Labour History, Disability History and Deaf History - Some Reflections

Recently, I was talking to someone about my research, and they asked me ‘Do you consider yourself a labour historian?’. I found this discussion deeply thought-provoking for several reasons. On the one hand, I largely assumed my work was outside of labour history. Why? I am not sure entirely: perhaps my research was scarce on quantitative data, or even felt out of dialogue with major historiographical debates in the field, such as the role of organised labour, the impact of industrialisation, or the emergence of a global labour history.

            Yet, on the other hand, I am interested in the significance of employment, and more specifically the place it has in disability and Deaf activism. During my doctoral research which examines the labour and livelihoods of disabled people from 1970 to 2015, I have examined records from the Association of Disabled Professionals (ADP, f.1971). Collections from disabled professionals reveal information about their members at different points in their careers. These collections also shed light on several different professions, from nursing to teaching, and factory manufacturing.

            In addition, my previous work has explored the barriers that prevent specific communities from accessing paid work; the pay gaps between different groups of people in society; and the ways in which employment has been interconnected with arguments of citizenship. For example, one exclusionary practice in recruitment processes common in late twentieth-century Britain which prevented D/deaf people from applying for jobs was inviting individuals to apply through telephone numbers, and not providing any alternative means, such as addresses, to make enquiries. Several newspapers, such as the London Evening Standard, contained job vacancies but few provided any further details besides their telephone contact details. As a result, D/deaf people and politicians called upon reforms of the Advertising Standards, actively challenging forms of discrimination into the 1990s. 

            Examining the connections between labour relations and Deaf-led activism has been another important thread to my work. A central case study of the Deaf-led pressure group, the National Union of the Deaf (NUD, f. 1976), has shown the organisation, political objectives, and campaigning methods of Deaf people demanding equal rights in the workplace. Unsurprisingly, the radical Deaf-led activism of the NUD took inspiration from older campaign efforts centred around workers’ rights such as the National League of the Blind and Disabled (NLBD, f.1899). The NLBD affiliated to the Trades Union Congress, and organised both marches and strikes for blind workers in the early twentieth century. This example demonstrates the ways in which labour history interconnects with histories of activism, political agency, and rights. Thus, labour history offers a more extensive outlook and inclusive approach than I had previously assumed. 

            Overall, I have realised that my work aligns much more closely to labour history than I first expected. Despite my initial hesitations, I recognise the exciting potentialities of developing my work in this field. Ultimately, through labour history, historians can learn more about how workers meet others, demand rights, integrate into communities, build relationships, and gain a level of economic empowerment. Thus, labour can be a crucial analytic category for historians of disability, and scholars who work in Deaf history.