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  4. A letter to ... Amazing and resilient women ... I thank you!

A letter to ... Amazing and resilient women ... I thank you!

Dr Deborah Phillips

This presentation stems from a recent personal experience when I received a 'return to sender' card. I had previously posted the card to Sandra who was one of the participants involved in a research project conducted over fifteen years ago now. Like many other women I interviewed during this intensive two year period of fieldwork and data generation, we built up friendships, trust, a sense of comradeship and thus remain in contact. I will never forget this time and my privilege to be engaged in such extraordinary stories and life histories which documented extreme challenges and difficulties in the form of institutionalisation, enforced sterilisation and abuse. Yet despite being labelled as having 'learning difficulties' or being 'mentally retarded' these women also demonstrated amazing courage, strength, resilience and humour. I have always felt disappointed in myself that I have not managed to produce some significant publication after completing my PhD. After all, it was their stories and voices and to a lesser extent my own experience (as a child being labelled 'backwards') which helped me achieve this.

The 'return to sender’ from Sandra was another wakeup call! As it happened Sandra was fine; she had moved house but post had not been forwarded. We are still in contact. As a result of these past and present events this work will draw on a range of shared experiences; consisting of dialogue, narratives and illustrations. Some of the material was captured at the time and others, on reflection, have been recently completed. To ensure confidentiality and anonymity the presentation will focus on four central characters: Sandra, Alice, Jayne and Pattie and written in the form of a 'letter'. These are fictitious characters but represent a number of real life women, their oral histories and stories which deserve recognition. In addition the work explores how the research was conducted and the participant-led ways in which interviews took place – not always in the most conventional style – from the back of the day centre mini bus to walking around a local fish market!

This is my letter to these amazing women.

View the PowerPoint presentation


Dr Deborah Phillips is Senior Lecturer/Researcher in the Department of Social Sciences and Health Professionals at Cornwall College, Combined Universities of Cornwall. Deborah lecturers on the BSc Health, Community and Social Science degree. She was a coordinator of a two-year European Social Funded (ESF) research project investigating social, economic and business developments in Cornwall. Following this she engaged in a number of research activities which built on the findings of the initial project but focused on the 'lived experiences' of disabled people who live in a rural environment. She has experience of working with a range of service users in a variety of community, residential and educational settings. Her main academic interests are around social identity and social exclusion, particularly in relationship to disability, learning difficulty, gender and sexuality. Research techniques derive from the biographical-narrative tradition with emphasis on oral histories and participatory methods. Deborah also enjoys life in her local community; walking on the beaches, swimming and listening to the live music in the various bars and venues in the town.

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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

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