Disability and Impairment: a technological fix

by Jan Walmsley

Disability and Impairment: a technological fix was the title of a great conference at the London Metropolitan Archives on Friday 27th November. LMA have done a lot of work on disability history including running FREE conferences, of which this was one. It’s a welcoming atmosphere, inclusive of students and experienced academics alike. They deserve to be congratulated.

Speakers’ interpretation of technology was pretty broad. It encompassed the 20-year-old Campaign for the Disability Discrimination Act, highlighted by Tom Hayes from SCOPE, and the portrayal of disabled people in eighteenth century England (Simon Jarratt), as well as what I usually think of as technology, namely gadgets and apps, (Peter Fuzesi), representation of disabled people in cinema (Richard Reiser) and in photography (Ian Jones-Healey).

In this blog I want to highlight two issues which stand out for me. The first is the question of what makes for effective campaigning. Tom Hayes (SCOPE Campaigns Officer) posed this question, intimating that the old fashioned graft of filling envelopes and chaining oneself to railings in the company of others was more effective in creating campaigning communities than the modern practices of tweeting, blogging, and Facebooking. It is a question I’d been pondering as I struggled to write an academic paper on the Changing Face of Parent Advocacy, comparing the local Societies which characterised the grassroots of Mencap’s predecessor organisation, the National Association of Parents of Backward Children, with the blogs and pretty continuous tweeting of the campaign for justice for Connor Sparrowhawk for example. I have some sympathy for the view that the old methods might reach more deeply into the communities they need to reach than social media which, particularly for older generations, is an alien world. Only time will tell.

The other issue is the question Sue Ledger, Vicky Green and I posed in our paper ‘How come we didn’t know this happened?’. Why does it matter that people with learning disabilities, their families, and their allies, know about the history of learning disabilities? We were recounting the work we are doing with Access All Areas to help their actors understand the history of institutions, so that they can in turn share this with other people in London through drama. It was one of these young actors whose quote ‘How come we didn’t know this happened?’ gave us our title.

Do people with learning disabilities now need to know about the old mental handicap institutions?

Even though I have made my name and even a modest living through researching and publishing about this history, it is still a question that troubles me. I have lived through an era when delabelling was all the rage, labels were blamed for many of the ills experienced by people with learning disabilities. But studying this history implies identifying with the label, and being interested in what happened to people with similar labels in the past. This sits uneasily with policies of inclusion and integration, which say we are not defined by our label. Other groups – LGBT, for example, or women – have fiercely argued to record and own their own history. People with learning disabilities have not made these arguments. I’m still not sure whether they should be encouraged to do so.

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Launch of ‘No Longer Shut Up’ – a celebration of the life of Mabel Cooper (1944-2013)

by Liz Tilley

On Friday 20th November 2015, members of the SHLD group attended the launch of the film of Mabel Cooper’s life, ‘No Longer Shut Up’. The event was hosted by Access All Areas, an inclusive theatre group who produced the film. It was held in the Barbican, London, a venue that held special meaning for Mabel and her friends.

Mabel Cooper receiving her honorary degree in 2010

Mabel Cooper, pictured with Professor Dorothy Atkinson, receiving her honorary degree from The Open University in 2010

Mabel Cooper was a truly inspiring woman, who was a key figure in the SHLD group and a self-advocate who made waves across the world. She championed the rights of people with learning disabilities, and was determined that others should not have to endure what she had experienced, incarcerated at St Lawrence’s Hospital, Catheram, for 20 years. In her words, people with learning disabilities should never again be ‘shut up’. She was passionate about the power of research and education to help society change, and upon her release from the institution in the 1970s, Mabel worked tirelessly to share her own story and advocate through People First.

Mabel had never known why she had been placed in an institution, and it was only through very careful archival work with her friend Dorothy Atkinson, that she was able to track down her notes and piece the story together. Mabel discovered that her own mother had been on the streets and unable to care for her. Her mother was put in an institution and they never met again. After a series of moves around various children’s homes, Mabel was assigned the label of ‘feeble-minded’ and was transferred to St Lawrence’s as a teenager, which she found terrifying.

While the trauma of those years never left her, Mabel embraced life in the community. She learned how to read and to travel independently, supported by her long-term friend, and fellow resident at St Lawrence’s, Gloria Ferris. Mabel gradually found the confidence to speak out about her experiences, presenting at academic conferences, and visiting schools to talk to young people. She was quite clear that real change could only occur when the hearts and minds of the next generation had been won.

Mabel sadly died in 2013. Very generously, she left some money to help continue her work. Mabel requested that her long-term supporter Jane Abraham and the SHLD group at the OU come up with a plan to support her legacy. After much thought, we decided to use the funds to make a film of Mabel’s life that could be accessed by everyone. Access all Areas were commissioned to make the film, and people with learning disabilities were employed as actors on the project. It is a powerful piece, and can be viewed on YouTube.

It was terrific that the film premiered at the Barbican because that was where, in 2010, Mabel was awarded an Honorary Degree by the Open University for her services to the community, and for the unique contribution she made to the OU’s Social History of Learning Disability Group. We all miss Mabel greatly and our annual SHLD conferences are not the same without her. She was an amazing advocate for the social history of learning disability, for inclusive research and for using life stories to inspire change. She was forthright and didn’t pull any punches! But she was also warm, funny and caring, and always helped others whenever she could.

Finally, I think it’s important to quote Jan Walmsley, who wrote:

“The fact that Mabel’s launch was in the same week as the All Party Parliamentary Group on Learning Disability discussed Transforming Care, the challenge of bringing the 3000 or so people in institutions back to their communities, reminds us that her work is not finished. And maybe she is right, we really must start telling young people about this Hidden History, those Forgotten Lives, and reassert her determination, to be No Longer Shut Up”.