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Perpetuating Victorian attitudes to deafness and employability in United Kingdom social policy
Martin Atherton

This chapter examines the mind-sets that frame twentieth- and early twenty-first-century United Kingdom social policy. These thought processes continue to marginalise deaf people from opportunities for meaningful employment and can be traced to their roots in the Poor Law legislation for England and Wales of 1834. The concept of ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ that underpinned the Poor Law placed deaf people in a legally ambivalent situation that has never adequately been resolved, and so they came to be regarded as ‘deserving’ almost by default because of their inability to hear. Although this legislation was finally abolished upon the creation of a welfare state in 1948, its ethos continues to practically exclude deaf and disabled people from the workplace by emphasising what it is assumed an individual cannot do, rather than on what (s)he can do.

in Disability and the Victorians
Attitudes, interventions, legacies

The Victorian era, encompassing the latter six decades of the nineteenth century, was a period by which significant areas of the British Isles had become industrialised and urbanised. Both processes exacerbated the extent of impairing conditions, ranging from industrial injury through the prevalence of debilitating physiological illnesses. Disability and the Victorians: attitudes, interventions, legacies brings together the work of eleven scholars and focuses on the history of disability and, while showcasing the work of a diverse gathering of historians, also gives a flavour of how disability history engages the work of scholars from other disciplines and how they, in turn, enhance historical thought and understanding. Equally, while the focus is on the Victorian era, a time during which society changed significantly, both at the bottom and from the top, it was also a time in which patterns developed that were to have an enduring influence. Therefore, a taste of that enduring influence is presented in chapters that suggest the resilience of Victorian thought and practices in the modern era. Consequently, an underlying aim is to encourage readers to take a broad view, both of ‘disability’ and of Victorian influences and values.

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Iain Hutchison
Martin Atherton
, and
Jaipreet Virdi

‘Disability’ is a wide and multifaceted concept and Victorian elites drew heavily on a whole range of ways of classifying not only sections within society but also behaviours that they considered to be socially and morally deviant. Notably, through the application of Poor Laws in the United Kingdom and beyond, what Victorians were guided by their perceptions, on the one hand, of able-bodiedness and the ability to perform productive and self-supporting work and, on the other hand, of people who were disabled from working through a range of physical, sensory and mental impairments. They increasingly tried to differentiate between those whom they considered to be worthy of aid and those they deemed to be unworthy of assistance and support, through being unable or unwilling to find employment. The chapters presented in this collection represent some of the ways in which support was offered or withheld and how those deemed to be worthy of such support were identified.

in Disability and the Victorians