I'm introducing our new edited book Transnational Perspectives on the
History of Learning / Intellectual Disabilities in the twentieth century Intellectual_Disabilities_v3.
Co-edited by me, and the brilliant Simon Jarrett, it contains chapters from
authors in 12 different countries, as varied as USA and Taiwan, Australia and
Ghana. All use life stories to illustrate the real life impact of different
policies and practices on people.
Until this book, only the Anglosphere, Scandinavia and German speaking
countries had even a tiny history industry. The history of learning disability,
much neglected even in the west, had barely a flicker of life elsewhere. Life
stories as a means of understanding the experiences of people with learning
disabilities and their families, well established in USA, UK, Canada and
Australasia for 50 years, was quite new to authors in other parts of the world.
It's been gratifying that the task of writing for this book has prompted 2
contributors to do more work on life stories in their own countries.
It's been an amazing experience to edit this book. So exciting to discover
that in interwar Czechoslovakia there were incredibly progressive policies.
That in the Communist bloc, people with mild learning disabilities were
welcomed as equal citizens, part of the workforce, but those who were not able
to be productively employed were held in abysmal conditions. To learn that in
both Hong Kong and in the UK the 1990s saw a high point of progressive,
optimistic policies, with a falling back, both in resources allocated and in
vision of a better life, in the twenty first century.
What has been strange and sad is the discovery that across cultures, people
with intellectual disabilities tend to be excluded and looked down upon. This
cannot always be blamed on eugenics, though that was incredibly influential in
Europe, USA and Australasia. A combination of economic anxieties intertwined
with traditional belief systems were powerful influences in both Taiwan and
More positively, in every chapter, the importance of families. In several
countries - Taiwan, Ghana, Hong Kong - learning disability was largely left to
families until the closing years of the twentieth century. In Greece and
Hungary this was true into the mid cenury. Even in those countries most
influenced by the USA - UK, Australia, New Zealand - families have remained the
bedrock of support. And, more striking still, it has been families at the
forefront of agitation for a better life, closure of institutions, support for
lives in the community. In some places at some times it took a great deal of
courage to stand up for a disabled child, not only in Nazi dominated Austria,
but also in Czechoslovakia, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
The language issue loomed large. In Ghana, because disability was largely
managed within families and rural communities, learning disability lacked a
name until recently. In Hungarian and Mandarin Chinese the preferred
'people first' construction 'people with a ...' is just not possible. In Ghana,
people with Downs are labelled as 'nsuoba', meaning spirit or water children.
Does language matter so much? It's pretty difficult to research the history of
learning disability without labels. A feeble reason to have them, maybe. And
there are neo-colonial overtones to the debates about language, with terms
regarded as 'progressive' usually originating in English or German speaking
This brings me onto the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People
with Disabilities. This very aspirational document is hard to square with the
very varied sets of assumptions about learning disabilities revealed by the
collection of chapters in the book. Is it, I wonder, an imposition of Western
assumptions onto the world. Not the first time, it's happened.
This is, we hope, not the last word on transnational histories, rather a
tentative beginning. Missing are some really important narratives, from China,
India, South America, Russia, Central Asia, not to mention places much nearer
home, like Ireland, France, Spain.
The book is not cheap - regrettably. £75. It's also an ebook available on
kindle for £26.99. Policy Press is the publisher, AND we have a 20% discount
currently. Use this link to get it.