This Disability History Month, staff from across the British Library have collaborated on a series of blog posts to highlight stories of disability and disabled people in the Library’s collections. Each week a member of staff will showcase an item from the collections and present it alongside commentary from a member of the British Library’s staff Disability Support Network. These selections are a snapshot insight into the Library’s holdings of disability stories, and we invite readers to use these as a starting point to explore the collections further and share your findings with us.
This selection has been made by Sarah Kirk-Browne, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.
A key issue in 'Disability, Health and Well Being' is challenging the obstacles that can prevent people accessing services in their local communities. Reflecting on this concern, I was reminded of friends Sharon and Radha, who recorded an inspirational conversation for The Listening Project in 2018.
In this recording, Sharon and Radha got together in Sharon’s home in Cardiff to discuss how their friendship developed and what healthy living means to them. They are both wheelchair users and first met a couple of years earlier at a conference. They quickly found common ground in their frustration at the lack of accessible exercise opportunities in their community. They both passionately support the rights of disabled people to manage their own health and well being, and decided to join forces to help improve this.
Both Sharon and Radha have life-long conditions, and they described their disappointment at only being offered finite and fragmentary physical and mental health services. After a spinal injury, Sharon spent a year in residential rehabilitation. But once this was completed, she was offered six weeks of Occupational Therapy and Physiotherapy support, then left unsure what to do next. Radha has multiple sclerosis, and as her physical health began to deteriorate she became increasingly aware that the opportunities she wanted – and was legally entitled - to access, were not available in reality. In this clip they describe the importance of being able to find and use health services, and how the barriers for disabled people led to them beginning their campaign.
Over the years, as their friendship grew, Sharon and Radha shared different personal experiences of being disabled and this helped to inform their work. In the recording they recalled stories of public transport, trying to access help through local politicians and the work of charities connected to specific health conditions. They soon realised that although there may be some good examples of local services, there was often low awareness of them and insufficient funding across the board. Through their discussions and research they also agreed it was particularly important to emphasise services that are cross-condition and named their campaign 'Exercise for All' in response. In this clip they describe the importance of health and well being services for everyone in a community.
One of the most moving parts of this conversation is Sharon and Radha’s reflections on how they transitioned from being able-bodied to their lives as wheelchair users. They explained the process of losing and regaining independence and negotiating changed relationships with family, friends, and themselves. The experience of giving up her career was particularly difficult for Radha, however they agreed that leaving work also opened up a new world of activity and friendship which has been essential for their well being. In this clip they describe their experiences of relearning a sense of self, and not being defined by disability.
Together Sharon and Radha have helped each other to re-examine and enjoy their lives. There have been many challenges, but they have also discovered new joys and reassessed what is important to them. In this final clip they describe the deeper meaning, positive energy, and rewarding relationships that they now feel in their daily lives.
Sharon and Radha were recorded as part of The Listening Project, which began in 2012 and came to an end in 2022. The project captured personal conversations between people on a subject of their choosing, for broadcast in edited form on a BBC radio programme and archived in full at the British Library. We currently have a collection of over 2,000 recordings, spanning across the decade from around the United Kingdom. They offer an intimate and unparalleled glimpse into people’s lives, and their wide variety of experience. There are many voices of people with disabilities in this collection to explore, covering a huge range of topics.
Reflection from British Library staff Disability and Carer Support Network member Barbara O'Connor:
Sharon and Radha express so well the power of the collective voice. Their sentiment is moving and matter of fact: this the way it is. It shouldn’t be. We’re going to do so something about it. Power in community, strength through constructive group identity. This could be the unofficial mantra of the British Library’s Disability and Carer Support Network.
The path to hell is paved with good intentions. Examples of fragmentary provision are legion. I still flinch when I recall queuing for my 1st Covid jab. The civic-NHS mobilisation was impressive; walkie-talkie wielding high-vis clad volunteers, hot drink stands, even water bowls for the tethered-and-treasured. Nothing was overlooked, except of course, my access. The disabled signage and the ramp were in place. An entrance wide enough for my wheelchair? Oops. Tethered-but-not-so-treasured.
I find the conversation about the transition from able-bodied to less able-bodied uncomfortable. I’m only midway through the process and I struggle: grieving for the body that I had; unsure of how to reconstruct me; wildly flailing between my coping mechanisms, namely those of questionable black humour, shock and awe and raging anger. For one thing I can be sure, consign me to the 'Oh Bless, Oh Brave' brigade and you’ll experience the latter.