Madhouse: Reclaiming the History of Learning Difficulties through Acting and Activism

Tilley, Elizabeth; Christian, Paul; Ledger, Susan and Walmsley, Jan (2021). Madhouse: Reclaiming the History of Learning Difficulties through Acting and Activism. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 15(3) pp. 347–363.



Until the very end of the twentieth century the history of learning difficulties was subsumed into other histories, of psychiatry, of special education and, indeed, of disability. Initiatives to enable people with learning difficulties and their families to record their own histories and contribute to the historical record are both recent and powerful. Much of this work has been led or supported by The Open University’s Social History of Learning Disability Research (SHLD) group and its commitment to developing “inclusive history.” The article tells the story of the Madhouse Project in which actors with learning difficulties, stimulated by the story of historian activist Mabel Cooper and supported by the SHLD group, learned about and then offered their own interpretations of that history, including its present-day resonances. Through a museum exhibition they curated, and through an immersive theatre performance, the actors used the history of institutions to alert a wider public to the abuses of the past, and the continuing marginalization and exclusion of people with learning difficulties. This is an outstanding example of history’s potential to stimulate activism.

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