Removing barriers

Stephen HawkingToday, 3 December, is the ‘International Day Of Persons with Disabilities‘, a slightly clunky title for a day that the United Nations has been observing since 1992.

This year’s theme is ‘Removing barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all’.  15% of the world’s population have some form of disability and it’s a group any of us could join at any moment.

At Treasure Hunt Towers we were big fans of the Paralympics and were truly in awe of some of the swimmers who were missing limbs, the blind footballers and the wheelchair boccia players. So we thought we’d devote this Web Treasure Hunt to a few people with disabilities who have become world-famous in their own spheres.

Children's books by Stephen and Lucy HawkingIt makes sense to start with the extraordinary physicist Stephen Hawking, who launched the Paralympics Opening Ceremony with the words

“Ever since the dawn of civilisation, people have craved an understanding of the underlying order of the world – why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”

Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963 and was given two years to live, but celebrated his 70th birthday earlier this year, having gone on, post-diagnosis, to Cambridge to become a brilliant researcher and then Professor. He is also a prolific author – check out one of his books and prepare to have your mind blown!

Books by Jorge Luis BorgesJorge Luis Borges, Argentinian short-story writer, philosopher and director of the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) found his eyesight failing in this thirties and was completely blind by his fifties. However he continued to write books and screenplays and deliver lectures, helped by his mother who acted as his secretary since he never mastered Braille.

You can find many of his works in Westminster Libraries – his short stories, with their themes of mirrors, libraries, dreams and labyrinths pioneered the genre of magical realism.  For more information, have a look at Contemporary Authors (you will need your Westminster Library card to log in).

Sarah BernhardtIn the late nineteenth century, Sarah Bernhardt was simply the most famous actor in the world. Nicknamed ‘The Divine Sarah’, after training at the renowned Comedie-Francaise she then toured Europe and the USA, even going to Cuba. She was renowned as the greatest tragic actress of her time, playing both male and female roles. She was also a pioneer of silent films and even appeared in a 1900 film of a scene from Hamlet with sound. You can see clips from some of her films on Youtube.

In 1905, she was performing in the dramatic version of La Tosca (adapted for opera by Puccini) in Rio Di Janeiro when she stumbled after leaping from the balcony in the final scene. She never fully recovered and, in 1915, her right leg was completely amputated. However, this didn’t stop her acting  – she played many of her most famous roles, including Cleopatra, Judas and Queen Elizabeth after her injury.

You can check out some biographies of Sarah in Westminster Libraries. If you’re interested in her theatrical successes, have a look at the John Johnson Collection where you can find facsimiles programmes of some of her plays including Hamlet at the Royal Adelphi Theatre and Lena at the Royal Lyceum Theatre (now home to The Lion King).

Naxos Music Library - log in with your Westminster library cardEveryone knows Beethoven lost his hearing, but he wasn’t the only composer with this condition. Bedrich Smetana was perhaps the greatest of nineteenth century Czech composers and wrote much of his most notable music, including the cycle of symphonic tone poems Ma Vlast (‘My Country’), after he had become completely deaf. You can listen to his complete works online at the Naxos Music Library, including his much-revived opera The Bartered Bride. If you want to find out more about his life and works, have a look at Oxford Music Online.

Itzhak Perlman, certainly one of the finest post-war violinists, is happily still alive and performing despite contracting polio at the age of four. He made a good recovery but has subsequently used crutches or a mobility scooter and sits while performing. He has  played the violin all round the world in venues ranging from Barack Obama’s inauguration to Sesame Street. Check out some of his performances on CD from Westminster Libraries or listen online via Naxos Music Library.

The WELDIS database contains loads of useful information for elderly and/or disabled people in WestminsterRemember, if you are disabled or caring for someone with a disability, Westminster Libraries have a range of services that can make life easier, from a Home Library Service for those who cannot get to a library to a range of specialist services and equipment. You can also check WELDIS, a very useful online directory of services, groups and information for older people and those with a disability or long-term illness.

[Nicky]

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