British Library gives voice to Disability History Month

Hearing Concern Oral History

As part of UK Disability History Month, the British Library is making available a new online package of oral history interviews – Disability Voices at http://sounds.bl.uk – which charts the experiences of disabled people.

The Disability Voices online interviews have been collated from a number of project partnerships and collections gathered over the past decade, and more will be added as the collections grow. The British Library has an active policy to make sure that the views and memories of people of every background, culture and occupation are represented in its collections. The British Library holds a number of oral history collections which document the personal experiences of disabled people, both old and young.

UK Disability History Month aims to raise the profile of disabled people’s rights and to advocate disability equality through celebrating the historical and contemporary struggles and achievements of disabled people globally. The Disability Voices web resource gives a fascinating insight into the lives of some disabled people in the twentieth century and through oral testimonies, the challenges and discrimination, but also triumphs, which disabled people have experienced.

Disability Voices brings together a series of extraordinary rich and diverse interviews from a number of sources including:

· Speaking for Ourselves: an Oral History of People with Cerebral Palsy was a two-year partnership led by Scope, one of Britain's leading disability charities, and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2004 and 2005. The project trained sixteen disabled volunteer interviewers to record the life stories of people living with cerebral palsy. 36 life story interviews with those involved in the establishment of Scope and over 230 hours of recorded testimonies by people with cerebral palsy, aged 50 and over, were collected. Ann Pridmore from Leicestershire was one of the volunteer interviewers on Speaking for Ourselves: "It's an exciting and valuable project. Why? Because disabled people are not included in social history. As a disabled woman with cerebral palsy this opportunity to record our history is long overdue.” Speaking for Ourselves Project Co-ordinator Phil Mann adds: "It is vital to be able to explain 'what it's like' and I hope others will gain inspiration and awareness from hearing about the lifelong experience of living with Cerebral Palsy."

· Unheard Voices: Interviews With Deafened People – this collection of interviews captures the experiences of people who have become profoundly deafened and family members of people who have become profoundly deafened. The project was co-ordinated by Hearing Link, the UK hearing loss charity that provides information and support. It involved nearly 70 interviews being conducted over a two-year period (2008 and 2009) by 16 volunteers who have direct experience of hearing loss (either personally or through a partner). It was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The interviews are personal and revealing and illustrate how people manage when either suddenly or over a period of time they or their loved one loses most or all of their hearing. The interviews were audio recorded and supported by a Speech to Text Reporter, who provided a live text version of the conversation on a monitor. Colin Lennox from Dumfries was one of the volunteer interviewers: "Hearing loss affects millions of people but the impact it can have on someone’s life is still not well recognised. It is therefore highly gratifying that the British Library is to hold transcripts of these interviews – they are very powerful and revealing. I am delighted to have been part of such an important project. They say everyone has five minutes of fame – perhaps being part of this oral history was mine!"

· Paralympians Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson and Danny Crates were interviewed for the project An Oral History of British Athletics, a rolling programme of life story interviews with British athletes.

· Geoff Webb’s extraordinary self-recorded autobiography provides a moving account of living with polio. As a result of the illness Geoff Webb, was paralysed and placed on a positive pressure respirator. This recording was made shortly before his death from cancer and the manner in which he speaks is dictated by his respirator.

Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History, British Library said: “In the last decade the oral history department at the British Library has made it a core aim to develop its collection of histories of disability. In addition to the very successful partnerships with Hearing Link and Scope, we have gathered significant collections relating to mental health services users (with Mental Health Media), which sit alongside a number of deposited collections from broadcasters and recordings relating to disability policy. We have also been careful to enshrine testimonies of disability within all our projects, such as the largest UK oral history project; the Millennium Memory Bank. This drive meshes with the wider efforts made by British Library to achieve genuine equality for disabled people both within its workforce and for those who access its services, which was recognised in 2009 by the receipt of a platinum award from the Employers’ Forum on Disability.”

Disability Voices at http://sounds.bl.uk contains unique and moving memories from disabled people recalling childhood, family life, education and work experiences. There are insights into their treatment by medical professionals, the daily challenges of the workplace and of the attitudes of wider society, and their involvement in disability organisations and communities. As well as providing useful learning material to professionals, Disability Voices expects to challenge and inspire a wide range of users: to help people relate their own experience to others in similar circumstances, but also engage with those who have little knowledge of the lives of disabled people in our society.


Notes to Editors:

UK Disability History Month is an annual event creating a platform to focus on the history of disabled people’s struggle for equality and human rights. For some time now a number of disabled-led organisations have felt the need to have a specific time in the year when the history of their struggle for equality and human rights can be focused on. It will run from 22nd November to 22nd December 2011. This covers HIV/AIDS Day (1st December), International Day of People with Disabilities (3rd Dec.) and International Human Rights Day (8th December). It also follows on directly from Anti-Bullying Week (15th to 19th November) which is important as 2.5 times as much bullying is recorded towards disabled as compared to non-disabled young people (70-80% of young disabled people claim to have been bullied in school and college. Website: http://ukdisabilityhistorymonth.com/.

Scope is a charity that supports disabled people to enjoy the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. We work with all disabled people and have particular expertise in working with people with cerebral palsy and complex support needs. Visit www.scope.org.uk | www.twitter.com/scope | www.facebook.com/scope for more information.

Hearing Link is the UK hearing loss organisation that makes it easy to find the right information, appropriate services, and meaningful ways to connect with other people. It is a volunteer-led organisation that supports people with all levels of hearing loss and family members too. www.hearinglink.org

For more information contact:


The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - www.bl.uk - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.  

The British Library has one of the largest sound collections in the world. It holds over a million discs, 200,000 tapes, and many other sound and video recordings. The collections come from all over the world and cover the entire range of recorded sound from music, drama and literature, to oral history and wildlife sounds. Collection material comes in every conceivable format, from wax cylinder and wire recordings to CD and DVD, and from a wide variety of private, commercial and broadcast sources. The British Library also operates a wide-ranging sound recording programme of its own. www.bl.uk/soundarchive 


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Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, interviewed by Rachel Cutler, 2006, An Oral History of British Athletics,  British Library reference C790/34/01-02, tape 1 side A [digitised as track 1], © The British Library.  Extract duration: 00:01:52

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Lin Berwick, interviewed by Philip Mann, 2004 – 2005, Speaking for Ourselves: an oral history of people with cerebral palsy, British Library reference C1134/04/01-07, tape 1 side A [digitised as track 1]. © The British Library and Scope.  Extract duration: 00:01:24

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Barry Morgan, interviewed by Ann Austin, 2005, Speaking for Ourselves: an oral history of people with cerebral palsy, British Library reference C1134/07/01-08, tape 1 side A [digitised as track 1].  © The British Library and Scope.  Extract duration: 00:01:14

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Tony Rugg, interviewed by Stephanie Pennell, 2009, Unheard Voices: interviews with deafened people, British Library reference C1345/32, track 1. © Hearing Link.  Extract duration: 00:00:59

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Jean Sneddon, interviewed by Colin Ellis, 2009, Unheard Voices: interviews with deafened people, British Library reference C1345/45, track 2. © Hearing Link.  Extract duration: 00:00:31

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