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Guide to using the education resources

A guide to using the education resources for schools and colleges on the history of learning disability, 1900 to the present day - notes for teachers


These activities engage with the story of learning disabled people’s lives, from the early 20th century to the present day. They reflect on the eugenicist agitation and moral panic towards the ‘feeble minded’ (people with mild to moderate learning disabilities) which led to as many as 70,000 people being incarcerated for life in the UK under the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, forced sterilisation and racist immigration control in the USA and the extermination of over 1 million disabled people under the Nazi 3rd Reich. In the UK, the legislation that resulted in nearly a century of separation for people with learning disabilities was orchestrated by just a few dozen influential scientists and social reformers - Francis Galton, Ida Darwin, Mary Dendy, Dr. Alfred Tredgold, Cyril Burt and Reverend Harold Burden. They succeeded in securing a Royal Commission and getting the Mental Deficiency Act through Parliament in 1913 with only two MPs opposing. Many people with learning disabilities had their lives shaped by these events, right up to the 1970s and 1980s when ‘Care in the Community’ became the vogue.

Despite the apparent dismantling of the ideology, policies and infrastructure that kept large numbers of people with learning disabilities firmly excluded from the mainstream, people with learning disabilities continue to face great challenges in our society. In recent times, real gains in supported and independent living have been challenged by austerity measures. Again there is a rise in hate crime and bullying towards disabled people, especially those with learning disabilities. A number of people continue to live in institutional settings, although these places are now referred to as ‘Assessment and Treatment Units’. This history is about the lives of people with learning disabilities, but it is also a history about the ways in which society responds to diversity and difference. These issues continue to have significant relevance for us today.

We recommend that before working with the materials you read Institutionalisation: an historical perspective by Professor Jan Walmsley or a shortened summary version from UK Disability History Month.

A note on language

Throughout most of these activities, we use the term ‘people with learning disabilities’ to reflect the current term in use across policy and practice settings in the UK. Where appropriate, we refer to the terms used in different historical periods. However, we are aware that some self-advocates do not like the term ‘people with learning disabilities’ and prefer ‘people with learning difficulties’. This is something for teachers and students to be aware of and may indeed be relevant for discussions in Activities 1, 8 and 16, which all address the issue of language and terminology.

The activities

This new online resource comprises a bank of educational activities for Year 5 through to Year 13 and is relevant to a wide range of subject areas, for both mainstream and special educational provision. Many of the activities are also suitable for adults with learning disabilities who are interested in their history. There are compelling reasons why all students should, through a variety of curriculum areas, gain an understanding of the past treatment of people with learning disabilities and develop a more empathetic approach for the times we live in. The activities cover various aspects of learning disability history, from the early 20th century to the present day. There is a focus on institutional life in the old Mental Deficiency Institutions (later referred to as Learning Disability Hospitals) and the transition to independent living in the community. Independent living means making choices about one’s life but having support in tackling the barriers society constructs against this. The activities also engage with contemporary issues of equality, rights, discrimination, disablist language and bullying.

The activities are built around the film No Longer Shut Up (20 mins) by Advocreate, focusing on the life of Mabel Cooper, who was institutionalised at 3 weeks old until she was in her 30s. Upon her release Mabel became an active campaigner for people with learning disabilities and was awarded an Honorary Degree from The Open University in 2010 in recognition of her work. Mabel believed passionately in the importance of teaching young people about the history of policies and practices that stigmatised and separated people.  She argued until the final weeks of her life in 2013 that this aspect of disabled people's history in the UK needed to be known, to help change attitudes and improve people’s lives in the future.

View the film and plan which activities you will use. No Longer Shut Up timings describes scenes in the film and gives timings so you can choose which clips you want to show.

The first activities draw directly on extracts of the film of Mabel’s life in the institution and examine the impact of attaching labels to people, using facsimile letters of inmates or patients. 

The first activities draw directly on extracts of the film of Mabel’s life in the institution and examine the impact of attaching labels to people, using facsimile letters of inmates or patients. Activity 1 - Labels good and bad - this activity draws on facsimile documents from Mabel’s life and of two others whose names have been changed. This is followed up by Drama activities and English activities on life and punishment in the institution; Activity 2 - Being in punishment, Activity 3a - Living in an Institution: how it felt, Activity 3b - Living in an institution: work machines and Activity 3c - Living in an institution: a day in the life.

Activity 4 - Leaving an institution shows how discharge from an institution posed lots of new problems after years of having all decisions about your life taken by other people. Activity 5 - Eden’s story shows how some people, especially those on the Autism continuum, continue to be locked up against their will in current times. Activity 6 - Entering an institution examines in more detail first impressions using several accounts of arriving in the institution. A culture of resistance amongst inmates developed, as Activity 7 - Songs of resistance demonstrates.

Activity 8 - Changing labels examines the changing language used to describe disabled people and in particular those with learning disability or difficulty. This changes with time and becomes mainly negative and students need to be aware and ready to challenge. There is much more on this in Activity 16 - Challenging disablist language, bullying and harassment.

Moving on to how to be an effective life story interviewer is covered in Activity 9 - Do’s and don’ts of life story interviewing, which get students engaging at various levels with some previous interviews with residents of another institution - Lennox Castle in Scotland.

Activity 10 - Fighting for rights examines the changing human rights framework and why the way people used to be treated is no longer considered acceptable. It involves examining different ways of treating people with learning disabilities against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Activity 11 - What happened when: learning disability timeline 1 is an initial exploration of changes in the lives of people with learning disabilities, using a 10-minute animation and then sorting out sets of PowerPoint pictures into a rough date sequence. It will help students get a sense of how this history is pieced together and how it fits into the wider context.

Activity 12 - Eugenics and false science examines how the false science of eugenics was developed to support the moral crusade to segregate the feeble minded from the rest of the population, in order to prevent them having children and to stop their migration. Through prejudice these campaigners believed themselves morally right and, obligingly, scientists holding similar views provided the underpinning ‘science’ to support such beliefs. Read the teachers notes before pursuing the activities. Belatedly, some scientists such as Goddard and Spearman admitted their errors, but others such as Tredgold and Burt continued to hold these views and were influential in maintaining a licensing and institutional system right up until the 1960s.

Using Google Maps we mapped the location of each long-stay mental deficiency institution/hospital with over 200 'inmates' (the name changed in 1947 when they were taken over from by the National Health Service). For each entry we give the location, historic information, numbers, links to more information and testimony of staff and patients. This is not exhaustive and we hope, if you discover other information through local study, that you will send this to us to and to the map at Activity 13 - Geography of mental deficiency institutions in Great Britain examines location and the factors that might have led to this and gets students to use the Google Map and draw inferences.

Activities 14 and 15 go deeper into the history of events and impacts on people with learning disabilities in England and Wales. Activity 14 - How people have been treated: learning disability timeline 2 present the highly accessible and engaging Purple Patch short animation to convey the history of learning disability using graphics, alongside a timeline constructed by Bournemouth People First. These can be used to hold a class discussion introducing the concept of human rights and applying it to the experience of people with learning disabilities. In Activity 15 - Learning from research: learning disability timeline 3 students are encouraged to go more deeply into the Bournemouth People First Timeline and, in pairs, answer a range of questions about the lives and experiences of people with learning disabilities in the South of England up to 2012.

A recent survey (October 2014) by the Anti-Bullying Alliance found the use of offensive words such as ‘mong’, ’retard’ and ‘spaz’ was widespread amongst both adults and children and dismissed as banter, though used to insult and hurt disabled people in a minority of cases. The 80% increase in hate crime towards disabled people since 2010 and the high levels of bullying in schools towards students with learning disabilities (83%) and those with Autism (90%) makes it imperative that the materials in this pack are used with all 9 to 18 year olds. Activity 16 - Challenging disablist language, bullying and harassment provides a wide range of advice and activities to tackle disablist language and bullying developed for the Anti-Bullying Alliance. This can be particularly useful in Tutor periods or citizenship.

The Board of Control was empowered by the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act to control the administration of the Act by Local Councils. Many people with learning disabilities were already accommodated in the local workhouses. Those with more severe learning disabilities were in Asylums, but in 1913 most people that the legislation was aimed at lived in the community. After the First World War the Act started to take effect with Local Councils appointing Mental Deficiency Officers, who brought in those suspected of mental deficiency to be examined by two doctors and, if found through intelligence testing and their life style to meet the criteria, they were sent to the new and growing mental deficiency institutions. Those who were better off could be placed in private institutions and others were allowed to remain in the community, but under voluntary supervision arrangements. The growth of their population was compiled annually by the Board of Control. By 1946 it covered 133,967 people and, of these, 41,548 as inmates in the larger long stay Institutions, many for their whole life. Activity 17 - Graphing the impact of the Mental Deficiency Act in England and Wales provides activities to help students get to grips with the numerical data related to this topic.

In Activity 18 - Barriers then and now Paul Christian, an actor with learning disabilities who plays Robin in ‘No Longer Shut Up’ and Cian Binchy, a young man on the autism spectrum, talk about the impact that ‘No Longer Shut Up’ has had on them. They reflect on the ways in which the lives of people with learning disabilities today are different from Mabel’s, but also on aspects that have stayed the same.

Further online resources and further reading are provided for those who are interested.

It is important that, at the end of engaging with these materials, students appreciate that people with learning difficulties have rights over their life and have a right to be supported in making their own decisions and choices.

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

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