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Learning Disability in the Workplace, 1913-1980

Lucy Delap

agri worker DevonThis project examines the extent to which individuals with learning or intellectual disabilities were able to live their lives outside of institutions of care and confinement, with particular emphasis on their experiences of paid work. It is clear that even in the period of maximum efforts to segregate the learning disabled (1913-59), large numbers maintained lives outside of the care or supervision of the mental deficiency welfare infrastructure. One oral history collected in the 1970s recalled, for example, an Edwardian servant:

‘She was a big strong hefty woman... Not at all intelligent, she used to do the most appalling things sometimes through lack of intelligence, very willing and very loyal and she could carry big packets of coal and keep the kitchen clean. And we paid her, I suppose, very, very little probably.’ (Paul Thompson, Edwardians)

This project aims to get beyond the anecdotal evidence of these workers, and track their presence in various kinds of workplace with more precision, over the period governed by the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, through to 1980. It tracks the experiences of individuals such as Billy Atkinson, conscripted in 1948, who spent two years as an Army storeman, and later held short term jobs in factories and hospitals. Interviewed in 1967, he was judged ‘retarded’. Yet he had not experienced anything more than fleeting institutional care, mostly in prisons, and had supported himself economically. His experiences are indicative of a wide and previously under-researched sector of social and labour market experience, by those at the ‘borderland’ of ‘mental deficiency’.

Existing work on learning disability has tended to approach the subject through the records of institutions of surveillance and care such as asylums, colonies, and special schools. This project offers a new approach, through surveys of different kinds of employment – sheltered and open. It investigates the empowerment and exploitation that it might imply for the learning disabled, by asking the following research questions:

  • How far were adults with learning disabilities able to self-support on the open labour market or within sheltered employment schemes during 1913-1980?
  • How did residential care, community supervision procedures and voluntary action (parental or philanthropic) support or hinder self-support?
  • What patterns of employment are visible, based on factors including region, labour market sector, trade cycles, class and gender?
  • What archival possibilities exist to chart the lives of the learning disabled outside of residential care?
  • What can the history of learning disability contribute to contemporary policy debates, with particular reference to access to employment?