In medieval times, sick and disabled people relied on the Church to care for them. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, he closed down many hospitals staffed by religious orders.
From 1601, the Poor Law Act made each parish responsible for the poor who resided there. Parish councils opened workhouses, grim places to accommodate those with no alternative means of support.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, wealthy benefactors founded a large number of hospitals and institutions for the impaired in London. Many of these establishments became National Health Service hospitals with the introduction of the welfare state in 1948.
The 1970s and 1980s saw an increase in activism by disabled people themselves. The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act aims to increase access for people with impairments.
‘Disability’ is a contested term which covers a number of physical and mental impairments. Relatively few people are born with disabilities and the majority of us acquire impairments through disease or accident.
Anyone who lives long enough finds that their ability to see, hear and move around diminishes. In that sense, disability affects everyone. Yet people with long term disabilities face both prejudice and problems with accessing basic facilities and services.
Attitudes towards disability in London have changed over time and have been influenced by the sources of Western culture. In Ancient Greek and Roman societies most people were expected to work. Infants with impairments were generally killed at birth. Authoritative texts like the Bible also reflect attitudes of fear towards the impaired.
During medieval times, London hospitals run by nuns and monks cared for the ill and poor. Bethlem Hospital, also known as ‘Bedlam’ was founded in 1247 by the sheriff of London and staffed by members of the order of St. Mary of Bethlehem. The majority of its patients suffered from mental illnesses.
In the 13th century the leper hospital of St. James was built on the site of what is today St. James’ Park. St. Mary Elsing Spital was founded in London Wall in 1329 by a merchant called William Elsing. It provided a refuge for blind beggars of both sexes.
Prior to the Reformation, elderly and disabled people could work as ‘bedesmen’, counting off prayers on rosary beads for the souls of the dead to lessen the time they spent in Purgatory. During the Tudor and Stuart periods, invalids were often employed as elementary teachers.
In the early 16th century, Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and closed down many hospitals, like St. Mary Elsing. Although the city authorities and livery companies took over some hospitals and almshouses, many people suffered from the loss of support previously provided by the Church.
The Poor Law Act of 1601 required all parishes to take responsibility for the poor, including those unable to work due to disability. By the end of the century, the parishes opened workhouses funded by local rates. People with no other means of support lived there, but the regime was particularly harsh, to discourage the ‘undeserving’.
From the 18th century, a number of major London hospitals were established through charitable donations. Although they accepted some poor patients, these hospitals preferred to treat sufferers of short-term illnesses. Those with chronic conditions like disabilities were cared for by their families, or in the workhouse if they were unable to support themselves.
The 19th century saw a rise in the number of specialist hospitals, as medical knowledge advanced. At mid century, the author Charles Dickens and the medical journal ‘The Lancet’ publicised the inhumane conditions in London workhouses.
Henry Mayhew, metropolitan correspondent for the ‘Morning Chronicle’, carried out an investigation into London’s poor, published in 1851. Among them, he interviewed a number of disabled people trying to make a living on the city streets.
In 1867 the Metropolitan Asylums Board was established. Part of its task was to build institutions to house the intellectually impaired, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, the blind and the deaf. A number of charitable institutions also opened to cater for these groups, such as The Royal National Institute for the Blind, founded in 1863.
During the early part of the 20th century, people with impairments were increasingly placed in institutions. This separated them from the rest of the community. Medical staff operating on the injured soldiers of World Wars I and II made advances in the treatment of physical disabilities.
At the same time, disabled people proved themselves capable of undertaking challenging work as they were drafted to do essential jobs in London left vacant by those who had gone abroad to fight.
1948 saw the introduction of the National Health Service and the welfare state. They provided a safety net for those who were unable to work due to disability. Publicity about the terrible conditions in mental hospitals during the 1960s saw the gradual reintegration of disabled people into the community.
During the 1970s and 1980s, activism by disabled people increased. They developed the ‘social model of disability’. This argues that disability is a condition caused more by the economic, political and social problems encountered by disabled people, than by their disabilities. The United Kingdom's Disabled People's Council was established by disabled people in 1981 and is run by them.
There are an estimated 1.4 million disabled people in London, many of whom have problems travelling around the capital and gaining access to its services and institutions. The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act is gradually phasing in disabled people’s right to equality in employment, access to goods, property, facilities and services.
Well-known Londoners with impairments include the presenter and performer Matt Fraser, who composed the musical ‘Thalidomide’ and the late musician Ian Dury who had childhood polio. The blind ex-cabinet minister David Blunkett has played an important part on the Westminster political scene.
Slowly changing mainstream attitudes towards disabled people are symbolised by the 2005 erection in Trafalgar Square of Marc Quinn’s sculpture ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’. Lapper is an artist and single mother who was born without arms and with shortened legs.