Disabilities were quite common in the 1700s. Dangerous working conditions, inadequate medical facilities, life-threatening diseases and bloody battles left many people with life-altering disabilities.
While there were some institutions for taking care of disabled people, most were left to their own devices and forced to find their own means of survival. Today, those with disabilities have a range of options in regards to their career and the availability of wheelchairs and mobility scooter batteries allows them to get around. However, in the 18th century, having a disability was a death sentence in some instances. While not all beggars were disabled, most disabled individuals were beggars in the 1700s. Because life in poverty required exhausting physical labor to simply earn enough to survive, those who weren’t able to work were often left destitute and without any other options aside from begging.
There were many derogatory terms used to describe what the old English referred to as ‘the lame’ that were inspired by their methods of getting around. When those in poverty lost the use of their limbs they were often left to their own devices when it came to mobility solutions. Unlike today, where there are many options for those with impaired mobility, there were no options available in the 18th century unless you could afford to have a device custom made. ‘Billies in bowls’, ‘sledge beggars’ and ‘go-carts’ are a few examples of beggars that used boxes, bowls, and sledges to move around London when they lost the ability to use their legs, using wooden blocks and their hands to drag themselves along. Certain beggars around London had their own nicknames and become somewhat famous characters in the slums and poverty-stricken streets as well as a source of intrigue for the upper classes.
Disabilities amongst the upper classes, however, were treated quite differently and those with impairments from wealthy families went on to live very different lives than those with similar conditions on the bottom of the social hierarchy. With the support of wealthy family or a strong reputation, those with disabilities within the upper classes were well taken care of. They often earned more academic job titles and had access to more job opportunities than those with disabilities in the lower classes,
While disabilities made certain controversial figures a ripe target for mockery, there was a kind of decorum amongst the upper classes that prevented them from being entirely ostracized – this was mostly influenced by wealth and title. You can often see evidence of this in 18th-century portraiture. Humble artists paid for their services would paint their disabled subjects in such a way as to mask their disabilities, as artists often embellished their portraits of the wealthy to flatter them. More forthright artists, on the other hand, that thrived on controversy or artistic integrity would either turn their subject into a deformed caricature or highlight their disability as evidence of their strength. It was very much people’s opinion of the person that swayed whether or not their disability was ridiculed.