So reads a pin badge found in the collection of Keith Armstrong at the Bodleian Libraries Special Collections. The Bodleian holds just one box of Armstrong’s collection (the rest are held by the Bishopsgate Institute in London), but within it we can find evidence of Armstrong’s multifaceted life. Born in South Africa in 1950, Armstrong was an activist and public campaigner for disability rights. At six months old, he contracted polio, confining him to a wheelchair for most of his life. He spent much of his childhood in Oxford, attending Ormerod School, a school for children with physical disabilities. In his adulthood, he helped found the Liberation Network of People with Disabilities, and at different intervals, he was a member of the London Transport Passenger Committee and the committee of Camden Dial-a-Ride.
His collection at the Bodleian Libraries gives us an insight into the different aspects of Armstrong’s life: as a campaigner and voice for disabled rights; a creator of typewriter art; and a poet. It also shows us a darker side to his beliefs. At age 16, he began editing and publishing his own poetry and literature magazine, The Informer. The first issue of his magazine contained an article written by a contributor, Brian Crittindon, containing a repeated number of racial slurs and seeming to argue for Jim Crow laws in the US and against immigration into the UK. As the editor-in-chief of The Informer, it is impossible to ignore Armstrong’s role in producing and distributing material containing hateful language. With the records available, it is difficult to know whether Armstrong held onto these views into adulthood, or if he would have looked back with regret later in life. Whilst his achievements as a disability rights activist are undeniable—his work led to improvements in train and tube access, and to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995—it does remind us of the fact that when examined from all sides, those we admire in history often held views that are incompatible with our own values. It’s therefore important to be able to understand and appreciate the work of those who came before us, whilst acknowledging the impact of their faults and facets which were harmful to others.
Written by Kasturi Pindar, Bodleian Libraries intern, Summer 2023.