We may have moved towards a more inclusive and accessible society, but institutions such as the Peat Island Centre (formerly Hospital) and the people who lived there are a rich and instructive part of our history. Peat Island, on the Hawkesbury River, was a residential centre for people with intellectual disability for 100 years between 1910 and 2010. In the late twentieth century, centres like this were the subject of heated debate about institutional care for people with disability, especially after the Richmond Report in 1983 (the Inquiry into Health Services for the Psychiatrically Ill and Developmentally Disabled).
As most large institutions such as Peat Island have closed, it is important that the experiences of those who lived there are not lost. We are fortunate that the research material for Laila Ellmoos’ excellent history of Peat Island has been placed in the Library, including interviews with many former residents. This collection gives insights into the everyday experiences of residents, staff, families and administrators, and contains artefacts such as magazines produced by the school on the island.
People with disability are not absent from our historical records. Their voices are often muffled by the dominance of institutional histories, but they are present if we search in the right places. These collections at the Library, along with records in other libraries and archives, show the kinds of stories that might inform a truly inclusive history of Australia. As historian Douglas Baynton has observed, ‘Disability is everywhere in history, once you begin looking for it … but conspicuously absent in the histories we write.’