By Ruth Fabby, Director of Disability Arts Cmyru, former director of DaDaFest
During the late 18th century as the industrial revolution exploded, with communities moving from rural to urban societies, many disabled people were forced into rough sleeping. Up to this point disabled people were usually included as part of the community and there was support within the extended family, but with industrialisation this became harder. To be blind came to mean exclusion, poverty and a probable early death. There was no provision for disabled people, and discrimination was widespread. Articles sometimes appeared in newspapers complaining about the numbers of disabled beggars on the streets.
Rushton was all too aware that many blind people were living on the streets of Liverpool. He bought two cottages where Lime Street station is now located, had four ‘cots’ built and put the word out for blind people to come and sleep there. The first night, 49 people turned up. Rushton expanded this initiative with more beds, and as more people became involved he helped establish the Royal School for the Blind in 1791. Even though Rushton set up the Blind School, he also checked regularly that they had fair and equal treatment from the staff, sometimes turning up un-announced.
Disability has always been around. At the end of the 18th Century it was thought that between 60 – 70% of every community would be classed as disabled. It was the Industrial Revolution that began to segregate people according to their impairments, and to set up institutions based on these characteristics.
It was a tough time for disabled people, with growing exclusion, and figures such as Rushton were too few. Although there have been improvements, the damage is still being unravelled. We need to honour those early pioneers, like Rushton, who fought for a more inclusive society.