How to look for records of... Disability history

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

View online

How many are online?

  • None
  • Some
  • All

Order copies

We can either copy our records onto paper or deliver them to you digitally

Pay for research

Use our paid search service or find an independent researcher

Visit us

Visit us in Kew to see original documents or view online records for free

This is a brief guide to researching records of disability. Research requires an understanding of the history of disability and how attitudes and terminology changed over time. This guide highlights some of the key sources and demonstrates the wide variety and large number of government departments in which they are found. The records held at The National Archives will often complement records kept in a variety of local archives and specialist collections. Most of these records are not of specific disabled people but of government policy and services.

1. What would it be useful to know before I start?

Try to find out:

  • the type of disability and how it was referred to historically
  • the dates and places associated with your research
  • how and why the state was involved

2. What records can I see online?

Census records 1851-1911

Search and view census records from 1851 to 1911 through Ancestry (£) or free of charge at The National Archives building in Kew. From 1851, the information recorded for each individual on the census included a record of certain disabilities. Enter the following terms in the ‘Keyword’ search box to find these records:

  • deaf
  • dumb
  • blind
  • lunatic
  • imbecile
  • idiot
  • asylum
  • inmate
  • patient

Cabinet Papers 1915-1980

Search The National Archives Cabinet Papers 1915-1980 website for a wide range of Cabinet Papers chosen for their historical significance. Learn how legislation and services for the physically disabled evolved in the post-war period and search the site for information on the work and findings of the following committees:

  • Committee on the Rehabilitation and Resettlement of Disabled Persons
  • Piercy Committee
  • Younghusband Committee

3. What records can I find only at The National Archives at Kew?

Some of the broad range of records of disability at The National Archives are listed below. Find others by searching Discovery, our catalogue. Use a wide variety of search terms, including combinations of words, historical terms, place names and institutions. Sometimes search terms only broadly connected to the subject matter can be the key to uncovering files. For example:

  • Search for early records on the Paralympics using ‘Stoke Mandeville’
  • Search for records of disability caused by industrial accidents with combinations such as mine AND rehab* or coal AND paraplegia
  • Search for research carried out on debilitating illnesses using terms such as rickets or occupational injuries using terms such as ‘beat elbow’

Records of the Disabled Persons Employment Corporation and Remploy Ltd 1945-2001

Search our catalogue by keyword or browse the BM department for records of the Disabled Persons Employment Corporation and the non-profit company Remploy Ltd, set up under the provisions of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944. Search for related records in LAB 9, LAB 16 and LAB 20. The following search terms will prove useful:

  • Cripplecraft
  • Chailey Heritage

War pensions from First World War

Use our catalogue to search PIN 26 by nature of injury (for example, amputation or deafness) or by injured body part (for example, head or hip) for details of individuals awarded war disability pensions following the First World War. See the PIN 26 series arrangement for abbreviations used to describe some of these records. For more information see our guide to Disability and dependents’ pensions in the First World War.

Ministry of Labour files 1918-1980

Use our catalogue to search or browse the Ministry of Labour’s files on disabled persons (1919-1978) in LAB 20 and training schemes for the rehabilitation of the disabled (1922-1980) in LAB 18.

Charities for the disabled

Search our catalogue with the advanced search by charity name for charities which relate to disabilities in the Charity Commission files in CHAR 7 (1750-2002) and the files relating to public health services in MH 55 (1853-1970). Some charities have changed their names since the files were created and you will need to search by the old name.

Government Acts

Search our catalogue by the title of individual government acts relevant to disability issues in MH 55, T 161 and AST amongst others. One of the first pieces of legislation passed specifically for a disability was the Blind Persons Act of 1920. For a useful timeline, see the English Heritage website.

Development of assistive technology

Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search by name of product (for example, ‘hearing aid’, ‘invalid chair’ or ‘artificial limb’) for records of designs, copyright and funding of assistive technology in the following record series and departments:

  • COPY 1
  • BM 12 for patents registered by Remploy between 1950 and 1996
  • BT 45 (and registers in BT 46) for representations of designs registered under the Utility Designs Act 1843 – see our guide to registered designs for more information on how to search these records
  • MH for Ministry of Health records
  • FD for Medical Research Council records
  • BN for Department of Health and Social Security records

Ships’ medical journals 1785-1963

Use the advanced search in Discovery, our catalogue, to search ADM 101 for surgeons’ journals, a very small number of which are available online. These journals were kept on board ships to track the health of the ship’s company. Amongst accounts of the medical or surgical treatments carried out on board, they also include details of long-term disabilities and some sketches. Search using historical terms (see ‘Did you know?’).

To access these records you will either need to visit us, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy (£).

4. What records can I find in other archives and organisations?

Wellcome Library

Consult the wide variety of documents on disability in the Archives and Manuscripts Collection at the Wellcome Library, from the papers of societies and associations to studies of specific disabilities.

Royal College of Surgeons

Explore the Royal College of Surgeons archives for collections which include the personal papers and case notes of surgeons, a small number of hospital records, correspondence and diaries.

Records held elsewhere

Search our catalogue and refine your results using the filters.

5. What other resources will help me find information?

Oral histories

Search the British Library’s collection of oral histories relating to personal health, mental health and disability, for insight into the lives of people living with disabilities and their experiences of different levels of support and service provision over the 20th century.


Listen to The National Archives podcasts on disability and war in the 20th century, the Paralympics and mental health in the 19th century.

The Disability History Group

Consult the news list on the Disability History Group website for details of events and papers covering the history of disability.


Read the books on our disability book list, all of which are available in The National Archives library.


Trace the timeline of disability on the English Heritage website, providing a brief overview of the main legislative and historical events affecting disabled people between the 1100s and the present day.


Use the disability history glossary on the English Heritage website for useful search terms.

6. Did you know?

‘Disability’ has been defined in many different ways over time. For the purpose of this guide, we have taken ‘disability’ to include:

  • impairments of all types whether sensory or physical
  • conditions that people are living with permanently or over a long period of time
  • long lasting, or permanent, injury from war

This guide includes deafness and blindness as these have historically been treated as disabilities.

Vital to research on disability is an understanding of how perceptions of what constituted disability have changed over time. For example, permanent disabilities caused by poorly treated fractures are not as common today, but this would have been a major cause of long-term disability previously.

It is essential that you use terminology contemporary to the time to search for records. Descriptive terms for different disabilities have often changed, and many terms used in historical records are now considered offensive.

The Tomlinson Committee was set up during the Second World War specifically to review and recommend services for disabled people.