Discovering Disability: The General Classes of Disabled People and the Classic Welfare State, 1948-1964

Article excerpt

THE RECOGNITION OF the needs of disabled people was a major feature of the expansion of statutory welfare in twentieth-century Britain. Beginning with the recognition of the special needs of disabled school children in the final decade of the nineteenth century, the state took on the welfare of groups of disabled people perceived to be exceptionally disadvantaged and worthy of statutory welfare. Blind people and disabled ex-servicemen of the First World War were recognized in legislation in the interwar years. Tort law and compensation provided cash benefits and rehabilitation schemes for those injured at work. The unprecedented expansion of statutory welfare in Britain during and after the Second World War brought the possibility of new provision in cash and services for all disabled people. Yet, despite the rhetoric of universalism, the welfare of the "general classes" of disabled people received little consideration in the classic welfare-state settlement of 1943 to 1948. (1)

The general classes were defined as physically disabled adults whose disablement did not result from combat or industrial injury, excluding blind and deaf people, and mentally ill people, for whom separate provisions were made. There were a great number of disabling conditions within this heterogeneous group. The most common conditions were diseases of bones and musculoskeletal conditions, central nervous-system disorders, and circulatory and respiratory difficulties. Other conditions included amputations, diseases of the digestive system, and allergic, endocrine, metabolic, and nutritional diseases. The first official attempts at quantification in the later 1960s identified 2.1 million people in this category. (2)

Scholars agree that the period from 1948 to 1964 was distinct in the development of statutory welfare for the general classes. Sainsbury identified the period as one of "promotional welfare": statutory services for the general classes---like recreational opportunities, transportation, employment training, and household adaptations--were to promote a disabled person's ability to participate more fully in all aspects of life and support, not supplant, non-statutory efforts. (3) Further, in agreement with Younghusband's Social Work in Britain, 1950-1975 (1978), Bridgen and Lowe, Borsay, and Sainsbury have identified a slow development of statutory services for the general classes in this period. (4) As Finlayson pointed out, non-statutory groups continued their traditional philanthropic activities despite the major expansion of statutory welfare, and nonstatutory welfare for all disabled people greatly expanded in the two decades after the Second World War. (5) For statutory welfare, Lowe and Bridgen identified the period as one of "make do and mend" as there was no new legislation for the general classes under thirteen years of Conservative governments. (6) In this absence of new legislation, services developed under the 1948 National Assistance Act. There has been no investigation of this idea of slow progress based on extant documents at the British National Archive, the archives of the Conservative and Labour Parties, and the archives of non-statutory groups at the University of Warwick's Modern Records Centre. After a brief discussion of the current state-of-play in modern British disability history, the first part of this article will discuss how and why the general classes received little particular examination in the classic welfare settlement before examining the development of services on the ground, largely through materials at these archives.

Widespread public and political recognition of the general classes and their welfare began in the mid-1960s with the emergence of powerful pressure group activity and public awareness, increasingly sophisticated pressure in the House of Commons, a desire within Labour and the Conservatives to try to help the neediest groups in a period of real and perceived affluence, and an honest recognition of how the classic welfare state settlement had largely left out the general classes. …