Author: Sam Brady, 22nd October 2020

As some of you may know, my research into the history of the sports wheelchair is utilising oral history interviews as part of the project. For this post, I thought I would explore the topic of oral history in more detail, underlining my justifications for this methodology and explaining why it is important for disability history. I’ll then explain a little more about my research and the National Paralympic Heritage Trust’s (NPHT) own oral history project. Hopefully, this post will encourage relevant people to get in touch, if it interests them!

So, what is oral history? The majority of historical research before the mid-twentieth century aimed to document the balance and shift of power, and thus focused on powerful people - monarchs, politicians, businessmen and officials – and institutions and administrations.[1] The historian, usually someone belonging to higher social classes, gave little weight to the experiences of those not in power, like the working classes, and largely omitted their perspective from the historical record.[2] This was the dominate form of research, until the 1950s and 1960s, when oral history began to (re)emerge in Britain and other parts of Europe. It drew on practices of valuing the spoken word in folklore collection and became popular with social historians who wished to record the voices of the working class.[3] Suddenly, this new methodology allowed for new voices to enter the historical record, and gained popularity with social scientists, museums, archivists and broadcasters in the 1970s.[4] Importantly, oral history methodology evolved and drew on developments in women’s history, as thus eventually oral history gained popularity as a method to document marginalised groups, minority communities and sub-cultures, of course including disabled people. 

Oral history shifted the historical lens, and provided a new construction of the past, built by those experiences and perspectives absent from prior historical research. Yet concerns over the reliability of memory arose as oral history became popular. Unlike a document, human memory is malleable and imperfect, and thus is not as ‘objective’ as traditional source types. Aside from the fact that traditional sources themselves are not without issues - as Professor Duncan Mitchell argues they are equally subject to bias and not reflecting historical truths - the importance of oral history lies in the ability to centre history within human experience.[5] Oral history methodology is often used to capture the experiences of trauma, for instance, as the emotional weight and subjective experience of such an event cannot be captured in the same way by traditional written sources. Therefore, it’s value, especially when used by marginalised groups, is in allowing individuals to speak for themselves, which of great importance when people from these communities may be underrepresented in the academy. 

From this perspective, oral history is very valuable to the research of disabled people’s history. Given that disabled people have often been excluded from mainstream society, the perspective or experiences of disabled people cannot always be found in traditional source types. When found, text about disabled people is most often not written by a disabled person, and is relegated to the world of medicine, leaving little space for other aspects of disabled people’s lives, such as sports, politics, or relationships. Ultimately, this was deliberate, as cultural attitudes which saw disabled people as cursed, immoral or genetically weak filtered into historical research and thought disabled people to be unimportant. In contrast, the practice of oral history helps to challenge this marginalisation and invisibility by elevating disabled voices and granting them authority.[6] This methodology allows for this information to come ‘directly from the source’, as it were, and allows researchers to draw on accounts from disabled people directly. This can be seen in the case of people with learning disabilities, who were often locked away in asylums or workhouses. Oral history gave opportunities for their perspective to be heard, leading to some topics only being known about due to these people’s accounts.[7] This also ties into the political and activist side of both disability studies and oral history, as granting authority and power to disabled people directly challenges societies’ conception of disabled people. In essence, disability history is often a hidden history, which can be uncovered with oral accounts.   

This leads us to the oral history projects currently being undertaken by the National Paralympic Heritage Trust.

My research, whilst focused on technology, will nonetheless benefit from people’s testimonies. The development of accessible sports technologies has not been fully documented - in the academic setting at least - and making use of oral history methods will help to create a better-fleshed out narrative. This could be achieved by simply looking at different wheelchairs from various years and tracking the evolution of the design. However, conducting the research in this way would lose many aspects I think are important to the topic – the stories and experiences. From a practical perspective, oral history is vital to make sure I am representing the topic appropriately and grants me insights into the world of sports wheelchairs I would otherwise would not have known. For example, stories about American wheelchair racers in the 1980s copying each other’s chair adaptions for road-races are best found in these interviews. But additionally, I believe curating and utilising first-hand accounts gives insight into other aspects of the technologies’ history. The community that formed around wheelchair racing, for instance, or the need for users to adapt their own equipment. These extra layers will make, I hope, for a richer and nuanced end project that can draw on various political and social themes. 

Similarly, the NPHT is currently undertaking its own project, in which they hope to interview Paralympic athletes from Britain’s rich Paralympic history. Unlike my project, this endeavour is open to athletes of any impairment background, allowing for more stories to be captured for future generations. The idea is to provide a space in which Britain’s Paralympians can share their stories and experiences for the wider public to learn from. Conducted by the trust’s volunteers, this is an ongoing project as the museum expands its collection of Paralympic history. Ultimately, the history of the games would suffer without the perspectives and stories of the athletes themselves, so it is wonderful this database is being built.  

Importantly, both of these projects are fantastic opportunities for preservation. The interviews recorded for the NPHT and my research will later be archived, allowing for future researchers, educators or interested individuals to access for other uses. In general, oral history projects are powerful way to enrichen existing archives and flesh out the history that would otherwise be lost. 

So, I hope this month’s post has explained oral history and its importance to disability history. As both my and the NPHT’s projects continue, we hope to be able to interview more people, in order to gain more stories and perspectives for both projects. If you would like to be involved, or at least want to hear more, please get in touch!

[1] Thompson and Bornat, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, p 3.
[2] Ibid
[3] Abrams, Oral History Theory, p 15.
[4] Oral History Society, History of Oral History,
[5] The Social History of Learning Disability Research Group, 'The Hidden History of Learning Disability', 2009, audio found at
[6] Hartblay, Using Oral History to teach engaged disability studies at UNC-CH,
[7] 'The Hidden History of Learning Disability', 2009, audio found at

Reading List:

  • Oral History Society, History of Oral History,
  • The Social History of Learning Disability Research Group, 'The Hidden History of Learning Disability', 2009, audio found at
  • Cassandra Hartblay, Using Oral History to teach engaged disability studies at UNC-CH, 2014.
  • Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory, 2nd edition (Routledge, London, 2016)
  • Paul Thompson and Joanna Bornat, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, 4th Edition (Oxford University Press, New York, 2017)