Images of wheeled chairs made specifically to carry people start to appear in Chinese art. It’s thought they were designed for members of the nobility, to make them seem important, rather than to help people with disabilities.
The Old Testament contains one of the earliest examples of disability awareness: ‘Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, nor maketh the blind to wander out of the path.’ (Leviticus 19:14)
Spectacles were invented in northern Italy, although no one is sure who made the first pairs. The early frames consisted of magnifying glassed riveted together by the handles so they could sit on the nose. The earliest surviving examples, dated to the 15th century, were found under the floorboards of a German convent in 1953.
French battlefield surgeon Ambroise Paré invented artificial limbs including a mechanical hand operated by catches and springs. He started as a ‘barber surgeon’, in the days when barbers also removed teeth and amputated limbs. (The striped barbershop pole represents the bloody napkins used during bloodletting.)
The first wheelchair designed for disability was built for King Philip II of Spain. The ‘invalid’s chair’ had small wheels attached to the end of its legs, and a platform for the king’s feet. It couldn’t be self-propelled – it’s likely the king always had servants transporting him around.
A 15-year-old Louis Braille developed a tactile system of raised dots to help blind people read, write and communicate. He spent several years refining his system, although his original versions didn’t include the letter W, which was not part of the French alphabet at the time (it was added later in the 19th century).
Helen Keller was born in Alabama in the US: at 19 months old she caught an illness – possibly meningitis – that caused her to lose her sight and hearing. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, who was also blind, devised a system for communicating with her by spelling out words in her palm. Helen later became the first deafblind person to earn a degree.
Frida Kahlo di Rivera was injured in a bus accident in Mexico City at the age of 18. Several people were killed, and Kahlo suffered a broken spine, collarbone, pelvis and ribs, forcing her to remain in bed for several months. Bored, she started to paint. A special easel enabled her to paint lying down, with a mirror above her bed so she could create self-portraits.
After noticing the number of men injured in the war, Bert Greeves started building single-seater cars for people with physical impairments. With three wheels, blue paintwork and handlebars instead of a steering wheel, the Invacar (aka ‘invalid carriage’) was a common sight on UK roads in the 1960s and 70s. In 2003 they were recalled and scrapped as they did not meet new safety standards.
A group of war veterans with spinal injuries competed in an archery contest at the Stoke Mandeville Games, marking the birth of the Paralympics movement. Previously, athletes with disabilities had competed at the Olympics: in 1904, US gymnast George Eyser, who had an artificial leg, won three gold medals in a single day.
Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinnear launched their Transport typeface for road signs in the UK. The sans-serif design was created to be as easy to read as possible: the curved strokes of many of the letters, such as the curl on the lower-case L and T, ensured the words could be recognised from a distance when travelling at speed. The typeface is still used on all UK road signs today.
The UK’s Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act was introduced to give legal rights to people with disabilities. Public buildings were required to provide parking and toilets for people with disabilities, and blue badge permits for cars were introduced to allow disabled drivers to park in places where other drivers can’t, such as on double yellow lines.
British TV soap Crossroads was the first to feature a character with a disability. Roger Tonge, who played Sandy, had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, which affected his mobility – he could only appear sitting or lying. Rather than writing him out, a plotline was developed where Sandy was paralysed in an accident and started using a wheelchair.
The UN launched the ‘International Year for Disabled People’, although people with disabilities didn’t play a part in most of its events. Singer Ian Dury, who had a disability caused by childhood polio, released a song titled ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ as a scathing critique of the event. The song was banned by the BBC, but was later performed by Orbital at the opening of the 2012 Paralympics.
Up to 1,500 disabled people protested against ITV’s 24-hour Telethon fundraiser, which they said showed a ‘pitiful’ portrayal of people with disabilities. They chained themselves to buses and blocked traffic with their wheelchairs. “The police arrested us, then let us go as they didn’t have accessible vehicles to take us away,” said one protester.
British Sign Language (BSL) was officially recognised by the UK government as a full, independent language. It is very different to its US counterpart, American Sign Language (ASL) – the two are mutually unintelligible, even though both countries share the same spoken language.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted to promote equality and protect the human rights of people with disabilities. It came into force in May 2008, helping to change the perception of people with disabilities from recipients of pity to equal members of society. As of April 2018, 177 countries have ratified the Convention, with the notable exception of the USA.