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This is a brief guide to researching records of disability. Research requires an understanding of the history of disability and how attitudes and terminology changed over time. This guide highlights some of the key sources and demonstrates the wide variety and large number of government departments in which they are found. The records held at The National Archives will often complement records kept in a variety of local archives and specialist collections. Most of these records are not of specific disabled people but of government policy and services.

  • What would it be useful to know before I start?

    • Try to find out:

      • the type of disability and how it was referred to historically
      • the dates and places associated with your research
      • how and why the state was involved
  • What records can I see online?

    • Census records 1851-1911

      Search and view census records from 1851 to 1911 through Ancestry (£There may be a charge for accessing this information. Searching indexes may be free.) or free of charge at The National Archives building in Kew. From 1851, the information recorded for each individual on the census included a record of certain disabilities. Enter the following terms in the 'Keyword' search box to find these records:

      • deaf
      • dumb
      • blind
      • lunatic
      • imbecile
      • idiot
      • asylum
      • inmate
      • patient
    • Cabinet Papers 1915-1980

      Search The National Archives Cabinet Papers 1915-1980 website for a wide range of Cabinet Papers chosen for their historical significance. Learn how legislation and services for the physically disabled evolved in the post-war period and search the site for information on the work and findings of the following committees:

      • Committee on the Rehabilitation and Resettlement of Disabled Persons
      • Piercy Committee
      • Younghusband Committee

Did you know?

'Disability' has been defined in many different ways over time. For the purpose of this guide, we have taken 'disability' to include:

  • impairments of all types whether sensory or physical
  • conditions that people are living with permanently or over a long period of time
  • long lasting, or permanent, injury from war

This guide includes deafness and blindness as these have historically been treated as disabilities.

Vital to research on disability is an understanding of how perceptions of what constituted disability have changed over time. For example, permanent disabilities caused by poorly treated fractures are not as common today, but this would have been a major cause of long-term disability previously.

It is essential that you use terminology contemporary to the time to search for records. Descriptive terms for different disabilities have often changed, and many terms used in historical records are now considered offensive.

The Tomlinson Committee was set up during the Second World War specifically to review and recommend services for disabled people.