Disabled ancestors

This guide was last updated in 2009

Martin Freeman was shocked to find ancestors who had to live with a disability – but he is far from alone. Jenny Thomas shows you how to find out more about any disabilities your ancestors may have suffered from.

Like many of us who discover that one of our ancestors was disabled, Martin Freeman was at once surprised and anxious. It is easy to fear for a long-dead relation - to worry about what their life might have been like, faced as they were with challenges over and above the ordinary trials and tribulations of their day. But through digging deeper into the lives of his blind great grandparents, a whole new world was opened to Martin. Not only did he encounter the harsh reality of disability and how it was perceived in days gone by, but he also discovered inspiring stories of the courage, talent and tenacity that enabled his great grandparents to live their lives to the full.

There is no doubt that many of our ancestors’ disabilities went completely undiagnosed, unrecorded and unacknowledged in their contemporary world - especially before such information was reported on the census - and are subsequently missed by genealogists. But if you do discover evidence of a disabled ancestor, their experiences can provide a fascinating window into the social history of their times. Here are some suggestions as to how to pursue this path.

Photo © Hulton Archive Getty Images

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