Learning disabilities in railway disability history

Earlier this year, we added to our database an additional 17,000 cases of accident to British & Irish railway workers before 1939. Sadly, this means large numbers of people killed and injured. The evidence left behind by their accidents offers us new opportunities to contribute to the important field of disability history. That’s significant year-round, but particularly worth highlighting at the moment, as we start Disability History Month in the UK.

This year’s theme is particularly pertinent: disability, health & well-being. Future project data releases will more explicitly tackle railway worker health, we hope including in relation to disability. However, what we have at present, focusing on accidents, still speaks to the wider issues of this year’s Disability History Month theme.

In this blog post, we wanted to make a few observations about learning disabilities in our project data, and point you to our existing wider resources on disability in the project data. Those resources include this overview of where disability features in our project database so far, including the new release. It identifies around 30 cases of disability, of some form, which pre-dated the accident under investigation. We’ll return to a few of these workers in blog posts during Disability History Month.

By the nature of the records that were kept at the time and the focus on accidents, virtually all traces of disability in our data relate to physical conditions. So, learning disabilities are rarely seen. Sometimes it is possible to infer that learning disabilities might have been involved, though this needs to be carefully done. One example uncovered is discussed here.

Needless to say, we have to be very cautious about this, given understandings and language of the time. For example, in the case of J Kavanagh, a track worker in Ireland killed in an accident in 1914, his illiteracy was referred to as a disability. We don’t know why Kavanagh was illiterate, however. Did he have an underlying learning disability which had impacted on his ability to learn to read? There was no further comment in the official report which might suggest this was the case. So, how are we to read the accident investigator’s comments? Illiteracy might represent a difficulty in getting by in day-to-day life, and it speaks about potential societal and educational failures – but if there were no underlying causes, was it a disability?

Similarly, comments made by Inspector JH Armytage in relation to the injury of track worker James Morrison in 1913 might be seen as ambiguous. Morrison was a ‘surfaceman’ – a permanent way worker – for the Glasgow and South Western Railway. On 1 April 1913 he was working, with 37 colleagues, relaying track between Hurlford and Mauchline in Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland. One of his colleagues, Alexander Bell, was acting as look-out – that is, someone who kept watch for approaching trains and warned the men to get clear. He spotted the train approaching from one direction, but rather later spotted the other train, approaching from the other direction. Morrison just managed to get his equipment out of the track and jump clear, but he was hit and his arm broken.

Amongst Inspector Armytage’s conclusions was the comment that ‘I do not consider that Bell is personally entirely free from blame, but judging from the manner in which he gave his evidence, I formed the opinion that he was not sufficient intelligent and alert for the responsible position in which he was placed […] The attention of the Company should be drawn to this point’ [1913 Quarter 2, Appendix B]. How should we read this, then? Who acts as the arbiter of intelligence for any given role? My feeling is that without further evidence we would be pushing the case too far to say ‘there might be a learning disability involved.’ However, we need to be attuned to the linguistic clues that would have been understood at the time but which have since been lost as understanding, diagnosis and support has improved.

It may well be that there were railway staff with learning disabilities (formally diagnosed or undiagnosed) who had accidents, but where their disability wasn’t mentioned in the accident report. Does that suggest it wasn’t seen as important or contributory by the inspector responsible for investigating? Clearly it’s hard to know, as we have an absence of evidence, if such cases existed. But if via other sources it was possible (and ethical) to identify accidents in which the person involved had a learning disability that wasn’t identified in the official investigation, this would have some interesting implications for understanding the social model of disability as it operated in the past. This is difficult to do, of course, and one risk is post-facto diagnosis, based on incomplete information and on details gathered at a time when understandings were different.

One thing largely missing from all of the accident reports is the worker’s voice. This was a product of the fact that the records were produced for official purposes, within the industry. All workers’ voices are mediated at best in the sources underlying our project so far. As a result, we’d like to know more about the lived experiences of workers – able and disabled – in their own words.

Thinking about my own position as I write this, I am non-disabled. A disabled person might well come to our project data and aims with different ideas and questions in mind. The blog posts and research that they might undertake would likely reflect a very different set of experiences, and provide different insights. These would be very welcome, so if this was something you felt you could contribute to, please get in touch – we’d love to hear from you.

For the time-being, for more blogs discussing disability in railway service, take your pick from these posts. There’s more to come from us during Disability History Month – and after – so keep watching. And please feel free to get involved in the project, including with guest blog posts, particularly if you are disabled. We’d value your input and experience.

Our next Disability History Month blog post, exploring Frederick Potter’s 1913 accident and resulting disability, is available here.

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  1. Work-caused disability: Frederick Potter, Portsmouth - Railway Work, Life & Death - November 21, 2022

    […] last week’s blog, starting our contributions to Disability History Month, we considered where we might see learning […]

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