restricted access Disability History: Voices and Sources, London Metropolitan Archives
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Disability History:
Voices and Sources, London Metropolitan Archives
Emmeline Burdett, Independent scholar (bio)

Held at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) in Clerkenwell, on 22 March 2013, "Disability History: Voices and Sources" was a collaboration between English Heritage and the London Metropolitan Archives. A packed schedule gave delegates the opportunity to learn about a large number of projects with the common aim of uncovering the often hidden history of disabled people. The conference was divided into three parts: "Disabled People Make History," "Archives," and "The Historic Environment." The first session began with a talk by Navin Kikabhai of the Alliance for Inclusive Education (Allfie). Kikabhai talked about Allfie's oral history project, entitled "What Did You Learn at School Today?," the aim of which was to document the education and schooling experiences of disabled people over the last century. Central to this were 50 recorded interviews with disabled people born between 1909 and 1998, focusing on the interviewees' educational experiences. As befits Allfie's vision, the project was ideologically driven, with modern integration contrasted favourably with the segregation and lack of agency of the past. Next to speak were Phil Samphire and his colleague Linda, from the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People. They spoke about their organization's Ardwick People's History Project, which in 2006 recorded oral histories documenting the lives of disabled people from Ardwick, an area of Manchester. The rationale behind the project was that, while the history of everyday life tends to be overlooked, the history of disabled people's everyday lives is almost totally ignored. This attitude was encapsulated in a story that Samphire told. He had visited a local library in Manchester, and seen an exhibition about his old special school, in which the school's story was told entirely from the point of view of its governors.

A similar problem regarding the voices of attendees of special schools and hospitals was exemplified at the beginning of the next presentation. Prudhoe Hospital in Northumberland was opened in 1914 as the "Prudhoe Hall Colony for Mental Defectives." The complex is featured on English Heritage's website [End Page 97] in terms which perpetuate the invisibility of those who have lived there over the years. To this end, Jan Walmsley of the Open University (OU) spoke about the "No Going Back: Forgotten Voices of Prudhoe Hospital" project. This was a collaboration between the OU's Social History of Learning Disability Research Group (SHLD) and Skills for People, an organization of people with learning difficulties. The "No Going Back " project is an oral history, composed of reminiscences of former residents of the hospital, and these are grouped under various themes: Going In; Food; Friends and Relationships; Routines; Resistance and Escape; Positive Memories; Christmas and Birthdays; Staff; Visits; Sex. One thing that emerged very strongly from the interviews was the extent to which staff used tranquilizing drugs ("the needle") to control the residents.

After a short break, we moved on to the "Archives" session of the conference. This was chaired by Rachel Hasted of English Heritage, and consisted of three presentations, the first of which was by Ian Jones-Healey, the archivist of the Langdon-Down Museum at Normansfield. John Langdon-Down was the physician who, in the mid-nineteenth century, first identified shared characteristics amongst a group of people with learning difficulties. He referred to these people as "Mongolian Idiots"—a delightful term which, in 1965, was changed to Down's syndrome in recognition of Langdon-Down's work.

Upon opening Normansfield, Langdon-Down brought with him the principles which he had developed during his time working at the famous Earlswood Asylum near Redhill, Surrey. Langdon-Down had been appointed Medical Superintendent there in 1858. Under his leadership, conditions in the asylum improved considerably—amusements were provided, and residents were taught social skills and, in many cases, trades.

After his resignation from Earlswood in 1868, Langdon-Down bought the White House in Hampden Wick and extended it as a residential home for people with learning difficulties from the higher social classes. Thus Normansfield was born. Resident numbers increased from 19 in 1868 to more than 200 in 1900. Langdon-Down and his wife Mary sought to provide...