1940s: reforms aimed to improve disabled people’s lives

Shoddy opened at Batley Art Gallery on 28th May, coinciding with Batley Vintage Day. This event has a focus on the 1940s, which is a time of significant changes for disabled people and wider society.

As Shoddy protests the dismantling of the welfare state and huge cuts to public services, it’s timely to look back to the birth of the welfare state and the NHS, when the collective mood was to build a better future for all.

Disabled person in factory 1940sFor disabled people in the 1940’s, social reforms included a number of initiatives aiming to improve their lives in the areas of health, employment, education and income. In 1942, the Beveridge Report named the “giants on the road to reconstruction”: poverty, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. To defeat these, the report recommended setting up a welfare state with social security, national health service, free education, council housing and full employment.

In the years after the second world war, the Labour government aimed to make this vision come true:

  • 1944 Education Act (1944) – every child should receive education suitable for her/his age and ability. Local education authorities to provide special educational treatment for those thought to need it.
  • National Insurance Act (1945) – unemployment pay for six months and sick pay for as long as you were sick.
  • National Insurance – Industrial Injuries Act (1946) – extra benefits for people injured at work.
  • National Assistance Act (1948) – benefits for anybody in need. Mandated local authorities to provide residential facilities and services for people ‘who are substantially and permanently handicapped by illness, injury or congenital deformity’
  • NHS established in 1948 – provided for the acute medical needs of disabled people, and made it possible for local authorities to provide any medical aids necessary to enable disabled people to live in their own homes.

There was particular concern for disabled people, with 300,000 ex-servicemen and women and many civilians disabled as a result of the war. The Disabled Persons (Employment) Act of 1944 was the first piece of legislation designed for disabled people as a group.  As well as trying to get employers to  employ disabled people, this Act made provision for a variety of rehabilitation services and vocational training courses. It brought in the 3% quota for larger employers to take on disabled people and a set of occupations that were reserved for disabled people such as lift and car park attendants. However, it wasn’t enforced and employers who failed to meet the recruitment quota were rarely prosecuted.

Green cardLegislation that followed (Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which became part of the Equality Act in 2010) abolished the quota and registration system, replacing it with another unenforced and unenforceable concept of “reasonable adjustments”.  Based on a requirement to prove that you have a “disability” rather than proving you have been discriminated against as a disabled person, this law was far from what the disabled people’s movement had been fighting for.

Back to the 1940s. The concern and wish to “do something” for disabled people led to a more paternalistic approach, which has continued for decades. The mammoth charities for disabled people which still dominate: Mencap, Scope, Leonard Cheshire, Mind, MS Society, were founded in the 1940’s or early 1950’s by concerned carers and family members. These institutions, born of good intentions, became a major stumbling block to disabled people’s equality and independence, by their very definition positioning disabled people as dependent and needy.

In summary, a time of great change and positive reforms that greatly benefited disabled people and many others. This was a time of hope and desire for a fair and just society. But for disabled people this turned out to be the beginning of “special” and segregated services and continued exclusion, rather than autonomy and equality.


Sources of information



Barnes, Colin, Disabled People in Britain and Discimination, Chapter 2 (1991)



2 thoughts on “1940s: reforms aimed to improve disabled people’s lives

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s