Learning disabilities in Britain 1780-1880 : perceptions and practice
This thesis aims to elucidate perceptions and practices in relation to learning disabilities in different contexts over a period of a hundred years, between 1780 and 1880. Previous studies have concentrated on institutional and professional contexts, on informed medical opinion for example, or on focused studies of local practices. Here a wider range of opinion and practice is sought. The Introduction includes a discussion of nomenclature, and explains why 'intellectual impairment' is used rather than the familiar term 'learning disability'. Part I of the thesis explores perceptions of, and responses to, intellectual impairment held by different people in various contexts, while Part II employs biographical methods to examine the life histories of a number of intellectually impaired people in their familial setting. Part I starts with the views of professionals - educationists,doctors (who were at the forefront of the well documented emergence of idiot education in the 1840s) and also charity workers. Concentrating on previously neglected issues, the thesis shows that educational theory and practice offered nothing to families with an intellectually impaired child, and medical dominance had negligible competition. In a chapter on the efforts of charity workers as well as doctors to promote and raise money for the new idiot asylums, the focus is on the notion of idiocy that they put forward. Here ideas from the past mingled with new ideas. The question of the nature and origin of the image, or images, of the idiot is continued in two chapters that explore the varied and changing portrayals of intellectual impairment in imaginative literature. Part II uses family papers in a novel way to investigate the lives of individuals who had an intellectual impairment, and the responses of their families. These families, well known because of at least one eminent member, and well documented, are at the least, comfortably off. But within these parameters there is variation. Augustus, son of William and Caroline Lamb, is from the aristocracy, while Laura, daughter of Leslie Stephen of DNB fame, is from the middle class intelligentsia. This makes the similarity of responses to an intellectually impaired child the more interesting. For the most part, a child's difficulty was conceptualised as an educational, health or social problem, and not in terms of idiocy or a related all inclusive notion. The final chapter of Part II, that explores experiences of the modestly off or the poor, uses, in the absence of family papers, other sources of information. The inclusion of both the familial and private, and the public, contexts enables this thesis to reveal a wider range of perceptions and practices in relation to intellectual impairment during the period than have previous studies.