The history of disabled people as activists and political organisers has long been one of the key gaps in British disability history. There has been little historical work on disabled people's self-organisation beyond the named disability rights movement that gained traction in the 1970s. Matthias Reiss' study of the National League of the Blind of Great Britain and Ireland is therefore a very welcome addition. The League was founded in 1890s as an advocacy group for blind workers, and became a registered trade union in 1899, affiliating with the Trade Union Congress in 1902. Reiss' introduction rightly sets out the historical importance of the movement: it was a "genuine poor people's movement" (1) with branches across the UK and Ireland led by and for blind people. As one regional organiser affirmed in 1923, "We are of the blind; we are the blind. All others are for the blind." (22) What truly set the League apart from just about every other disability organisation of the time was its foundational rejection of charity. Although their message changed with varying degrees of co-operation with the voluntary sector, one demand remained unwavering: that state support for blind people should be a right, and no blind person should have to rely on charity handouts or the paternalism of voluntary organisations. This stance was encapsulated in the League's slogan, on placards and in chants: "Justice not Charity".

Reiss's book is a political history of the League, introducing us to its main organisers and discussing its changing tactics from its inception in 1893 to 1970, though the bulk of the book covers from the early 20th; century to the creation of the welfare state. Reiss has painstakingly gone through the League's records and presents an authoritative history of the group, its leaders and policies. The book is chronologically structured, allowing Reiss to explore in detail the mixed fortunes of the League. Although the League clearly lost momentum after the implementation of the welfare state (it still exists in a much smaller form today), Reiss's analysis ultimately rejects any simplistic 'rise and fall' narrative, choosing instead to chart its peaks and troughs over time.

At the heart of the book is the development and consolidation of the anti-charity message, and how this changed with the political climate and leadership of the League. Chapter 2 is dedicated to the League's initial formation and early campaigning. Their initial message was a radical one: "It was not their disability but society which prevented blind people from living productive lives" (46), argues Reiss, insinuating a startlingly similar message to that of modern social-model disability studies. Their goal was to remove the stigma of the 'deserving poor' conception of blindness that was perpetuated by British voluntary organisations. This chapter outlines some of their early successes, namely their well-attended march to London in 1920 and their input into the same year's Blind Persons Act, a crucial piece of legislation that was nevertheless viewed as a disappointment due to the continued place for charities in blind people's welfare.

Reiss's book is no hagiography, and he dedicates chapters 3 and 4 to the difficulties faced by the League in the inter-war years. During this time, the League grappled with trying to fundraise while remaining an anti-voluntary organisation, eventually being forced to register as a charity in 1934, to the humiliation of its more radical members (77). Chapter 3 outlines in detail their relationship to other labour organisations, and their on-going alliance with the TUC. Even more interesting were the interactions with other blind organisations, including a breakaway group founded by disillusioned former leader Ben Purse called the National Union of the Professional and Industrial Blind of Great Britain, which attempted to avoid tactics that were antagonistic to employers (71). Chapter 4 finds the League pursuing less radical approaches themselves, by seeking representation on local bodies and co-operating with a weakened Labour party. These chapters are particularly successful in situating the league in its political context, culminating in an account of a second march to London in 1936, where the weakened League had trouble recapturing the same attention and success of the original march of 1920.

Chapters 5 and 6 of the book argue convincingly that the League found their greatest success in the development of the welfare state, which finally saw the advent of state support and employment quotas for blind people under the 1944 Disabled Persons (Employment) Act. However, Reiss is quick to highlight the League's continuing critical relationship with the political establishment. The League still cast scepticism on the Act, in particular its opening of workshops to all disabled people, seen as "a threat to the League's institutional strongholds" (141). It is fascinating to see the League's uneasy relationship to the blind workshops, from which they derived many members. Chapter 6 then takes the League into the post-war era, once again finding the League "adapting to a changing world" (157), softening its approach to charity and eventually merging with the larger Community union (165).

This is an incredibly thorough book, full of detail. Peppered throughout are case studies of key figures Ben Purse and Tom Parker, with important biographical detail of the League's leaders (and in Purse's case, his acrimonious split). Another case study focuses on the League's journals, The Blind Advocate and the braille journal Horizon. This case study mostly focuses more on the journals' troubled financial history than their content, and offers only tantalising hints at some of the conversations being had in its pages on topics like blind intermarriage and products for blind people being advertised in the journal. Likewise, the Appendix has some songs used by the League, but these are not discussed in the text itself. Although the introduction sets out its limitations – the "industrial and social" functions of the League are too vast to be covered here and would require a whole separate study (8) - crucial social details like this would nevertheless have been useful.

Still, the book makes an excellent overall argument about the League's place in both labour history and the history of charity. Possibly the strongest section is the very last, a short evaluation of the League's success, where Reiss set the League apart from other organisations of its time. The League is rightly seen as a serious force against paternalism and charity. Though their message adapted with the times, the central principle that "only by escaping charity could blind people acquire full citizenship" (163). This all from a self-advocacy group with constant financial issues and a base of support almost exclusively from working-class and unemployed people. The League's message, as Weiss discusses in the evaluation chapter, is still crucial to disabled people in the UK, who face hostility and cuts. This work takes the history of disabled people's radical self-organisation further than the vast majority of British disability history, a confirmation "that disabled people could indeed represent themselves in the public sphere on a permanent basis" (164). Given this contemporary relevance, it must be said, it is especially disappointing that there is currently no Braille or audiobook edition.

Reading this political history of the League, more questions emerge beyond its top level: what did its everyday members think? What were their social functions like? And how did their campaigns compare to, for example, the self-organisation of the contemporary Deaf community in Britain? There is much more to be done, and this detailed and ground-breaking book is an ideal introduction.

Return to Top of Page


Copyright (c) 2016 Mike Roman Mantin

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact the web manager, Maureen Walsh. Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

ISSN: 2159-8371