part of the world of social welfare and mostly in the past. A recent publication by Inclusion Scotland helps us to see things from a wider view. A Vision for an Inclusive Scotland provides a clear overview of the many ways in which disabled people are left behind: in employment, social care, transport, social security, education, protection from abuse, housing and healthcare. The general message is that policies and services should be integrated to prevent exclusion. It also reminds us that welfare benefits should not just be about getting people back to work but that they should also

support all citizens by providing an adequate income and assisting disabled people to achieve and maintain independent living. A welfare system worthy of the name should be underpinned by a commitment to fundamental human rights. All of those using it should be treated with dignity and respect. (p10).

Across the twentieth century benefits systems have often made getting back to work the key objective and have rarely treated claimants with dignity and respect. Incapacity benefits decision making has usually been focussed on narrow medical evidence which has not taken account of the many disabling barriers that make it difficult for people with disabilities and health problems to get into work. A Vision for an Inclusive Scotland reminds us that these issues are interlinked.  If public transport is inaccessible, then it is more difficult for disabled people to get to work.  If people do not get the personal help they need at the time they need it, it is more difficult for them to work.  And if it is difficult or impossible for someone to find a paid job, they need enough money to live on.  The booklet was published in Scotland just before the recent referendum on independence but its message is important at all levels of policy making and provides suggestions for how different levels of government (UK, Scotland and local) can do something about this exclusion.

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Making links across time and space

What links German peasants in the 1500s, travelling people in Sweden in the 1960s, and applicants to special educational needs appeals in the USA today?

These groups of people were all discussed in papers at conferences which I attended recently. One of the great things about conferences is the opportunity to hear about research that you wouldn’t immediately think was relevant to your own but which allows you to make links across time and space and topic. So what did I learn about this group of  people from very different times and places?

Disability and social welfare in Germany in the 1500s

It was at a European conference on social history  that I went to a session on ‘Disability in early modern society’, which focussed on times before 1800. Angela Schattner from the German Historical Institute in London talked about her research on Public welfare in Germany in the 1500s. She observed that access to welfare only became available when all other sources of support had fallen away. Such welfare was pretty limited and might amount only to the right to beg. The definition of incapacity in her cases had nothing to do with impairment as such or the ‘ability to work’ but people’s ability to provide for themselves, which included access to family resources.  In those days, before the welfare state as we understand it today, there was less of a concern with ‘incapacity for work’ and more of a concern with ‘inability to have enough money to live on’, which are two slightly different things.

Travelling people in Sweden

Ida Ohlsen Al Fakir from Linnaeus University in Sweden talked about a social initiative in Sweden in the 1960s which attempted to provide medical and social services to ‘Swedish Gypsies’. A campaigning doctor of the time, John Takman, carried out a mass study of everybody classified as a ‘gypsy’, which involved medical examinations, home visits and advice on social needs, including housing, education, health needs and job advice. The study was organised by the Swedish Labour Board and its purpose was to integrate the Gypsy people into mainstream Swedish community and for them to find work . When I first saw the title of this paper I did not immediately think it had any relevance to my research but I was struck almost straight away when Ida introduced the paper, describing the Swedish gypsies as ‘socially handicapped’ and ‘partially able-bodied’. These were not her words but (translations of) the words used at the time to describe the travelling community. Here was a link between her research and mine. Although the group of people that she is interested in were discriminated against on the grounds of ethnicity rather than disability, the problems they were experiencing were framed in the same way as those of people who have difficulty finding work because of disabilities or health issues.
As with many government attempts to provide services for disabled people, the survey and its consequences were not entirely positive and there have been many criticisms of it. What I learned from this though, was that a social model of ‘labour market disadvantage’ can encompass both physical or mental impairment and social disadvantage because of ethnicity and social background … but the views of professionals, in particular medical professionals, can still carry very heavy weight within this model.

Thanks to Ida Ohlsen Al Fakir for this information, also available on her University website

The secret law of disability?

And, finally, at the Law and Society Association conference  Jasmine Harris from the American University Washington College of Law gave a paper on the ‘Secret Law of Disability’ where she argued that legal hearings on social security, special educational needs and mental health should be held in public rather than in private. We tend to think these kinds of hearings should be private to protect people’s privacy but Jasmine Harris argued that they should be public so that issues concerning discrimination against disabled people would be more publicly debated. That connects to some ideas that I have been having about the ethics of using people’s names compared with keeping them anonymous in historical research. As a social scientist, the codes of ethics that I follow usually emphasise the importance of anonymity but historians tend to use people’s real names, and sometimes photographs if they are available. I’ve been wondering where the boundary lies.

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