Remote oral history interviews with disabled women activists during Covid-19

Beckie Rutherford (she/her) is in her final year of PhD research at the University of Warwick. Her project explores the life stories of disabled women and their relationships to liberation movements in late twentieth century Britain. She advocates a broad and creative understanding of activist histories with the aim of challenging ableist expectations of activist cultures in the present day. You can find her on Twitter @B_Rutherford_

My plan to carry out oral history interviews was always the most exciting but daunting part of my research. I started my PhD in the autumn of 2018 and after spending my first year getting to grips with secondary literature and tentatively exploring some archives, I felt ready to get the ball rolling recruiting potential interviewees.

My research examines disabled women’s experiences of activism in late twentieth century Britain, with a particular focus on the Women’s Liberation Movement and the Disabled People’s Movement. Disabled women’s labour has so far been unrecognised within histories of feminism and histories of disability activism are only just starting to be written. There was however significant overlap between these two movements, and I discovered familiar names appearing again and again. I sought to track down these women as well as posting a general call for participation on Twitter. The response was encouraging and by the end of 2019 I had several dates in the diary for in-person interviews.

The rapid advance of Covid-19 in the first few weeks of 2020 meant that all of these arrangements were swiftly cancelled or postponed, and I found myself having to radically re-think a significant methodological aspect of my PhD. It is now well-known that as a direct result of widespread discrimination and neglect, the disabled community has suffered disproportionately during the pandemic and account for a staggering 60% of total deaths in England.[1] I was aware of the structural injustice accounting for this before this figure gained national attention; therefore, the privacy and safety of my participants was paramount. It was a fine balance between respecting the needs of my interview participants – all of whom were physically disabled women in their 50s and 60s – and trying to ensure our communication didn’t lapse completely.

Taking a six month break from research definitely shifted my perspective for the better and helped to instil both renewed sensitivity and flexibility in terms of how I sought the input of disabled women activists. I have now carried out a handful of oral history interviews over Zoom and whilst I will always feel sad that they were unable to take place in person, I am grateful for the many ways that the opportunity to work remotely has sustained and enriched my research.

Disabled voices will always be integral to writing Disability History and crucially, being able to conduct interviews remotely enabled me to still hear these women’s stories in their own words. The stories are plentiful – hilarious and heart-breaking, galvanising and humbling in equal measure – and I feel fortunate to be able to centre my thesis around them. Listening back to the recordings has been a real joy and in every one it is palpable that within the first few minutes of the interview the screen separating us ceased to matter and both myself and my participant simply relaxed into each other’s company.

Something else I assumed would be lost by not doing interviews in person was the chance for participants to share documents and physical ephemera with me. Thankfully, this was not the case at all. One of them thoughtfully gathered newspaper cuttings and photos in advance to show me via the webcam, and another kindly posted me copies of written documents shortly after our interview had taken place. The connection and trust that I had hoped to foster with my participants wasn’t compromised, we just developed it in a different way.

Working remotely also ensured that my participants were able to speak to me from the comfort of their own homes without the intrusion of a stranger (albeit a friendly and well-meaning one). I was highly conscious that these women had been shielding for much of the past two years and the fact that my virtual presence in their homes added no additional anxiety or stress in relation to that is something I feel increasingly grateful for as the pandemic wears on.

Overall, I have found that there is much to be learned from conducting research in slightly unconventional ways that are perhaps far removed from how you once imagined yourself as a researcher. The need to be adaptable and creative – skills which many disabled people are expert in – has been truly valuable and in many ways, has helped me to feel more connected to the community of disabled women activists whose stories I am privileged to tell.

[1] ‘Covid: Disabled people account for six in 10 deaths in England last year – ONS’, BBC News, 11 February 2021 <> (accessed 17 January 2022). Frances Ryan, ‘A year inside: what shielding has meant for the most vulnerable’, 23 March 2021 <> (accessed 17 January 2022).


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