Parents on the March: Disability, Education and Parent-Activists

By Teresa Hillier, Swansea University

At a time of great social change in mid-20th century Britain there was a series of parliamentary reforms which aimed to help rebuild a war-torn society. These included a focus on education with the 1944 Education Act aiming to provide equality of opportunity to children. However, many children with cerebral palsy and related disabilities were classed as ineducable under this Act. This led to parents campaigning on behalf of their children against this perceived injustice. These parents were pioneers and disability activists, drawing public attention to the exclusion from education of their children. As a result of this direct action many parent-led organisations were established during the 1950s one of which is Longfields Association originally known as Swansea and District Spastic Association.

Legacy of Longfields is a two-year research project that will examine and share the history of the Association. The organisation was set up in 1952 by a group of parents of children with cerebral palsy to provide them with the opportunity for education. This led to the first school of this kind in Wales opening in April 1953.

First children to attend
First children to attend

The idea for recording the history of Longfields began while I was employed there from 1999 to 2004. I became more aware of the history of the organisation, the effort of the parents and the part that the organisation had played in disability history and the history of Swansea. The catalyst for this project was the sudden closure of the organisation in 2011. After a few years and changing circumstances a successful Heritage Lottery Fund application was made. The application highlighted the fact that only limited formal research had been undertaken on the Association and there was a danger it would be forgotten following the closure. The effort of campaigning by parents at that time is largely overlooked but through the project their story can be told. Tribute can be paid to the founder members and those who gave tirelessly of their time. Through my involvement, I knew that individuals cared passionately about Longfields and it touched many lives. Those involved in the early days are elderly and without the project their memories would be lost.

Swansea mayor presents key to new school 1952
Swansea mayor presents key to new school 1952

In 1955 the school moved to new premises where the first ‘spastic nursery’ in Wales was opened. As well as offering education for these children, Longfields provided job opportunities to some of its former pupils at the Work Centre in 1962 and the Occupational Therapy Unit which opened in December 1967. After many successful years providing services to individuals throughout the Swansea area the organisation closed in 2011. The project is still at an early stage but engaging with individuals who attended the centre, their families and friends has provided some valuable resources such as video footage, a scrapbook and press cuttings.

Researching the history of this organisation reveals how successful it was in engaging the public to support its cause. An extract, by Bill Paton, from the first Year Book of the Association, printed in 1960 illustrates the passion that the parents had in forming the organisation. The aim to engage with the public on disability issues was one of their key objectives. To achieve a wider impact, they gave talks to community groups, lobbied their MP and local council. Articles in local and national press, together with fund raising activities, highlighted the work of the organisation and contributed to the debate around the education of children with cerebral palsy.

Extract from the first Year Book of the Association
Extract from the first Year Book of the Association

Not content with working at a local level the Association engaged with other established organisations to campaign nationally. Affiliation to the National Spastics Society (NSS) resulted in Bill Paton becoming a member of the Society’s Executive Committee. This meant that the Association had more support for their activities and access to a wider range of resources. The NSS succeeded in getting ‘parents on the march’. Their five aims were
  • Tell Britain about Spastics
  • Discover the Spastics and their parents and bring them into Groups
  • Increase the number of Parent’s Groups to cover England and Wales
  • Unite these groups in one strong and effective body Raise money to help set up treatment, schooling and social centres more quickly than if the job was left entirely to Local Authoritie
The term “spastic” is not acceptable in modern society. However, it is important in an historical context to understand how the medical model of disability categorised individuals.

To achieve these aims the NSS brought the ‘plight of spastics’ to public attention using statistics to compare the number of children with cerebral palsy against those with other disabilities. By displaying images of children as objects of pity, using ‘tragedy’ to evoke sympathy they enhanced fundraising. A targeted media campaign and production of a documentary film, Chance of Their Lives (1952) further highlighted the issues.

As part of the project, oral histories will be collected to not only discover individual memories of Longfields but to reveal the experiences of those who attended the organisation from childhood to adulthood. Challenges arise as some of these individuals cannot participate unaided and so their contribution may be influenced by a family member. Memories can become distorted over time and recollections may be coloured by a desire to present a more idyllic past.

My research has begun to bring the origins of Longfields to life. Despite the problems described above, collection of oral histories and the input of pupils from local schools will enable a more dynamic memory of Longfields to be created. The project will deliver an exhibition at the National Waterfront Museum and an online accessible archive. Elements of the exhibition will then be made available to local schools and community groups taking the history of Longfields into the communities it served.

Recommended Citation:
Teresa Hillier (2016): Parents on the March: Disability, Education and Parent-Activists. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 19.

All pictures from West Glamorgan Archives in Swansea 


Who belongs in the murder clinic? The trouble with Nebel im August

By Ylva Söderfeldt

Germany is obsessed with narratives – movies, TV-series, novels – about its 20th century history. The most successful exports in later years have dealt with Nazi crimes and GDR oppression, not to mention the many productions directed at national audiences. No doubt, several of these works have been both of an outstanding artistic quality as well as having contributed to public awareness about the past, not least also about the continuities into and effects on the present German society.

One of the current movies on this theme (in the theatre where I watched it, there were at least two other films about Nazi Germany currently on the program) is somewhat unusual in that it addresses the murdering of sick and disabled people during the Second World War. Based on a novel that was in turn based on an actual biography, Nebel im August (Gloom in August) tells the story of Ernst Lossa (Ivo Pietzcker), who was murdered at the age of fourteen in a clinic in Irsee on August 9, 1944.
Lossa was Yenish, a minority that suffered persecution under the Nazis, had lost his mother, and was furthermore considered to have behavioral problems, all factors contributing to his institutionalization. We encounter him in the movie as he is transferred to the clinic in Irsee after having been in a series of other facilities. The initial impression is twofold: Lossa appears relieved at the friendly attitude he encounters from the head clinician Walter Veithausen (Sebastian Koch), but reacts with fear and contempt when he meets his fellow inmates, protesting that he doesn’t belong among "idiots".

A young boy with shaved head Ernst Lossa (Ivo Pietzcker)  is being viewed by a doctor Dr. Werner Veithausen (Sebastian Koch) standing behind him. Courtesy of StudioCanal.
A young boy with shaved head Ernst Lossa (Ivo Pietzcker)  is being
viewed by a doctor Dr. Werner Veithausen (Sebastian Koch) standing behind him. Courtesy of StudioCanal.
Between working in the fields and daydreaming of emigration, Lossa however soon comes to witness what quietly goes on in the clinic: inmates are being killed. At first, they disappear in enigmatic transports, then given lethal doses of medicine or deliberately starved on the premises.
The story is told at a slow pace and offers the viewers an almost excessive amount of scenic footage. At the same time, it is packed with information. When the camera doesn’t sweep over a beautiful landscape or interiors reminiscent of Vermeer paintings, it follows the protagonists in dialogues that painfully incorporate as many facts as possible about the ‚euthanasia’ programs. The ideological backdrop, the bureaucratic particulars, the role of scientific research as well as the Catholic church: it’s all in there, represented in the clearest way possible. This makes the viewing tedious, and the experience more like reading a Wikipedia entry than following a story. It is thanks to the generally very good acting and in particular Pietzcker’s brilliant performance, as well as David Bennent in an outstanding supporting role, that the movie still manages to engage and touch the viewer beyond the mere telling of historical facts.

A nurse (Henriette Confurius) hands a drink to a boy in a hospital bed. Courtesy of StudioCanal.
A nurse (Henriette Confurius) hands a drink to a boy in a hospital bed. Courtesy of StudioCanal.

This tendency to be overly pedagogic is a common trait for the genre and for German film in general (in a German detective story, you always know who the killer is, no mystery is tolerated). But it might also be due to the specific topic. The makers cannot anticipate that the viewers bring much previous knowledge into the theatre, and obviously felt it necessary to clearly lay out the facts in order to tell the story.

More troubling is the message that follows Ernst Lossa’s story throughout, and is articulated by one of his caretakers – and possibly, his killer  – "but he is a healthy boy!" The idea that Lossa "does not belong there" never quite leaves us even though his alliance shifts away from the staff and to his fellow inmates as the plot unfolds. This trope is all too familiar in narratives about the Nazi crimes against the sick and disabled: outrage tends to be directed especially at the abuse and murder of those who ‘weren’t even actually sick’ but ‘just’ labelled antisocial and degenerate. That line of reasoning, of course, implies that some people did ‘belong there’ and that certain illnesses and disabilities were, if not rightful, at least understandable grounds for extermination. From a public disability history perspective this particular presupposition  is precisely what needs to be questioned, and it is unfortunate that this production does not take the opportunity to do so.

Two boys with shaved heads(Niklas Post and Ivo Pietzcker) and a man (David Bennent) sit outdoors by a pile of potatoes looking amused and shocked. Behind them, men are making baskets.  Courtesy of StudioCanal.
Two boys with shaved heads(Niklas Post and Ivo Pietzcker) and a man (David Bennent)
sit outdoors by a pile of potatoes looking amused and shocked. Behind them, men are making baskets.
Courtesy of StudioCanal.

Nebel im August
StudioCanal, Germany, 2016
Director: Kai Wessel
Screenplay: Holger Karsten Schmidt
Lead cast: Ivo Pietzcker, Sebastian Koch, Thomas Schubert, Fritzi Haberlandt, Henriette Confurius

Recommended Citation:
Ylva Södrfeldt (2016): Who belongs in the murder clinic? The trouble with Nebel im August. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 18.