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Foreword by Dorothy Atkinson

For many years, Mabel Cooper wanted to tell the story of her life. But how could she do it? And who would listen? When the idea first occurred to her she was a resident at St Lawrence's Hospital in Caterham, a long-stay institution for people with learning difficulties. Prior to her departure from there in 1977, the hospital housed over 2000 people. It was a huge and forbidding institution not the sort of place where life stories could be told.

When Mabel left the hospital she had other things to think about; getting out and about, making friends, and getting a job. The idea was put on the back burner for nearly 20 years. Then I came along. Although, by chance, I had worked as a Mental Welfare Officer in nearby Croydon in the early 1970s when Mabel was a long-stay resident in St Lawrence's, our paths did not cross at all in those days. They crossed years later, by chance, after we had both moved on and our lives had changed.

By the time we met, in 1994, I was a senior lecturer at The Open University, and Mabel was Chair of People First, London. We met while I was researching for a new OU course, looking for people with learning difficulties who wanted to tell their life stories. This was the moment Mabel had waited for and, on the train home from our meeting, she told me how she had long wanted to tell her story. Could I help?

We arranged to meet at Mabel's home. I brought my tape recorder along, and we recorded what turned out to be the first of many conversations about her life. My job was to listen and to record; to take the recordings away and transcribe them into words on pages, and then to put the words into order, and, finally, to read them back to Mabel for any changes she wanted to make.

This led to the first of Mabel's autobiographical accounts, the story of her life as told entirely from memory. It is called 'Mabel Cooper's Life Story' and it was published in a book called Forgotten Lives in 1997. Now 'Mabel Cooper's Life Story' appears here as one part of Mabel's full autobiography. For the telling of the story did not end there, it simply took a new turn. As Mabel discovered, her memory of the past, vivid though it was in parts, was incomplete. She could remember living in a children's home in Bedford, but had no idea how or why she came to be there. She remembered more than 20 years of living in St Lawrence's, but had no idea why she went there, nor why she stayed so long.

It was time to find out. What did the records of the time say? We started with Mabel's own case notes from her St Lawrence's days luckily still held by the Lifecare Trust. We visited the Trust's offices (on the site of St Lawrence's) and spent a morning poring over the records, finding out the story of Mabel's early life. This started a trail of clues which we followed to the London Metropolitan Archives and the Bedfordshire County Records Office. This part of Mabel's story appears here as 'My quest to find out'.

This autobiography brings together the 'Life Story' and the 'Quest', together with Mabel's own reflections about the importance of the story and why it matters. It is the full account of her life, written for family, friends and colleagues. I'm pleased and proud to be associated with it. It means a lot to Mabel, and means a lot to me. I'm sure it will mean a lot to everyone who has the privilege to read it.

Dorothy Atkinson
The Open University
2001

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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
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MK7 6AA

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