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"... and there you are allowed to stay throughout your life!"

Life history research with people with learning difficulties in total institutions

Gertraud Kremsner and Benjamin Emberger

In this paper we want to talk about first results from a study currently conducted in Vienna/Austria. It is called Experiences with personal and institutional structures in the biographies of people with learning difficulties. We try to do research as inclusive as possible, which means that people with learning difficulties participate in the research process.

People with learning difficulties used to live in so called total institutions in Austria until the 1990s. Total institutions are large institutions where people have to work and live at the same time and almost never get out of there. The people we work with used to live in psychiatric hospitals, children's homes and large institutions for people with learning difficulties. They now live in residential care or their own (assisted) apartments and most of them work in workshops for people with disabilities.

For the study, we wanted to find out their experiences with power and violence. We talked to 7 people with learning difficulties. We met several times and they told us their biographies and their dreams for the future. They all now participate or used to participate in the research process.

The abuse of power and violence played an important role when they used to live in total institutions. They still have to face a lot of it – but it has taken on a more subtle appearance.

We also found out that living in total institutions makes people believe that they are worth less than others.

We wanted to find out more about the mechanisms behind this and started to ask a lot of questions. Why do we need special institutions for people with learning difficulties? Why do people abuse power? What does the word power exactly mean? Why do people start to believe that they are worth less than others, just because they grew up in those institutions?

We’d also like to talk about strategies the co-researchers developed to survive under these circumstances.

View the PowerPoint presentation

Biographies

Benjamin Ember - I'm dealing with the mentioned topics for two years now. I did my Bachelor thesis in cooperation with a woman who had a lot of experience with total institutions and their fatal structures. Now I have the possibility to do my Master's and go on with these and similar topics.

Gertraud Kremsner - I'm working on my PhD in the Department of Philosophy and Education at the University of Vienna. I work closely with people with learning difficulties who not only help me with writing my PhD thesis and the required research for doing so, but support me with teaching students a the University as well.

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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