Exploring learning disabilities: supporting belonging
Exploring learning disabilities: supporting belonging

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Exploring learning disabilities: supporting belonging

1 From the 1700s to the mid-twentieth century

The Industrial Revolution, which started in the UK in the late 1700s, is the name given to the process in which society changed from being primarily agricultural to one where people migrated to live in towns and worked in factories.

Before the Industrial Revolution there were many jobs that could be done by people with learning disabilities, such as scaring crows, caring for animals and running errands. First, listen to historian Simon Jarrett in Video 2 who argues that society was far more inclusive of people with learning disabilities in that period.

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Transcript: Video 2

The job for a historian to try to unpick is, are we always talking about the same group of people over time? The group of people we call people with learning disabilities today, are they the same as the group of people we called idiots in the 18th century? And I think what we learn is that, although there is inevitably some overlap, these things change as society, changes. And who they choose to define as the out-group of people with learning disabilities or whatever also changes over time.
People had a very strong idea about what an idiot looked like. Because they believed that your face and your appearance reflected your inner characteristics.
In the 18th century before the French Revolution, people were born into what they believed was their God-given place in society. No one should seek to change their life. To be born rich or poor was an accepted fate. But to be born poor or lacking the mental faculties did not mean that your place in society was without regard.
The Victorian caricaturist James Gillray captured the significance in his drawing "Very Slippy Weather."
Firstly, this is a depiction of everyday life in the streets of late 18th, early 19th century London. And he's there. He's not in an institution. He's not being whipped or abused or badly treated. He's slightly separate from everybody else, but he's a part of his community. And he has a stake in the society that he lives in.
The second thing is that, although he's being portrayed as a slightly comic figure, the main comic figure is the very intelligent intellectual gentleman who is actually lacking so much in common sense that he slips on the ice when he's looking at his thermometer to try to find out what the weather is like. And I think what people had a sense of in the 18th century was that there are different types of intelligence. And there are different types of people. There are other types of sense, which can actually create a place for everybody in the society that we live in.
End transcript: Video 2
Video 2
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According to Simon, people in the 18th century had different ideas about intelligence. They believed that there were different types of intelligence, all of which were equally valuable. They believed that they could identify a person they called an ‘idiot’ by what he or she looked like, but that didn’t mean s/he was shunned or shut away. For example, they were less a figure of fun than the clever wealthy man who slipped on the ice while reading his thermometer because he lacked common sense, in Gillray’s cartoon (Figure 1).

Described image
Figure 1 Gillray's cartoon 'Very Slippy Weather' shows a man with learning disabilities in the background but the figure of fun is the clever man who slipped on the ice

However, as the Industrial Revolution made paid work more mechanised, so people with learning disabilities found it increasingly difficult to fit into the workforce. It was this that made them into a ‘problem’.

Activity 1 Learning disabilities timeline – 1700s to 1950

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Watch Video 3, which shows an animated timeline of the main events in learning disability history, then answer the questions below.

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Transcript: Video 3

The Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century and brought many machines that were tricky to operate. If you couldn't operate the machines, you couldn't work and earn money, and so had to be looked after. One choice was to go into the first type of institutional care, the workhouse. It wasn't a good place to live.
In 1855, the first purpose built asylum, the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots was opened. The aim of the early asylums was to train and educate people with learning disabilities. The queen's cousins, Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon lived in the Royal Earlswood hidden away. It was here also that John Langdon Down first described the condition that is now known as Down syndrome.
From the beginning of the 20th century, attitudes towards people with learning disabilities began to change. They were now seen as dangerous, especially the women. In 1904, Sir Francis Galton defied the science of eugenics, which stated that only the fit and healthy should be allowed to have children. This idea was to have a serious and terrifying impact on people with disabilities.
A year before the start of the First World War, the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 meant that people with learning disabilities could be made to live in institutions even if they didn't want to. In these places, men and women were kept apart to make sure they didn't have any children. Many never returned to their own homes and families.
Negative attitudes towards people with learning disabilities weren't just here in Britain. Around the same time in America, people were only allowed to get married if they had a certificate to say they were normal and well. It was also common practice in some countries such as Sweden to stop people with learning disabilities having children by sterilising them. This is still carried out in Australia today.
But things were about to get much worse in other parts of the world. In Hitler's Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1945, doctors and nurses killed thousands of children and adults with learning disabilities in hospitals and clinics. They were said to be useless eaters and have lives unworthy of life. They were starved, given drugs, or gassed. And some were experimented on.
After the horrors of the war came some hope. Judy Fryd, the mother of a child with a learning disability set up an organisation called the National Association of Parents of Backward Children. This later became MENCAP. In 1946, the NHS took control of the institutions. From then on, they were called hospitals.
At the beginning of the 1950s, there were thought to be 55,000 people with learning disabilities living in hospitals in England and Wales. That's more people than you'd find in some small towns and cities in England. And in 1948, things appeared to be improving further with the United Nations adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 3 states that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.
As Elvis Presley's fame grew, a report published by the National Council for Civil Liberties in 1950 said that the living conditions of those in hospital was very poor and that patients were often stopped from leaving because they were needed for work in the hospital. Some didn't even have a learning disability. They told a story of one lady who had to live in an institution because she didn't know how many feathers were on a chicken.
End transcript: Video 3
Video 3
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  1. The Mental Deficiency Act brought in provisions for the institutional treatment of people with learning disabilities in the UK. In what year was it introduced?







The correct answer is c.

  1. In some countries, people with learning disabilities in the 20th century were not permitted to marry, or have children, true or false?





The correct answer is a.

  1. How many people with learning disabilities were estimated to be living in institutions in England and Wales in the early 1950s?







The correct answer is c.

You have just covered two centuries in a very short time! To find out what some of these changes meant for people, you will be following the stories of two women, Mabel and Bernie, both born in the mid-twentieth century. In the next section you will learn more about the history of learning disability institutions.


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