Disabled? How have people with learning disabilities been seen in societies in which they lived?

A young girl with Williams Syndrome – a genetic irregularity that is often associated with learning difficulties


As long as there have been people in the world there have been people who have not been able to learn as quickly as others.

Sometimes the cause of this is an accident that changes the way a person’s brain works. Sometimes people are born with genetic differences which makes learning more difficult than it is for other people. Sometimes we don’t know the reason.

Today if a person’s ability to learn is limited compared to others and this is part of who they are rather than a specific issue they have that could be overcome, we describe them as having learning disabilities. Perhaps you feel you have learning disabilities, or have friends or members of your family who do and you are thinking about them right now.

People with learning disabilities are made vulnerable in societies that do not include them, and deny them rights others take for granted. Tasks may take them longer and they may need help to do some things others can do on their own. They may also need help to stay safe, to make and keep friends, to care for themselves and to stay healthy. When thinking about this you should remember all of us have disabilities when we are compared with others – for example, you probably would be classed as having a learning disability if compared with Albert Einstein. You should also be aware that how people have defined learning disability has changed over time and is dependent on the values and beliefs of the past society. People who are regarded as having learning disabilities today may not have been regarded as having any disability at all in some past societies.

Just as people without learning disabilities are very different so people with learning disabilities are very different to each other too, with disabilities that range from very mild to very profound and complicated by associated separate conditions that affect health. Like all people they have likes and dislikes, ideas, dreams, hopes and fears. Like all of us they find some things funny and other things sad.

In this enquiry you will learn about how different societies at different times and in different places have regarded and treated people with learning disabilities and reasons for their beliefs and actions. Finding out about this is often difficult – people with learning disabilities can struggle to communicate in ways that are easily understood, which means we often rely on records left by others. These records – often called sources by historians – also show the impact people with learning disabilities have made on those around them and by paying careful attention to this we can hear their voices too. Here we see upsetting examples of cruelty but also humour and deep affection. 

As well as telling us about what people thought about those with learning disabilities, these records also tell us very interesting things about past societies – what did they care about and value? How did they decide who had learning disabilities and who did not? How did they explain and see difference? How did they treat people who needed more help than others? What were the reasons for their beliefs and actions?

This enquiry is about people with learning disabilities, but it is not just about people with learning disabilities – it is also a history of the societies in which they lived.

People with learning disabilities are human so their stories – which are just as interesting and important as those of other people – are part of the human story. You are human so the history of people with learning difficulties is not just their history – it is yours too.

A note on language

 The words used to describe people with learning disabilities in the past can seem offensive to us today.   Sometimes the people who used these words meant them as insults but at other times they were not intending to be cruel. In order to be historically accurate this enquiry contains some of these words.   What was meant by them at the time will always be explained.   You should not use words we regard as offensive and insulting outside of their historical context. This means you should not use them unless you are talking about history and you are certain the person you are talking with understands your meaning.   If they do not understand and get upset, it is you who is in the wrong.   If you are not sure about the correct use of a word you should check with your teacher before you use it.   Using words to describe people with learning disabilities as insults is very wrong and disrespectful of the people you are learning about. In many cases it is also against the law.  
Don’t do it.  

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