Illustrations by Pen Mendonça

What was life like for people with learning disabilities centuries ago?

Click to download our graphical history booklet. This booklet was written by Chris & Ellen Goodey. Illustrations are by Pen Mendonça.

People are just people. But we put some of them into groups, draw a line around the group and stick a label on. Then we forget what we did. Instead, we say: Look at that group of people, they are naturally different from everyone else. But they aren’t naturally different. We made it all up.

History is important because it allows us to remember what we, and our ancestors, did. For many centuries, drawing lines round groups of human beings has been an obsession. When we draw these lines around groups of people, we often say they have a mental disorder. But it can be argued that it is those who draw the lines who have the mental disorder – in their case an extreme phobia about people who they see as different from them. However, it is also consideredquite normal to draw these lines. After all, the whole world does it. Psychologists, doctors encourage us to take today’s labels for granted.

Over time, a whole variety of people has been made inferior to others. On top of this, in every age, there has always been an obsessive phobia about one particular group – a group seen as so extreme that that it has to be eliminated, or prevented from coming into being in the first place.

This group changes with every historical age, but every age creates one. It was the last two or three centuries that created the group known today as ‘people with learning disabilities’.

Someone with a learning disability today, if they had been born a thousand years ago, would have lived all their life in their home neighbourhood and, like most people, would not have had to do complicated things. So they didn’t have a label. Then, the word ‘idiot’ meant anyone who wasn’t a member of the social or religious elite.

So you could say that once upon a time people with learning disabilities didn’t actually exist. The target of extreme phobia was a different group ‘Heretics’ in the Middle Ages, for example, got burnt. Any particular ‘extreme’ target only exists for a limited period of history. Then the obsession moves on to create a new group.

That’s why the difference between people with learning disabilities and everyone else isn’t something scientific or fixed in nature. It’s a result of the behavioural disorder of other people, who are phobic about people with different minds to themselves. Our system of society allows such behaviour to be considered rational.

In the long run, this system is temporary. The focus of its obsessions constantly changes over time. Things were completely different in the past. And that means they can be different – and better – in the future.


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