Reimagining Disability

The Myth of Marginality

When I began to research the history of learning disability more than ten years ago, there was one particular question I was keen to engage with. How did people with learning disabilities live before the asylum? Little had been written at that time about the history of this group, and much of what had been written focused either on the asylum era (roughly 1830s-1980s), or the more recent post-asylum era of care in the community. There were some obvious reasons why this was the case. The asylum period offered a wealth of source material in the form of institutional records, while the modern era provided local and national archival sources and the opportunity to record oral testimonies from patients and staff. These were to become a devastating commentary on the twentieth-century incarceration of people with learning disabilities.

The concentration on well-documented recent history masked some deeper causes for the neglect of earlier history. There was a prevailing assumption that people with learning disabilities lived lives of abject misery and extreme marginalisation before the medical gaze of the long-term institution brought them into historical focus. One study perused the records of the largest institutions of the eighteenth century and found virtually no ‘idiots’ amongst the patient populations. Indeed, there was a reluctance to admit so-called idiots to institutional care and even a desire to actively exclude them. The author’s conclusion was that this indicated the extreme marginalisation of idiots in the pre-modern world – even institutions didn’t want them.

This view was widespread – the apparent absence of people with learning disabilities from the historical record indicated that they must have been abused and neglected, and that this was rooted in the superstition and unenlightened magical beliefs of intolerant pre-industrial societies. Articles were written about ‘monstrous births’ and travelling ‘freak shows’ as if these were the only glimpsable fate of pre-asylum learning disabled people. Despite being written by ostensibly progressive and supportive historians, all this bore a remarkable resemblance to the medicalised justification for institutionalisation put forward by early pioneers of the asylum system. They argued that the idiot was a lonely, cruelly abused and neglected outsider in ‘normal’ society, locked in cellars and attics in cities or sat dumbly on walls in villages, the object of heartless jibes and insults. The medical profession and the asylum rescued them from all this, offering a safe and protective haven for a group of people who simply could not survive in the cruel world outside.

For most historians, the asylums apparently began in a spirit of optimism and good intentions – the word asylum indicating a place of safety, where people would be nurtured and cured. My research interrogates this prevailing wisdom. Some research using seventeenth and eighteenth-century poor law records suggested that in fact people described as idiots were living within communities and families, but the evidence was scant. There was often some bemusement from academics when I talked about my research quest – in the absence of institutional records, where on earth would I find any evidence of this marginalised, non-literate, quasi-invisible group? I decided to search for people with learning disabilities in the eighteenth century and look for anyone within ‘mainstream’ society, rather then on its margins or outside its boundaries. Maybe people with learning disabilities were not marginalised? No one had ever actually demonstrated that they were, it had simply been assumed that they must have been.

I examined a collection of sources which revealed the daily life, thoughts and attitudes of eighteenth-century England. I looked at criminal court proceedings in the Old Bailey, civil proceedings in the ecclesiastical courts, joke books (of which there were many and which were hugely popular in the eighteenth century), slang dictionaries, sermons, paintings, caricatures, novels, nursery rhymes, diaries and other descriptions of daily life. And there they were – hidden in plain sight. People with learning disabilities – idiots as they were characterised at the time, although this was a far more neutral term then than it is now – were living with their families, in their communities, well-known locally, largely accepted and functioning as members of society. They were invisible to historians only in the sense that historians chose not to see them or ignored them when they met their gaze. There was marginalisation, but it was not caused by early modern people – it was caused by the pre-existing mindsets of modern historians.

An early nineteenth-century cartoon depicting a colourful crowd of people looking in a shop window. One young man in a blue coat is stood at the side of the crowd and has a visible learning disability. A man in the foreground wearing a green coat and yellow trousers is sprawled comically on the pavement, his belongings scattered around him.
People with learning disabilities were visibly present in pre-asylum communities, as the young man in the blue jacket in Gillray’s ‘Very Slippy Weather’ indicates ©Wikimedia Commons

In Old Bailey cases (a rare chronicle of the lives of the poor in this period) idiot defendants stood accused of offences such as pickpocketing and theft for which they could be hung if found guilty. Family members, friends, workmates and employers stood in their defence, promising to ensure they would stay out of trouble in future, and almost always got them acquitted. In civil courts cases determining competence to marry or manage one’s own affairs, members of wealthy families expressed their love and attachment to their idiot son or daughter. Caricatures and art showed people working or simply out and about on the streets. Jokes gently poked fun at people who struggled to understand things, numerous slang terms referred to the same group. The very fact that the slang and jokes existed indicates a strong community presence. You don’t make jokes about people who are not there, nor do you invent slang for them. Evangelical preachers such as John Wesley repeatedly stressed that people with limited intelligence who remained faithful to God were infinitely preferable to the well-educated wealthy good-for-nothings who ignored Christ’s teaching.

A dark eighteenth-century landscape painting of four judges sitting together wearing white wigs and red robes. One has a quill in his hand and is poised to write something.
Eighteenth-century judges (depicted here in Hogarth’s ‘The Bench’) were surprisingly lenient to defendants with learning disabilities ©Wikimedia Commons

So-called idiots were everywhere: in families, in communities, often working, sometimes married, well known, usually accepted and often loved by those around them. I do not wish to romanticise. Some were exploited, badly treated, abused, but there was always a countervailing element in the neighbourhood that sought to protect and defend in such circumstances. It was very far from the unliveable dystopia portrayed by nineteenth-century doctors and sometwenty-first-century academics. So, what changed? I argue in my book that a fundamental shift in mindset took place in the early-nineteenth century and subsequent decades, fuelled by the events of the French Revolution from 1789. Reactionaries began to fear those who were mentally different as subversive elements threatening the good order and stability of society. Progressive revolutionaries had no space for disabled people in the perfect utopias they envisaged, which would be, they promised, free of disease and disablement.

A nineteenth-century portrait black and white cartoon of a man with a learning disability. He is wearing a tattered hat and ragged clothing and is standing in a menacing pose holding a burning stick aloft. The limp hand of somebody lying on the floor is just visible at the very front of the image.
In the nineteenth century representations of people with learning disabilities became more hostile for example in Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge ©Wikimedia Commons

A growing national state took a greater interest in the everyday control of citizens and the social sphere. It erected asylums to house those who did not fit in and rejected the parish level social adaptation for those who struggled which had developed the previous century. Both humour and religion became less tolerant and more hostile to those perceived as outsiders. A growing electoral franchise which allowed more people to vote, along with a move towards universal education, fuelled fears of contamination of society by its lowest elements. All these factors, and more, were instrumental in effecting a rapid shift for the learning-disabled population from accepted members of communities to creatures of the asylum, unfit for society, fit only to lead a controlled and deeply curtailed life behind the walls of an asylum.

A young white woman with Down's Syndrome is stood against a plain stone wall staring directly at the camera. She has long dark hair and is wearing a patterned green and black blouse.
People with learning disabilities (such as this young woman with Down’s syndrome) are now back in their communities – but how unconditional is their acceptance? ©Fiona Yaron-Field, Wellcome Collection

It would be 150 years before the institutions would be closed and life in the community would become a possibility for people with learning disabilities once more. Policy makers who effected this large-scale change in the late-twentieth century believed that this was the first time this group had been able to live outside institutions. It was not. In fact, the twentieth-century move created a far more conditional and tightly regulated ‘acceptance’ in communities than had existed 200 years earlier. There is much that can be gleaned from eighteenth-century social adaptation, where communities flexibly adapted to the people who lived in them rather than setting conditions for remaining accepted. Today threats to independence remain very high, and genuine social inclusion elusive. There is also much to be considered for modern historians. Sometimes marginalisation can be a myth imposed by our own projections, our own darkest and most unconscious assumptions about the place of those who are ‘different’ in society. We are sometimes capable of marginalising groups from afar, even when evidence to the contrary is staring us in the face.

One Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *