A look back at the hidden figures in History

Show all news items

As we reflect on pivotal moments throughout history, such as the suffragette movement, the Second World War, or the abolition of slavery, there is a tendency to overlook the names and stories of disabled individuals who played a critical role in shaping the course of history.

A researcher from the University of Warwick has investigated the lives of five hidden figures who deserve to be discussed and remembered. Mia Edwards, comments: "More often than not, when we look back through time, we forget to talk about historical figures who are more hidden from the traditional narratives and stories that we might tell about certain events and periods. These people have made remarkable contributions to our world throughout history.

"Across various time periods, disability wasn’t always understood, and many people weren’t afforded equal opportunities, but despite this there were many who challenged these societal barriers and played a part in shaping the world we live in today. My research highlights a small number of individuals who did just that."

Emperor Claudius

The fourth emperor of Rome, Claudius who ruled from AD 41 to 54. Claudius experienced a range of physical disabilities and illnesses throughout his life, including tremors within his hands, a limp, a stammer, and partial deafness. Often ridiculed for his conditions, Claudius was hidden away from public and political life from a young age.

Despite being labelled as unintelligent by his family, Claudius spent much of his time engaging with academics and taking an interest in history and going onto produce volumes on the history of Carthage and the Roman Republic.

Ultimately, it was Claudius who successfully expanded the Roman Empire into Britain, parts of Africa, and the Middle East, as well improving the judicial system of Rome to include an edict to set free sick enslaved people.

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree, later giving herself the name Sojourner Truth in 1843, as she believed that God had called to her to preach the truth. Her enslaver said that an injury to her hand left her less able to do certain tasks. As a result of this he refused to free her.

Sojourner escaped from slavery in 1826 with one of her children, but she became most well-known for being the first Black woman to take a case to court against a White man in U.S. history. This came after she found out her son had been illegally sold by her enslaver. She took the issue to the New York Supreme Court and filed a suit against her son’s new enslaver.

But Sojourner’s success did not stop there. In 1851 she delivered a speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, which later became known as ’Ain’t I a Woman?’.

Rosa May Billinghurst

Rosa May Billinghurst was a British suffragette. When she was a child, she contracted polio and was partially paralysed as a result. Throughout the rest of her life, she relied on a wheelchair. As an active suffragette, she would use her wheelchair to charge at police officer, using crutches to propel herself forward.

Rosa developed a keen interest in social work and became actively involved in the Women’s Liberal Association and in 1907 she joined the Woman’s Social and Political Union. Her first arrest in relation to her activism was in 1911, for obstructing police at a demonstration in Parliament Square.

After being sentenced in 1912, she went on hunger strike, earning the suffragette Hunger Strike Medal ’for valour’. Rosa was deeply respected by her fellow suffragettes and was a crucial campaigner for women’s rights during the 20th century.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange was best known as a photographer and photojournalist who worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

When she was seven, Dorothea contracted polio, leaving her with a limp for the rest of her life. Speaking about her disability she said: "I think it perhaps was the most important thing that happened to me. It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, and humiliated me. All those things at once. I’ve never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it."

Her work focused on those who were suffering from the severe consequences of the Great Depression across the U.S. Her first photographic publication was White Angel Breadline (1933). It was through this ’observing without intruding’ style of photography that Dorothea influenced the development of documentary-style photography.

For Dorothea, her disability had a profound impact in shaping her art, the subjects that she chose to look at, and the lens through which she chose to frame them.

Douglas Bader

Group Captain Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader, worked as a flying ace for the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.

Douglas initially joined the RAF in 1928 and was commissioned in 1930. However, it was in 1931 while he attempted aerobatics while flying, he crashed, and lost both of his legs.

Despite this accident, he was determined to continue flying and requested to be reactivated as a pilot. While there were no regulations which could apply to Douglas ’s unique situation, he was retired on medical grounds by the RAF, against his wishes.

When the Second World War began, he returned to the RAF and was accepted as a pilot once more with his first victory being in Dunkirk during the Battle of France. In August 1941, he was captured by the Germans and placed in a prisonof-war camp. Douglas made several escape attempts before being liberated in 1945 by the arrival of the United States Army.

In 1946, Douglas finally retired permanently from the RAF. He campaigned strongly for the better treatment of disabled people and was appointed a Knight Bachelor in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list of 1976, ’for services to disabled people.’