Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Forward - The History of Birmingham Disability Resource Centre

Image from the front cover of Forward, drawn by Crippen

Crippen's cartoon shows the Forward statue which was formerly located in Centenary Square Birmingham, with the various characters featured in the original sculpture replaced by representations of disabled people 

Copyright details

First published 2010 by Birmingham Disability Resource Centre, Bierton Road, Yardley, Birmingham, B25 8PQ, UK, with funding received from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Copyright © Birmingham Disability Resource Centre 2010

The rights of Birmingham Disability Resource Centre and the contributors of this book, to be identified as the authors of this work has been asserted by them in accordance with the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher (Birmingham Disability Resource Centre). Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

Illustration and Front Cover: Crippen (http://www.daveluptoncartoons.co.uk/ )

Editing and design by: Hazel Wood of Hazelwood Associates (http://www.hazelwooduk.com/ )

Printed by: Westpoint Printing Co Ltd, Fazeley Street, Birmingham, UK.

Also available online in PDF format






Chapter One:  The roots of change

Chapter Two:  When the personal became political

Chapter Three: Defining moments and Building Bridges

Chapter Four : Spirit of perseverance

Chapter Five: Rights now!

Chapter Six : Doing it for ourselves

Chapter Seven : The man from the council

Chapter Eight : Empowering services

Chapter Nine : Forward!


Resourcefulness is etched into the very heart of Birmingham Disability Resource Centre. Its founders and supporters were people of enormous resourcefulness and determination in their quest for equal opportunities, education and dignity. This book is dedicated to them and to all those who have had to strive to be recognised for their abilities and their potential.

We would like to place on record our appreciation to everyone for their support in helping to give this centre and its people its rightful place in history, not only in Birmingham, but in the UK as a whole.

Special thanks must go to Hazel Wood for her work in editing and designing this book and to Ray Gormley for his stalwart work as audio technician and interviewer. They have both contributed extra time and dedication to the project.

We are grateful to The Heritage Lottery Fund which recognised the importance of this project and ¬for its financial assistance. We would also like to acknowledge the wealth of contributions and support we have had for this book from the following:

Mary Barker           David Barnsley     Andy Beaton          

Stuart Bishop          Yvonne Boddey   Sir Albert Bore   

John Boular             Jerome Chen Bacchus

Carl Chinn             Anita Cole           Julie Cole   

Tom Comerford      Ken and Maggie Davis 

John Ellis                 Clenton Farquharson

Carl Freeman         Ray Gormley       Mandy Hawker      

Mike Higgins          David Heap            Linda Laurie       

Demelza Llewelyn   Dave Lupton (Crippen)

Maria Mleczko      Sarah McMahon  Clive Mason           

Debbie Nunn          Susan O’Shea        Tim Philips          

George Rowley       Alun Severn           Louise Simmons     

Sue Smith               Robin Surgeoner       Len Tasker

Mohammed Vaseem    Daniel Vincent          Terry Vincent

Katherine Walsh      Bob Williams-Findlay    Hazel Wood

Irene Wright

Preface: The Heritage Lottery Fund

The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) distributes money raised by the National Lottery to heritage projects throughout the UK. These projects include multi-million-pound investments in well-known buildings and sites like Birmingham Town Hall and Hadrian’s Wall, and also smaller grants making a big difference to communities and community groups such as the Birmingham Disability Resource Centre.

One of our strategic aims is “to help more people and a wider range of people, to take an active part in and make decisions about their heritage”. This includes helping disabled people themselves and disabled people’s organisations to make grant applications. It was, therefore, with great pleasure that HLF was able to fund the project which has resulted in this book.

The history and heritage of disabled people and disabled people’s organisations has for too long been a ‘hidden history’, but in recent years, with HLF funding, many disability organisations have been able to research, record and share their unique heritage with a wider audience. Much of this has been possible using oral history techniques with the recordings being held as a permanent record in archives and libraries for present and future generations to learn from.

An important aspect of these histories is how disabled people themselves have influenced and brought about changes in society’s attitudes towards disability, leading to disabled people gaining equality of access and the inclusion in society enjoyed by non-disabled people.

The Birmingham Disability Resource Centre’s project not only ensured that disabled people took an active part in exploring their own heritage, but also has highlighted the active role disabled people have played in influencing attitudinal change.

Heritage Lottery Fund

March 2010

Foreword by Professor Carl Chinn, MBE

I never knew my Granddad Perry when he was able to walk. Our Granddad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the early 1950s and one of the last times he was able to walk unaided was when he escorted Our Mom down the aisle on her wedding day in 1954.

Soon after, the MS took such a hold that Granddad lost the use of his legs and his right arm. But he never lost the use of his mind or his memory, nor of his wit or his good humour. I recall that when we were out with Our Granddad in his wheelchair that people would often look over him to Our Mom and ask “How is he?” Mom would answer angrily, “Ask him yourself. He is Arthur and he can talk for himself.”

I grew up with disability, but did not recognise it as such because Our Granddad was such an important member of our family and he was always treated as such. Nor did I recognise that Our Nan was disabled. But she was. She had lost her index finger on her right hand in an accident on a power press in a factory.

Looking back, Nan’s physical health had also been badly affected by the poverty in which she had grown up in the 1920s. Her feet were misshapen because of the charity boots she’d had to wear and she always had problems with them. But, like Granddad, we never thought of Nan as disabled because she was another key figure in our family.

Disability touches every family and every neighbourhood in Birmingham at some time. Whether this be a parent, a sibling, a friend or a neighbour who may have been born disabled or become disabled later in life. Sadly, in the past, not so many Brummies had disabled playmates at school or disabled colleagues in the workplace, this was because for a large part of the last century our society was less enlightened and many disabled people spent their school days and adult lives living in institutions.

But, throughout those years, there were many disabled people who have fought not only for their own independence, but for the independence of others. They have struggled to free themselves from institutions and go into the community to live full and active lives, to be respected as equal citizens and to be able to contribute to our proud city in the modern age.

This is a most significant history book. It tells the story of the fight for independence by what started off as a small group of disabled people in the city, but who went on to successfully campaign for and to set up their own centre at the former Bierton Road School in Yardley in 1992.

Eighteen years on, the centre is still going strong and still supporting Birmingham’s disabled citizens through information and support services.

The board members, staff and volunteers of the Birmingham Disability Resource Centre continue to work with tireless dedication to make our city accessible to all Brummies, regardless of age, disability or caring responsibilities and they should be rightly proud of the inspiration they provide to all of us as we move our great working city forward and into an age where every citizen can access work, leisure, housing and education opportunities.

Introduction by Pete Millington

In September 1992, a new centre opened in a section of the ground floor of an old public building in Birmingham which once used to be a school.

The school itself opened in 1928 and was known as Bierton Road Council School. Its intake of 86 pupils came from nearby Yardley Primary School. There are still many local people from South Yardley today who have memories of their school days from 1928 right up until it closed in 1985.

One can only imagine the excitement and trepidation for both children and teachers alike on their first morning at this brand new building with its magnificent and resplendent Birmingham City Council coat of arms positioned over the entrance hall from the main playground.

We can but speculate whether the children gained inspiration for their educational studies from gazing up at the sculpted objects which are, to this day, displayed on either side of the heraldic shield of the coat of arms, as they entered the school each morning or following play time.

On one side of the coat of arms are tools of industry, including an imposing anvil from the smith’s foundry, representing Birmingham’s industrial heritage and on the other side are the implements of leisure and the arts, representing the city’s cultural tradition. Or, perhaps, the pupils of Bierton Road were inspired by the city’s optimistic and self-assured motto, Forward, which was adopted at the very first meeting of the council in December 1838 and has, henceforth, adorned the base of its coat of arms.

What we can say with certainty is that very few disabled children would have passed under that beautiful crest in the decades between 1928 and 1985. In 1928 there were scant opportunities for disabled children, least of all access to academic education.

In the early part of the 20th century, if disabled children did not die in infancy or were forced to beg on the streets in order to survive, the majority were destined to spend their lives in long-term institutions, hospitals, workhouse infirmaries and even asylums. The luckiest of them might have attended a more forward thinking charitable institution where therapy and occupational training replaced academic study.

Even the guarantee of education for disabled children, provided by the 1944 Education Act, contained no mention of inclusion into mainstream schools like Bierton Road. Whilst there is no doubt that the introduction of special schools offered a great improvement from what had gone before, disabled children were still destined to spend their lives away from their peers with no prospects of gaining qualifications in readiness for the big wide world.

Perhaps there is some irony, therefore, in the fact that the new centre, opening on the old Bierton Road school site in 1992, was going to be one of the country’s first support centres not just committed to the inclusion of disabled people in wider society, but actually set up and run by disabled people themselves.

The conversion of a ground-floor wing of the school into a fully accessible centre known as Birmingham Disability Resource Centre was even funded by the same city council whose forward-looking motto and coat of arms acknowledging the firm foundations of industrial and cultural heritage still embellishes the front entrance hall at Bierton Road.

The most important story behind the launch of Birmingham Disability Resource Centre is that of the pioneering disabled people whose own vision of an inclusive future led to a seven-year campaign of lobbying, negotiating with, and working alongside, the local council. For the most part these were ordinary disabled people who had banded together in 1985 to form the Birmingham Disability Rights Group to raise awareness about disability and to campaign for greater access and equality of opportunity.

Most were people whose own personal experiences were not so greatly dissimilar to those of disabled citizens of the early 1900s – segregation, isolation, rejection, disadvantage, life on low income, medicalisation and discrimination.

Here is our own attempt to document, celebrate and recognise the legacy of the disabled people and their allies who set up Birmingham Disability Resource Centre. It is a celebration of the achievements of all those who have been associated with both the Rights Group and the centre in its 25-year history. In 1986 concepts like equal citizenship and social justice for disabled people were virtually unheard of and the vision of a centre in Birmingham run by disabled people for disabled people was an unachieveable pipedream.

This historical record would not have been possible without financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund (West Midlands) which has recognised the importance of heritage to disabled people by funding the 18-month oral history project which has provided the material for the book.

This is much more than just a history of a building; a history of bricks and mortar. It is the story of Birmingham’s role in the wider change brought about by the international disabled people’s movement. A change based on inclusive living principles, user-led direction of services and the liberating “social model of disability”.

This is by no means the end of the road in this history of social transformation, but, if we are to continue to move forward, it is essential to pause every now and then to reflect on the rich and resourceful heritage we have been gifted from the past.