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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