Learning about Learning Disability History (by Rebecca)

I'm just starting to help out with Hidden Lives Remembered. I'm going to be: creating website content, transcribing and editing audio interviews and helping to interview people. But to start with, I'm going to talk about what I knew about learning disability history and how the induction materials have educated me about learning disability history.


Disabled people are generally very erased from the history that gets remembered.  If you study history, regardless of the period, generally the key themes are: rulers (usually kings and queens), wars, what life was like generally and sometimes what life was like for poor people. Disability history rarely comes up, especially not learning disability history.

Despite this, I think I've some fairly good ideas about some of the common themes I'll be learning about. This is because, I've had way more exposure to disability and disability issues than most people.

I was born blind and as such have plenty of experience of life as a sensory disabled person. I've been educated alongside and worked alongside many amazing disabled people, with a variety of disabilities.

I'm also quite aware of many disability issues. I've had an interest in disability representation in the media for quite some time and have subsequently done a lot of reading on the subject. I've also learnt bits of general disability history, for example, when I learnt Braille, they taught us about Louis Braille, a blind French guy who lived in the 1800s who invented Braille.

Louis Braille (1809 - 1852)

So not having started to look in to learning disability history yet, here are what I anticipate will be key themes:

I'm expecting there to be a lot of discrimination and unfair treatment. There still is a lot of discrimination and unfair treatment and I've heard that things have improved over the years, so it makes sense to assume it was worse in the past.


I think this is extremely poignant with learning disability, as society seems to value intelligence a great deal. For example, the whole education system is set up around testing how clever you are. I don't think we as a society now, value learning disabled people. I am aware that our knowledge of learning disabilities has increased over the years, so it stands to reason that there were probably some misunderstandings of learning disabled people historically.


I think there's going to be a lot of instances of people making choices for learning disabled people. I say this because things like a person centred approach to care, are really celebrated, in the way that we as a society celebrate many other things that we classify as great modern inventions.


I think there's going to be a lot of isolation. I know isolation is still a thing that exists today even with learning disabled people out in the community. So, putting them in the context of a care institution all the time, would lead to even more isolation.


While I have some ideas about what I can expect, there is a lot I don't know. As I said earlier, learning disability isn't an often covered area of history. So, I'm excited to start learning about it.


I'm going to go enjoy the learning disability history materials provided to me as my induction and then I shall write the second half of this post, talking about what I've learnt and if there's anything that surprises me.


Mabel Cooper (1944-2013)

Gloria Ferris

So I've read the life stories of Gloria Ferris and Mabel Cooper. I've also read a timeline of learning disability history. All are really interesting reads, especially the life stories of Gloria and Mabel, who tell their stories in their own words, which I think is important.

There wasn't much that surprised me about the stories. Many of my predictions were right, the women faced discrimination, a lack of choices and isolation from the outside world.

I was surprised by how bad conditions were at St Lawrence’s long stay hospital. I was anticipating that the hospitals would be more like care homes today, but they were more akin to historical hospitals. They were crowded, with residents having no personal belongings. Both women complained about the food and clothing provided to them at St Lawrence's.

I was expecting there to be discrimination, but I was disappointed that in Gloria's case, some of it came from members of her family thinking she should be sent away.

St Lawrence’s Hospital

St Lawrence’s Hospital

Another thing that surprised me, is that when Mabel went to look at her records, they were going to be destroyed. As much as I am aware that learning disabled history isn't particularly valued, I was surprised that they would actually remove peoples' records from archives.


The one pleasant surprise, was that Gloria was given many opportunities to do paid work. While I have no doubts that she would be capable of the care work she did, employment has always been an issue for disabled people. However, it would appear that in some ways it's became worse rather than better over time. Gloria was made redundant in 1994 and had not worked in the few years between then and telling her story. Gloria has become an advocate for her friend Muriel who is physically disabled and unable to physically speak. While this is a voluntary job, it was still nice that that was allowed to happen.


In conclusion, learning about learning disability history so far has been interesting and I look forward to reading more as I help out with Hidden Lives Remembered.