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Wednesday, May 26, 1999 Published at 18:58 GMT 19:58 UK


War transformed attitudes to disability

Bill Surrey was locked up from the age of seven

War - long associated with giving an impetus to the feminist movement - also played a major part in transforming people's views of disability.

Not only have this century's two world wars created a large number of disabled people, but a shortage of workers in the Second World War prompted many companies to hire staff with disabilities.

The first part of BBC Two's series The Disabled Century examines the change in attitudes towards disability between 1914 and 1944.

Before the First World War, disabled people tended to be isolated and seen as the "deserving poor".

During the war, 1.5m people lost limbs, were blinded, became deaf or suffered severe mental trauma or brain damage.

People who suffered shell shock were classed as mentally ill. If they were badly affected, they were sent to a mental home.

Lost limbs

Horace Blackburn was disabled from childhood. During the First World War, he fitted limbs to people wounded in the war.

"I told my mother and she said that is what happens in war. No-one wants them. They have done their bit and are fobbed off with a bit of pension," he said.

War veterans say they got four shillings for a lost arm and five or six shillings for a lost leg.

The war brought physical disability out into the open. But the government was still locking away people with learning difficulties under the 1913 Mental Defectives Act.

Bill Surrey was locked up at the age of seven and spent 70 years in an institution.

[ image: War wounds meant many veterans had to wear false limbs]
War wounds meant many veterans had to wear false limbs
He said his family tried to stop him being taken away, but failed.

He was told he would be locked up for 30 years, but that period got longer and longer.

"I didn't talk to anyone for a week," he said.

He and many others tried to escape from the institution. He was punished by having his hair cut short "like a convict".

He said if people did not behave they were "given the needle" to make them go to sleep. Some were restrained by up to five staff.

Other disabled people were segregated under the guise of improving their education.


Bill and Peggy Dixon are deaf. They were sent off to a special institution for the deaf when they were children.

They were told they were going to the seaside. People at the school used sign language, which they did not understand.

[ image: Gladys Brooks was subjected to years of strange exercises to straighten her spine]
Gladys Brooks was subjected to years of strange exercises to straighten her spine
"It was very, very frightening," said Bill.

Segregation was considered a caring policy in a society which did not care about disabled people.

Others with physical disabilities were forced to endure painful exercises.

Gladys Brooks had curvature of the spine. She said that, as a baby, she was strapped to a frame for two and a half years to try to correct her problem.

But it just made her bottom stick out.

She was also put in a leather harness which was supposed to lift her bottom up.

She was also made to hang from bars in an effort to stretch her spine so she would be taller.

She said the psychological distress caused by other peope's insensitivity was one of the hardest things to take.

She was often told that her bottom protruded so much a cup of tea could be put on it.

"As a teenager this was mental torture," she said.


In the 1930s when unemployment was bad for able-bodied people, it was much worse for the disabled.

Few found regular jobs. Many had to make do with jobs provided by charity workshops which paid very badly.

Snowy Harding said he was treated as one of the gang when he was young, despite not being able to walk.

He used to crawl for miles and play with other children in the street.

But when the Second World War began, the able-bodied children were evacuated first.

He was left behind. He described the streets as being very quiet and "frightening".

"It was as if the Pied Piper had been down our street. It was a world without children."

Snowy was sent to a home for disabled children a few months later. It was the first time he had been put in a wheelchair.

[ image: Snowy Harding suffered 'a culture shock' when he was given a wheelchair]
Snowy Harding suffered 'a culture shock' when he was given a wheelchair
"They were all smiling as if they had got me at last," he said of the staff.

"I was in total shock, a culture shock. I had been like a normal child and then I was stuck in a wheelchair with 40 other disabled boys."

A third of a million disabled people were employed in the war effort between 1939 and 1945.

Many worked in munitions factories. Douglas Bader, who became a war hero despite having artificial legs, was an inspiration to many.

Thousands of people were disabled during the war.

Attitudes to disability began to change.

Disabled Century is on BBC Two on 27 May at 21.50 BST.

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