It might seem hard to believe now, but when Cerrie Burnell was a presenter on children’s TV in 2009, some viewers protested that her appearance (she was born without the lower part of her right arm) might frighten children. Burnell was never brought up to see herself as disabled: “I thought disability meant vulnerability.” The realisation came only later, in her teens, then at drama school where she was pushed into the “disabled actor” category. In this powerful documentary, she attempts to pinpoint the historical source of ableism in Britain.

Burnell proposes that the root of many problems disabled people faced, and still face, lie not in cruelty but misplaced kindness. After the Industrial Revolution, anyone unable to perform their economic duty was discarded. Victorian philanthropist Mary Dendy, damningly dubbed “well-meaning”, was so shocked by living conditions in the Manchester slums that she vowed to set up safe and sanitary havens for the “feeble-minded” and “known defectives”. Different disabilities were routinely conflated. As one interviewee movingly puts it, one disability meant “you were disabled in every way: mentally, physically, morally . . . you were a lower form of life.”

Poignant records exist of disabled children at Dendy’s Sandlebridge Colony, effectively shut away from life. Dendy firmly believed the disabled should be prevented from having children. Another blow to their rights was the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, which gave powers to confine people against their will. The story of Jean Gambell, sectioned at 15 and confined for 70 years, is horrific. It took decades for the norm of institutionalisation to be overturned.

Burnell’s heroes include Dr Ludwig Guttmann, who fled Nazi Germany (which had its own enthusiasm for eugenics) and pioneered sporting activities for the disabled. One beneficiary was Lady Susan Masham, injured in a riding accident, who won a gold medal at the first official Paralympic Games in 1960. Paul Hunt, confined to a residential home, spearheaded a huge movement after proposing the founding of a consumer group for the disabled in a letter to The Guardian in 1972. John Evans, who was paralysed in an accident as a young man, movingly recounts his battle to move from residential care to his own home.

If asking nicely has no effect, there’s always behaving badly to fall back on. Alia Hassan and Baroness Campbell gleefully discuss the protests against a 1990s charity telethon which disabled people saw as patronising. It led to the pledge: “Nothing about us, without us” and the less elegant slogan “Piss on pity”. As the disabled are among the hardest hit by austerity measures, the fight for their rights, they warn, isn’t over yet.

★★★★☆

On BBC2 on January 19 at 9pm

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