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Research group

"The research that we are doing is about the hidden history of learning disability. It's a very important part of our social lives but it's mostly forgotten. So part of our research has been to unearth and to bring it out into the open, to talk to people who are involved and to portray it, and to celebrate it in some ways." (Professor Dorothy Atkinson, speaking in 2009)

The Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group is based in the School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care at The Open University (OU). It embraces a diverse mixture of people including academics, both from the OU and other universities, people with learning disabilities and practitioners.

The history of the Research Group

The Social History of Learning Disability Research Group began in 1994 when Dorothy Atkinson and Jan Walmsley were both lecturers in the (then) School of Health and Social Welfare at The Open University.

Jan had only become interested in what was then called 'mental handicap' in the 1980s when she began working as a Course Manager at the OU, working on Patterns of Living, an OU pack for parents and paid carers to study about learning disability. As a historian by training, she began to ask about the history of things like Day Centres and was amazed to find that very little was written about it, or other aspects of learning disability. Dorothy was on the team as a lecturer having been a social worker managing deinstitutionalisation in Somerset. Both became aware that not only was there virtually nothing written about the history of services, there were very few stories by people with learning disabilities about their lives other than Joey Deacon's book and the work by Maggie Potts and Rebecca Fido on the histories of people who had left Meanwood Park Hospital (1991). Yet when speaking with people they had interesting stories to tell about their lives, some of which appeared in Know Me As I Am (1990) which Dorothy had edited with Fiona Williams for the OU course Changing Perspectives.

Their first step was to hold a very small seminar for academics and some practitioners at the OU in 1994 at which they talked about the work they had done in archives in Bedfordshire and Somerset. Other speakers included David Wright, on Royal Earlswood, and Mark Jackson. The next step was to hold a conference in 1995 which included people with learning disabilities, including Mabel Cooper and Gloria Ferris who remained committed to writing and telling of history, including their own, to the present day. Sadly Mabel died in April 2013, but Gloria continues the tradition.

Then there was a book, Forgotten lives, published in 1997 and co-edited by Jan, Dorothy and Mark Jackson, and this included Mabel's original life story including her time in St Lawrence's Hospital.

Then there were brilliant PhD students who have sustained the group for many years, and more to come.

The rest is history – the annual conferences continue and the group itself has continued to flourish and grow, despite Jan and then Dorothy leaving the OU. We think the group's philosophy that everyone has something to contribute to telling the history of learning disabilities has touched many people's lives. We hope it has changed some for the better and will continue to do so.

'The Hidden History of Learning Disability'

This is a short recording (11 minutes) made at the 2009 Conference – Families, History and Learning Difficulties. It provides a flavour of the event itself, but also includes members of the Research Group talking about the story of the group, its philosophy and why we need to reveal the largely hidden history of learning disability.

Our members