Can the first Disability History Month match the impact that Black History teaching has made?

Richard Garner
Thursday 18 November 2010 01:00

You do not have to look too hard to find negative images of how disabled people have been portrayed throughout history. Take Richard III, for instance. Much is made in Shakespeare's play of his deformed figure. Remember, too, that Shakespeare was writing in Tudor times and there is a school of thought that the Tudor dynasty had the most ruthless spin doctors in history – centuries before Alastair Campbell was born. It is said that they touched up his hunchback in portraits to make him look more disfigured, so that to their eyes and (they hoped) to the portrait's viewers he would look more evil.

Go, too, to some of our great works of literature, and you stumble on Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop. Its villain, Quilp, is manifestly disabled, as is Smallwood, the villainous landlord in Our Mutual Friend. Small wonder that there is a need to counteract negative stereotyping by giving Britain's school-children a more positive image of disabled people and their achievements.

Again, the role models are easy to find. From today's world, Professor Stephen Hawking, the physicist who suffers from a form of neuro-muscular dystrophy which has left him almost completely paralysed, is an obvious one. And then there is Virgin tycoon Sir Richard Branson, who is dyslexic. Or the Irish author, Christy Brown, author of My Left Foot, who – as the name of his book implies – could only commit his words to paper by using his left foot.

These and other positive role models will feature in the first ever Disability History Month, which will be launched next Monday, 22 November, and run until 22 December.

One of the key figures behind the scheme is Richard Rieser, a former National Union of Teachers activist who is now managing director of a consultancy that focuses on international disability awareness, World of Inclusion Ltd.

It was not easy to get the idea off the ground. Rieser first put some ideas forward to the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency for curriculum content that could be used to promote disability awareness, for promotion on its website. That agency, however, became one of the first quangos to be earmarked for extinction under the cuts proposed by the Coalition Government. He asked the Department for Education if it would take the project on, but says he was told that it would only add to teachers' "burden". Undeterred, he launched it on his own website (www.worldofin, where it offers teachers ideas for themes they could pursue in the classroom during the month.

Rieser, who recalls having an argument with actor Sir Ian McKellen over his portrayal of Richard III (he felt the actor had played up the image of the hunchback, whereas in his view the murders of the Princes in the Tower was an evil enough image in itself), has included several poems – mostly written by people with a disability – to focus on. One, by Sue Napolitano, talks of "disabled apartheid" and includes the lines:

"The municipal might of Victorian Architecture
No need for a sign saying
When triumphal stone flights
Of stairs
Smugly bar the way to
The art gallery
The library
The committee meeting."

The suggested poems also include one by Adrian Mitchell (not himself disabled) called "Back In the Playground Blues", focusing on bullying.

"Got a mother and a father, they're one thousand years away
The rulers of the Killing Ground are coming out to play.
Everybody thinking: 'Who they going to play with today?
Well, you get it for being Jewish
And you get it for being black
Get it for being chicken
And you get it for fighting back
You get it for being big and fat
Get it for being small
Oh those who get it get it and get it
For any damn thing at all."

The launch of the month's events will be held at London University's Institute of Education next Wednesday, with a series of speakers concentrating on the theme "The Struggle for Inclusive Education".

In the early years of the Labour government, when David Blunkett was Education Secretary, legislation was introduced insisting that mainstream schools should have access for disabled people, as part of an effort to promote more inclusion.

But the debate appears to have changed focus, with Conservatives concentrating in the run-up to the election on the number of special schools being closed, arguing that many pupils with special needs were struggling in mainstream schools and would be better off in special schools.

The emphasis during Disability History month will be on inclusion, though. "It is the barriers of the environment, organisation and attitude that disadvantage disabled people," argues Rieser. Not their disabilities.

Other events taking place during the month include a screening of a documentary about a band of disabled Congolese, Benda Bilili, at Kilburn's Tricycle Cinema on Sunday 5 December. The core of the group is three middle-aged, polio-surviving street dwellers, who slept on cardboard boxes in the slums of Kinshasa, where they preserved some dignity by making music. The group's frontman is Roger Landu, himself plucked off the streets when he was just 12. Roger, who is non-disabled, plays a curious self-invented instrument made from an empty tin, a curved piece of wood and a tightly stretched string, from which he extracts tuneful solos. Their music is rooted in the rumba, with elements of rhythm and blues, and won acclaim in a recent tour of Europe.

The month's events will go beyond schools, with a conference at the TUC on 25 November focusing on the rights of those with disabilities at work. Rieser believes it is essential to widen the focus of the month's campaign, in the wake of the public service cuts which could well see jobs threatened and services and benefits withdrawn. "Employers should take a more enlightened attitude" towards people with disabilities, he says.

Disability History Month follows the precedent created by other months set aside to focus on the history of black people in the UK, and gays and lesbians. It may, if this one is successful, become an annual event.

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