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Biography - Dorothy Atkinson

Dorothy's people profile at The Open University

I retired from the Open University in 2010 and am now Emeritus Professor of Learning Disability. My route into the history of learning disability was through my work as a social worker in Somerset, where I was involved in the 1970s in helping people move out of the long-stay hospitals to live in the community. It was apparent then that people with learning difficulties have very interesting - and revealing - stories to tell. At the same time, I began to delve into the documentary histories of the hospitals and other institutions where I was then working. This early interest in the oral and documented histories of people and places was given scope to develop when I came to work at the Open University in the mid-1980s.

In particular, the anthology, Know Me As I Am (Atkinson and Williams, 1990), was a landmark in developing life history work with people with learning difficulties. The subsequent founding of the Social History of Learning Disability research group in 1995, with Jan Walmsley, has led to a series of conferences and publications which have drawn together life stories and documentary evidence as a distinctive contribution to a new field. My particular interest has been in life history research. This was the focus of my book, An Auto/Biographical Approach to Learning Disability Research (1997) and my PhD thesis, Researching the History of Learning Disability using Oral and Life History Methods (2001).

Recent and relevant publications

  • Rolph, S., Walmsley, J. and Atkinson, D. (2002) '"A Man's Job?" Gender issues and the role of mental welfare officers, 1948-1970', Oral History, 30, 1, pp. 28-41.
  • Rolph, S., Atkinson, D. and Walmsley, J. (2003) 'A Pair of Stout Shoes and an Umbrella: The role of the Mental Welfare Officer in delivering community care in East Anglia, 1946-1970', British Journal of Social Work, 33, 3, pp. 339-359.
  • Atkinson, D. (2004) 'Research and Empowerment: Involving people with learning difficulties in oral and life history research', Disability and Society, 19, 7, pp. 691-702.
  • Atkinson, D. (2005) 'Research as Social Work: Participatory research in learning disability', British Journal of Social Work, 35, 4, pp. 425-434.
  • Rolph, S., Atkinson, D., Nind, M. and Welshman, J. (eds) (2005) Witnesses to Change: Families, Learning Difficulties and History, Kidderminster, BILD Publications.
  • Atkinson, D. and Rolph, S. (2006) 'Maureen Oswin and the "Forgotten Children": Research as Resistance' in Mitchell, D. et al. (eds) Exploring Experiences of Advocacy by People with Learning Disabilities: Testimonies of Resistance, London, Jessica Kingsley.
  • Atkinson, D., Cooper, M. and Ferris, G. (2006) 'Advocacy as Resistance: Speaking Up as a Way of Fighting Back' in Mitchell, D. et al. (eds) Exploring Experiences of Advocacy by People with Learning Disabilities: Testimonies of Resistance, London, Jessica Kingsley.
  • Hamilton, C. and Atkinson, D. (2009) ‘‘A story to tell’: Learning from the life stories of older people with intellectual disabilities in Ireland’, British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37, 4, pp. 316-322.
  • Bigby, C. and Atkinson, D. (2010) ‘Written out of History: Invisible Women in Intellectual Disability Social Work’, Australian Social Work, 63, 1, pp. 4-17.
  • Atkinson, D. and Walmsley, J. (2010) ‘History from the Inside: Towards an inclusive history of intellectual disability’, Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 12, 4, pp, 273-286.
  • Rolph, S. and Atkinson, D. (2010) ‘Emotion in narrating the history of learning disability’, Oral History, 38, 2, pp. 53-63.

Contact us

About the Group

If you woud like to get in touch with the Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group, please contact:

Liz Tilley 
Chair of the Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group
School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care
Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
MK7 6AA

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