Work is a critical issue in Disability Studies. In/ability to do productive labour has been crucial to definitions of disability in many cultures, past and present. As the 2011 World Health Organization World Report on Disabilities noted, despite the fact that almost all jobs can be performed by disabled people , provided that the work environment is supportive, the employment rates of working-age disabled people fall behind their non-disabled peers in developed and developing countries alike.2 Productivity norms, discrimination and prejudice in the workplace, and disincentives to work produced by benefit systems, all affect disabled people's working lives and opportunities (WHO, 2011: 235).

Barriers that prevent or limit access to paid work determine disabled people's economic and social status, yet studying the relationship between disability and work raises wider issues. The beliefs that work is good for an individual's well-being, and that it helps maintain social order, pre-date industrial capitalism. In the early modern period, these ideas justified punitive measures against 'sturdy beggars' and stimulated the development of hospitals whose purpose was to return the 'sick and lame' to productive usefulness (Borsay, 1998; Turner, 2012). In modern neo-liberal economic systems, work helps to construct a person's identity as an adult, capable person by emphasising a link between income and autonomy. Work is not merely an economic concern; it is a political and cultural factor central to models of citizenship.

Articles in this Special Issue of Disability Studies Quarterly explore the experiences of people with different impairments in a variety of work environments, as well as interrogating the ontological relationship between conceptions of disability and the working body. Several take a historical perspective on disability and work, exploring the changing ways in which the labour of those with disabilities has been used, promoted and hindered, how it has varied over a person's life-course, and how it has been evaluated against work performed by non-disabled people. Since the 1970s, the spread of equality legislation has further encouraged employers to take on disabled workers, and empowered employees to demand reasonable accommodations for their work environments (Rose, 2015: 189). However, through a series of contemporary case studies that range from work programmes for autistic people in Brazil, to hiring practices in Singapore, our authors highlight steps that still need to be taken in order for disabled people to achieve equality of opportunity and treatment.

Taking a disability perspective on work not only exposes to scrutiny the economic mechanisms that have devalued people unable to meet productive standards, and indeed continue to do so, but also allows us to critique the nature of work itself. Articles in this issue bring insights from Critical Disability Studies to ask what is a worker, what counts as 'work', and how these questions are shaped by social class, race, gender and increasingly a posthuman culture of work. Disabled people have undertaken labour that has traditionally been undervalued in capitalist societies – care work, emotional labour, community projects and rehabilitation, for example. Disability thus provides a vantage point from which to critique practices and values that have become normalised in the workplace and neo-liberal ideology.

As Sarah F. Rose has argued, although "disability has often been equated with the inability to do productive work […] rarely has this assumption reflected the lived experiences of people with disabilities" (Rose, 2015: 187). Studies of disability in the medieval and early modern periods have shown that in spite of cultural images of disabled people as beggars popular in these eras, people with impairments were expected to work if possible (Pelling, 1998; Metzler, 2013; Horn and Frohne, 2015). Materialist studies of disability have pointed to a variety of factors that enabled disabled people to remain economically active in pre-industrial societies. The prevalence of piecework and the focus of economic life on the home are seen as allowing people to work at their own pace and permitting greater 'somatic flexibility' in working practices (Gleeson, 1999). Conversely, the advent of industrial capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is held to have undermined this flexibility in various ways. By shifting work from the home to the factory, bringing with it increased mechanisation that placed new emphasis on speed and efficiency and the standardization of working practices, disabled people's ability to sell their labour on the same terms as others was gradually diminished (Oliver and Barnes, 2012). The industrial system 'favoured workers with intact and interchangeable bodies'. Those who did not meet these ideals found themselves increasingly marginalised, even if their exclusion from the industrial workplace was an uneven and incomplete process (Rose, 2015:188). Although the dangers of the industrial workplace led to the passing of laws to compensate injured workers in Britain and the USA, such legislation worked to cast those with existing impairments as expensive liabilities (Rose, 2017; Turner and Blackie forthcoming). At the same time, social policy created the 'disability category' to distinguish those deemed wholly unable to perform productive labour through age or impairment from the rest of the unemployed. It is argued, therefore, that the modern category of 'disability' was created by industrial capitalism and the welfare systems it engendered (Stone, 1984).

While these developments have shaped the experiences of people with impairments in Europe and North America and in developing countries that have copied these economic models (or had them imposed upon them), the nuances of disabled people's experiences of work have not yet received much attention. This Special Issue is inspired by the editors' work on a five-year Wellcome Trust-funded project, Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields 1780-1948, that has sought to investigate the experiences of workers with impairments via a study of the British coal industry. Mining was crucial to Britain's industrial development, yet was notorious for its high rate of casualties (Benson, 1980). Many injured or diseased mineworkers found their working lives changed after disablement, yet for much of the period there were efforts made by employers and communities to find alternative work for those capable of undertaking some labour. The presence of workers with physical impairments and chronic illnesses in or around Britain's coalmines points to an alternative history of disability and industrialisation – one in which experiences of disabled workers are explored not just in the context of their exclusion from the workforce, but also in terms of their economic contribution. Unpaid work was also essential to the industrial machine, but the gruelling nature of domestic and reproductive labour in the coalfields – largely performed by women – is often overlooked in industrial histories. This unpaid but no less crucial labour also left bodies impaired though often still at work (Jones, 1991).

Disability was also a critical issue in labour relations, as trade unions fought for compensation on the part of their disabled members. Although trade unions have not always been allies of disabled people, the mining unions' work in fighting for compensation for occupational injuries and helping their members gain access to prosthetics, represented a form of political activism to advocate for the interests of disabled workers (Williams-Searle 1999; Curtis and Thompson, 2014). Long before modern disability activists pressed for legal guarantees of access and accommodation in the workplace, visually impaired people in Britain formed their own trade union, the National League of the Blind (established 1899), to campaign against being cast as objects of charity (Reiss, 2015). Bringing a disability perspective to histories of labour and working-class politics sheds new light on class formation and helps us to take the long view on disability activism (Rose, 2005). Critical insights from new research on disability and work, reflecting a range of disciplinary perspectives, inform the articles in this Special Issue, which highlight the diversity of people's experiences in different social and cultural contexts, alongside the common factors that shape outcomes for all.

This Special Issue on Work and Disability emerged from an international symposium on Disability, Work and Representation organised in Swansea as part of the Disability and Industrial Society project. Some of the research written up for this volume was discussed in outline during the symposium, which was followed by an open call for articles. It was clear from the volume of proposals we received in response to the call for papers that work and disability is an important topic across the disciplines. As editors, we were keen to embrace as wide a historical perspective as possible, and to include papers addressing work in different locations and informed by different disciplinary approaches. The essays that follow span a time-period from early modern Germany to contemporary America. There are several contributions from historians, but also from literary and cultural critics, and social scientists.

We bookend the essays with two discussions which deal with urgent contemporary issues related neo-liberal cultures of work. Stuart Murray explores some key ideas about the relationship between work, speed and efficiency. Through a close critical engagement with contemporary novels about the world of Manhattan corporate law and a provocative story about an extra-terrestrial set in Scotland, Murray's essay sets out ways in which a disability perspective can help to unpick the assumptions that underpin neo-liberal work values and environments. For Laura Yakas, in the article that concludes the issue, communities of disabled people such as Michigan psychosocial clubhouses provide locations for rethinking neo-liberal understandings of work. In contrast to the individualism discussed in Murray's essay, Yakas shows how neo-liberal ideas such as work as a pathway to self-fulfilment are revised in a disabled community where the communal aspects of work foster a sense of purpose and togetherness.

Having opened the issue with an essay on contemporary literature and neo-liberal work cultures, the next five essays take a more historical perspective. Contributions by Angela Schattner, Helena Hagge, Erling Häggström Lundevaller and Lotta Vikström, and Alexandra Jones all emphasise the importance of gender in thinking about disability and work. Angela Schattner explores the varied ways in which work featured in the experiences of men and women with impairments in late-medieval and early modern Germany. She finds that social status, gender, degree of impairment and type of work all influenced those experiences and that the same impairments were not necessarily disabling in all cases. The article examines the assumptions, narratives and social expectations that existed in society more broadly and that were reflected and answered in different types of biographical narratives.

Turning to nineteenth-century Sweden, Helena Hagge, Erling Häggström Lundevaller and Lotta Vikström use a collection of digitised parish registers for the Swedish region of Sundsvall to undertake a life-course study of impairment. Utilising the experiences of 8,874 individuals, the article considers the influence of a variety of impairments on the experience of work, marriage and parenthood. They find that such experiences were not influenced by impairment alone but also by particular attitudes towards disabled men and women within the labour market and society more generally.

In her study of British coalfields literature from 1880-1950, Alexandra Jones considers changing representations of the gendered work of caring and the impact of new impairments (resulting from industrial injuries) on marriage relations, including sexuality and intimacy. She argues that while women's domestic labour has generally been ignored in industrial historiography, contemporary male authors represented women's bodies using industrial imagery. The metaphor of the female body as a 'hard-worked machine', the 'breaking' body worn out by years of hard toil in the era before pit-head baths, or the bowed legs and collapsed body of a wife pictured using the imagery of a pit-accident, all suggest that at least some working-class novelists saw 'women's work' as an integral part of working-life in the coalfields.

The position of work in the political programme of General Franco's regime in Spain (1938-1965) is explored in an essay by José Martínez-Pérez. The consequences of the political and medical discourses that put work and productivity at the centre of Spanish domestic policy, and the consequences for the construction of disability, are explored in relation to the health and safety legislation of the time. Demonstrating the construction of a powerful medical model of disability, Martínez-Pérez shows how occupational health was utilised as a form of social control as 'disability was used as a vehicle' to put in place measures 'aimed at disciplining the population as a whole'.

Taking a longer historical view, Jackie Gulland highlights the social, economic, emotional, health and moral value of work in twentieth-century Britain in the context of changing parameters of 'permitted work' in UK disability benefits since 1911. During the early years, a medical paradigm recognised the benefits of allowing some work to aid rehabilitation, although many schemes discouraged disabled people from doing anything that might damage any chance of 'recovery'. This is in contrast to the late twentieth-century shift towards a requirement that welfare claimants do at least some work to retain benefits.

The final three essays provide very different case studies of disabled people's access to or inclusion within the contemporary labour market, in Brazil, Singapore and the United States of America respectively. The article by Valéria Aydos and Helena Fietz on the inclusion of autistic people in the Brazilian labour market notes that the normative neo-liberal model of work helps to construct one's identity as an adult and capable person, linking income and autonomy, and constructing an ideal, model citizen who is independent, self-sufficient, and autonomous. Inspired by a social model of disability, they argue that while not everyone can meet this ideal, recognition of the vulnerability of some people in the workplace is not necessarily to cast them as 'dependent' individuals. They argue for a notion of 'care' that is central to understanding the processes of 'citizenship', and that 'care' for certain types of disabled worker is essential if they are to achieve citizenship.

The moral case for employing disabled people is made in the discussion of 'enclaved spaces' in Singapore by Justin Lee, Mathew Mathews, Wong Fung Shing and Zhuang Kuansong. Interrogating the concept of 'inclusivity', the authors argue that 'enclaved spaces for work serve an important function despite charges of being exclusionary'. Using focus groups and interviews, the article questions the value of basing policy on the 'business case' for employing disabled workers, and consider the idea that a moral case for hiring and creating work-places which support workers with disabilities may have an important role to play in the Singaporean context. These authors, along with Laura Yakas, whose essay was introduced earlier, address the question of how inclusive work environments can be created and sustained.

As the essays in this special issue show, the topic of disability and work is a stimulating one, inviting a diverse range of approaches and subject matter. The articles address and in different ways answer the questions of what is 'work'? What is it for? and illustrate in diverse ways how a disability perspective offers a way to rethink meanings of work.


  • Benson, John (1980). British Coalminers in the Nineteenth Century: A Social History. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.
  • Borsay, Anne (1998). Returning Patients to the Community: Disability, Medicine and Economic Rationality before the Industrial Revolution'. Disability and Society, 13(5), 645-63.
  • Curtis, Ben and Thompson, Steven (2014). 'A Plentiful Crop of Cripples Made by All This Progress': Disability, Artificial Limbs and Working-Class Mutualism in the South Wales Coalfield, 1890–1948. Social History of Medicine, 27(4), 708-27.
  • Gleeson, Brendan J. (1999). Geographies of Disability. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Horn, Klaus-Peter and Frohne, Bianca (2015). On the fluidity of 'disability' in Medieval and Early Modern Societies: Opportunities and Strategies in a new field of Research. In Barsh, Sebastian, Klein, Anne and Verstraete, Pieter (eds.), The Imperfect Historian: Disability Histories in Europe. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 17-40.
  • Jones, Dot (1991). Counting the Cost of Coal: Women's Lives in the Rhondda, 1881-1911. In John, Angela V. (ed.), Our Mother's Land: Chapters in Welsh Women's History 1830-1939. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 109-33.
  • Metzler, Irina (2013). A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages: Cultural Considerations of Physical Impairment. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Oliver, Michael and Barnes (2012). The New Politics of Disablement. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Pelling, Margaret (1998). The Common Lot: Sickness, Medical Occupations and the Urban Poor in Early Modern England. Harlow: Longman.
  • Reiss, Matthias (2015) Blind Workers against Charity: the National League of the Blind of Great Britain and Ireland, 1893-1970. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.
  • Rose, Sarah F. (2005). "Crippled" Hands: Disability in Labor and Working-Class History. Labor 2, no. 1, 27–54.
  • Rose, Sarah F. (2015). Work. In Adams, Rachel, Reiss, Benjamin and Serlin, David (eds.), Keywords for Disability Studies. New York: New York University Press, 187-90.
  • Rose, Sarah F. (2017). No Right to be Idle: the Invention of Disability 1840s to 1930s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Stone, Deborah A. (1984). The Disabled State. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Turner, David M. (2012). Disability in Eighteenth-Century England: Imagining Physical Impairment. New York and London: Routledge.
  • Turner, David M. and Blackie, Daniel (forthcoming). Disability in the Industrial Revolution: Physical Impairment in British Coalminers, 1780-1948. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Williams-Searle, John (1999). Courting Risk: Disability, Masculinity, and Liability on Iowa's Railroads, 1868-1910. The Annals of Iowa, 58, 27-77.
  • WHO (2011). World Report on Disability. (accessed 17 September 2017).


  1. This paper has been written as part of the Wellcome Trust Programme Award in Medical History, 'Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields, 1780—1948' [grant number 095948/Z/11/Z]. It draws on the work of the research team: Professor Anne Borsay, Professor David Turner, Professor Kirsti Bohata, Dr Mike Mantin and Dr Alexandra Jones (Swansea University); Dr Daniel Blackie (University of Oulu); Dr Steven Thompson and Dr Ben Curtis (Aberystwyth University); Dr Vicky Long (Glasgow Caledonian University) and Dr Victoria Brown (Northumbria University/Glasgow Caledonian University); and Professor Arthur McIvor and Dr Angela Turner (Strathclyde University).
    Return to Text
  2. Throughout this Introduction we use identity-first language in recognition of the ways in which disability contributes to a person's social and cultural identity and can foster a sense of community with others. In doing so we recognise that not all people with impairments choose to identify as 'disabled' and that 'disability' is not the sole determinant of a person's identity.
    Return to Text
Return to Top of Page