The Complexity of Movement for Disabled Individuals in Twentieth Century England

Metal and leather device on a cloth on a table
Thackeray Museum of Medicine Prosthetics and Orthotics Collection, Part 1645.002, ‘Artificial arm for right above elbow amputation; Steeper hand with spring loaded thumb and metal wrist extension detachable at mid forearm level’. Image: Niamh Malone

Project Team: Niamh Malone, Emma Waterton (supervisor), and John Schofield (supervisor)

Project Support and Funding: The Leverhulme Trust

The aim of this PhD project is to answer why the disabled footprint has been absent from histories of movement by interrogating the complex relationship between physical and social mobility. To do this I will highlight the unique role of assistive technologies within this relationship and use material culture analysis to demonstrate how the formation and reformation of individual and group identities within the disabled community are reflected through alterations in the material landscape (Drozdzewski, Waterton, Sumartojo, 2019). I will push this concept further to investigate how the material history written into prosthetics interplays with the relationship between physical and social mobility and how this has shaped disabled communities’ interaction with heritage; troubling the notion that disabled individuals are not creators of heritage or experts in design.

To do this, the project will engage with four core research questions:

  1. To what extent is social mobility for disabled individuals linked to the quality and ease of their physical mobility?
  2. How far is physical mobility for disabled individuals improved by developments in the design of assistive technologies? To what extent are these designs changed through crip hacking and how is this acknowledged? 
  3. What is the impact of capitalism on perceptions of the disabled body, how are these perceptions linked to mobility, and how does this affect the development of assistive technologies?
  4. Why have conceptions of mobility and materiality been dominating forces in disabled people’s lives and to what extent do they shape identity and the position of the disabled individual in heritage construction?  

This thesis also serves an activist purpose. Through interaction with contemporary heritage projects, the daily lived experiences of disabled people are foregrounded. By accentuating the choices made regarding interaction with technology, the role of technology in identity formation in this thesis emphasises disabled agency in a way which is absent in many contemporary works. An absence which is curious considering the general acknowledgement that identity is central to heritage studies with multiple works emphasising the connection between identity and belonging (Waterton, 2021). Despite legislative advancements of disabled rights in the UK (UN Convention on Disability Rights, 2009 and Equality Act, 2010) there is still an overwhelming pressure to conform to the hetero-normative able-bodied norm (Babik and Gardner, 2021 and Tear, 2020). This pressure is not just felt socially but has also shaped academic disciplines such as heritage where the heteronormative, able-bodied, middle/upper-class male has been consistently foregrounded. For many disabled people, pressure to conform manifests in masking their disabilities and attempting to project an able-body.

As disability is one of the major assemblages shaping contemporary society, disability studies provides a lens for investigating several exclusionary factors across the Global North and South. By highlighting the rich history of crip hacking – the altering and tinkering of assistive technologies by disabled users to make them better suited to individuals’ lives, and underlining users’ choices – this project makes a statement about conformity and access. There is no need to uphold, or strive towards, a normative body to contribute to society, whether this is through heritage construction, academia, or any other environment. Furthermore, contributions to society need not be economic in nature. Non-disabled individuals and institutions often find it more manageable to comprehend disability when they observe disabled individuals striving to live a life aligned with their own values and goals. Consequently, disabled individuals who embody this perceived normalcy in their approach to life are often more respected, leading to many disabled people being excluded from professional environments, including but not limited to the heritage and museum sectors (Moeller, 2019). 

It is crucial to acknowledge that one of the most significant factors in shaping disabled identity, regardless of their choice to conform to societal norms or not, lies in the act and agency of this choice. Acknowledgement and respect of this agency must be the driving force in shaping how disability is engaged with. This PhD demonstrates that it is the duty of society, academia, and professional institutions to honour these choices and ensure that mobility is not restricted as a result of choosing to exist in a non-normative body. Equally, recognition of the validity of non-normative choices, and incorporating this choice into foundational structures, will yield significant advantages for the field of heritage. In addition to providing a broader and more varied perspective on heritage, I contend that the incorporation of the non-normative into fundamental structures is essential to prevent the replication of the studied inequalities by the institution or individual involved. 

Sustainable Development Goal/s