Integrating Disability in History Education

Author: Helen Snelson

One of the many wonderful things about EUROCLIO (the European network of history educators) is the opportunity it provides to meet and learn from other people with teaching and research interests and perspectives that challenge and inspire better practice. Thus it was, during a project meeting in EUROCLIO’s office in The Hague in 2017, when Dr Monika Baar came to share with us her work on the history of people with disabilities and the ‘Rethinking Disability Project’[i]. Much of the content of her presentation was new to me. For example, I did not know about the protests triggered by the UN’s intention to make 1981 the ‘Year for disabled people’. Nor had I heard of the 1990 Capitol Crawl that helped to bring about the US 1990 Disability Act, which has influenced legislative approaches beyond the USA. Search for an image of this event and you will see the powerful expression of physically disabled people crawling up the steps of the Washington Capitol building to powerfully demonstrate how they were excluded, literally and metaphorically, from US democracy. Monika stressed to us the importance of all people being able to know about their past. Why had I not seen this before? How had I been letting down my students, by not enabling them to learn about the historical context to our attitudes towards disability today? Were they ignorant of how hard the road has been towards our relatively positive attitudes? What of students with a disability, was the past relevant to part of their identity to be absent from my classroom?

The 2010 Equality Act passed by the UK Parliament places on all teachers a duty to nurture the development of a society in which equality and human rights are deeply rooted. For history teachers this poses the question: ‘Does our history curriculum reflect the diverse pasts of all people in society?’ and ‘Do all the children sitting in front of us have the chance to learn about people like themselves?’ And yet, the school history curriculum is so full already, so how could any more content be shoe-horned into it?

With food for much thought from Monika and various vague ideas, I went straight back to my inspiring colleague and friend Ruth Lingard back in York and we put aside some time to think and do some reading. As a result of this thinking and reading, we developed a lesson about the past of people with disabilities that included a timeline enabling students to identify change and continuity over time and the factors that shaped the change.[ii]

As a result of our reading we also discovered that disability and people with disabilities in the past were ‘hidden in plain sight’. For example, there is a famous picture of the 16th century English king, Henry VIII. It is of Henry and his family. However, there are two other people in the picture: Will Somers and Jane the Fool. Both of them were people with learning disabilities who were part of the Royal Household able to make the king forget his worries and to ‘speak truth to power in a way that other courtiers could not. Once we started looking, we found other people present in stories already told in history lessons, for example, Benjamin Lay, the Quaker campaigner for the abolition of transatlantic slavery who was also a dwarf. As a result, we have developed a format called a ‘slot in’. A slot-in is a knowledge rich worksheet about a character, or event, or place, which adds diversity to a topic and which can easily become part of existing lessons[iii].

We recommend these principled actions for history teachers working with disability:

  • Take time to gain knowledge and make connections.
  • Be prepared to admit to ignorance and ask for help from people who are knowledgeable about how to represent people with disabilities.
  • Make a review of existing teaching materials looking for where you can ‘slot in’ the disabled past despite the lack of time available due to an already very crowded curriculum.
  • Say something rather than nothing, enabling the voices of past people with disabilities to be heard.

This last point refers to a conversation we had over social media with Eugene Grant, a writer and campaigner with dwarfism, about the importance of positive role models in classrooms for people with disability. Grant wrote in the UK political journal ‘The New Statesman’[iv] in April 2018 about how he was 31 years’ old before he encountered the positive role model of Benjamin Lay, whereas, as a teenager he was faced with the appalling character with dwarfism ‘Mini-Me’ in the film ‘Austin Powers.’ We had mistakenly thought it might be better to downplay Lay’s dwarfism, but Grant encouraged us to put Lay’s dwarfism central to our ‘slot-in’.

Two years later and we have written an article about our work for the UK Historical Association’s journal ‘Teaching History’[v] and presented at two Historical Association conferences. We have produced resources for students in English schools including:

  • a timeline activity tracing changes in attitudes to disability in relation to changes in ideas about being human,
  • a timeline activity specifically focused on attitudes to mental health over time,
  • sources as evidence activities, including using records from the archives of the pioneering Retreat asylum opened by Quakers in the 18th century,
  • slot-ins on various people and places important to the story of disability and society,
  • and, of course, teacher guides for all of these.

These are freely available in downloadable format via the blog www.yorkclio.com and we would be delighted if colleagues were to find them useful and to improve them.

[i] http://rethinkingdisability.net

[ii] This activities are all described and explained in an article for the UK Historical Association’s journal for secondary school history teachers. You can find it in volume 173 of Teaching History from the website: http://www.history.org.uk

[iii] At this link you can find the slot-ins we have developed so far: https://yorkclio.com/slot-ins/

[iv] Grant, E. (2018) ‘Abolitionist, activist, dwarf – we all need role models like Benjamin Lay’ www.newstatesman.com/culture/film/2018/04/abolitionist-activist-dwarf-we-all-need-role-models-benjamin-lay

[v] ‘Teaching History, 173: Opening Doors’ edition, Historical Association, London, UK (2018) – access via www.history.org.uk

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