What’s this label – learning disability – they’ve given me? Why do people think I’m different? Why do they treat me differently? Don’t they think I’m a real person?

Medicine, psychology and social administration rarely look at these questions from the viewpoint of the person with the label. Academics least of all. But that person would not necessarily have been seen as different in the distant past. And if the past was another story, the future can be another story too – and a better one.

We are a group of academics researching the history of learning disability, the history of intellectual disability, and the history of developmental disability. (Labels can vary, and we follow UK practice by using “learning disability” to cover all of them.) They are the poor relations of disability history, and are largely absent from the history of psychology in general.

Our interest is in historical scholarship. However, we are not obscure theoreticians. We are interested in sharing our knowledge with the general public, as well as using it to inform professional practice, social policy, and the anti-discrimination movement, and to improve people’s lives.

Instinct and research alike tell us that people with learning disabilities, however “severe” or “complex,” aspire to the same things in life as anyone else: friendship, genuine social relationships, meaningful occupations, good health, and a recognised position in the community. That is to say: ordinary lives. Small but tangible advances are being made towards this goal in various parts of the world, but there is massive resistance from the prevailing social and political systems.

Knowing about the historical context can help to overcome this. The history of psychology shows that “intelligence” and “normality” are simply what we think they are, nothing else. They reflect the passing anxieties of a particular era. In the longer future they may be something different, or nothing at all. In that case, the same applies to their opposites, and to intellectual disability, developmental disability and learning disability itself.

This website and blog invites academic discussion about the changing ideas that have gone into the history of learning disability. Till now, most historians have focused on the segregated institutions of the last two centuries, or on the “natural fools” of the Middle Ages (though they rarely displayed anything like modern learning disability). We are interested in these topics too. But chiefly we are interested in the idea of learning disability: how it came about, and how people came to be labelled in this way.

Modern society has created not just an idea, but something quite real: it is a fact that our complicated forms of social organisation exclude some people, who will need extra support to have an ordinary life. People with learning disabilities are not the only members of this group, but – in an era when to be human is defined as to be “rational” – they are its paradigm case. For those of you tangling with the system – families, activists, supporters, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and other practitioners – knowing about the history of psychology and the history of learning disability will help to keep you going. We invite you too to join this forum.

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