Establish the basics

This guide was last updated in 2009

Like Martin Freeman, many of us are alerted to the disability of an ancestor by the census.

From 1851, people were asked to record whether they are blind or deaf-and-dumb. From 1871, they were additionally asked whether they are an imbecile, idiot, lunatic or feeble-minded (the categories change slightly over the years).

These rather crude labels by no means include all forms of disability (for example, if someone was paralysed or had lost a leg, it would not have been recorded under these terms), and it is likely that large numbers of people did not declare their conditions, particularly in the earlier years. However, lots of information is there to be gleaned. Precise details such as ‘blind from birth’, ‘blind in one eye’ or even ‘blind since 1873’ appear.

The census may also reveal that your ancestor attended a special school, lived in a particular institution or ended up in poverty, the workhouse or in prison - possibly as the result of their disability. It might tell you whether they were taken in by family members, or whether there was blatant stigma attached to their condition – for example, a disabled party might be referred to simply by their initials, or a deaf-and-dumb child might be listed last in a family line-up, regardless of their age.

Occupations can sometimes provide an extra clue. There is some work that can only be done by the healthy and able-bodied, and other jobs to which people with particular disabilities often turned – for example, basket-weaving and piano tuning for blind workers.

Obituaries can be another means of finding out more about your ancestor’s life, including their disability, and events such as the marriage of a disabled person might also have attracted sufficient attention to get a mention in a local paper.

Note: information about disability is not yet available on the 1911 census; it will remain blacked out until the original 100 years closure is up.

Disabled ancestors
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