David Hevey – The Disabled Century

David Hevey is a producer, photographer and storyteller. He is also the director for The National Disability Arts Collection and Archive. He has written books and made films. Among the films is a 3-part series ‘The Disabled Century’ that was made for the BBC in 2012. It can be watched in full on his website. This film concentrates on physical disability, cerebral palsy, dwarfism, hearing impairment although there is also some mention of mental health problems including bipolar disorder and PTSD. The 3 episodes can be seen here:


Episode 1 – pre 1945

  • Shocking images on film of people with ‘shell shock’ (PTSD) from WWI – images that would rarely be taken now, associated with talk by ex ambulance driver about his memories
  • Images from the time on film interspersed with stills and films of people now and their memories
  • “That’s what happens with war -Nobody wants them”
  • Talks about people ‘locked away’ under 1931 Mental Defective Act – intercutting film of the past with the present day – telling what happened and how he felt
  • Deaf and dumb also sent away, segregation ‘considered caring’
  • Operations to ‘fix’ Dwarfism – to stretch people – effectively torture
  • Tended to have a poor prognosis given especially about life extent (often far from accurate).
  • Disabled workers employed in WWII – often to first work they were given

Photography – mixture of grainy film as lots of harrowing images, mainly of groups or from a distance  which emphasised the differences and the oddities and new close-ups which showed the humanity, often focusing on only parts of the faces, hands or body, often overlayered with film shots of what was happening at the time. Still unsparing – but somehow more human. Is that because you are hearing the story in the people’s own voices?

Episode 2 – 1945 – 1969

  • Disabled veterans were heroes, society owed much, developed plastic surgery to treat burns
  • NHS included support for disabled people – created a system of state-run homes/hospitals
  • Many disabled had no choice about whether or not hey would go to an institution, spent years there, lonely and bored
  • Treated as though ‘we were nothing’
  • Thalidomide – syringomyelia – led to issues about compensation and should you be made to wear artificial limbs
  • Investigations for medical curiosity ‘I felt that I was property …. A bit like a lab animal’
  • Started to see the treatment of disability as an injustice

Pictures of the past interlaced with personal stories and reminisces. Traumatic stories of punishment and treatment. Wards cramped. Beds on top of each other. very aware of the possibility of death (both own and others). People talking are very eloquent – makes a mockery of the assumption of uselessness. Pictures still the extreme contrast of close-up now and distance images from the past. Shows a stunning image of a thalidomide lady surrounded by artificial legs, telling her story.

Episode 3 – 1970 – the present

  • Talking about the grim reality of mental health wards in the 70’s
  • Not allowed to think or make choices
  • But leaving could be a shock after a life in an institution, leaving home, leaving friends
  • Care in the community was lacking in resources
  • Need for self acceptance and knowledge of who you were, important to meet other people
  • 1995 disability discrimination act – but no enforcement
  • “Here I am, you have to deal with me”
  • “We are proud of ourselves”
  • But, in reality, few jobs, much poverty and much to little support.

Ongoing contrast between old images and films shots, grainy, often in B/W, again distance shots versus close-up, sharp focus, colour of modern storytellers. Often overlaid, old on new, multiple sounds tracks implying the confusion of what happened to many people. Dark and light, flashing lights and images. Real life stories on fantastical (horrific) images that are hard to believe. Parts of faces, parts of bodies – implying need to look closely, to concentrate.


The overall series is hard to watch, makes for a grim story of disability in the past, and, unfortunately, also in the present. The series was made nearly a decade ago – but little has changed. Most people continue to ignore the disabled, the resources are limited and there is little public understanding.

Reference list:

Hevey, D. (s.d.) Viewing. At: http://davidhevey.com/viewing/ (Accessed on 10 April 2020)

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