The history of the history of learning disability

Tilley, Elizabeth and Jarrett, Simon (2022). The history of the history of learning disability. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 50(2) pp. 132–142.



This article traces and summarises historiographical trends in the history of learning disability. It identifies three major waves of historical approaches beginning with a medicalised analysis which emerged in the early 20th century. This presented a story of medical progress which began with the asylum movement of the 19th century and represented ‘idiots’ as creatures of the asylum and objects of the medicalised gaze. In the 1990s a new social history challenged these assumptions, focusing on the iniquities of institutionalisation and the eugenics period, while attempting to give a voice to people with learning disabilities and their families in their own history. A cultural history movement later emerged to challenge the idea of learning disability as a fixed universal concept over time. It argued that the idea of learning disability (in all its different linguistic iterations) is contingent on time and place, and a product of the culture within which it is framed. Not all work fits neatly into one of these categories, sometimes they overlap and sometimes they cannot be easily categorised. Nevertheless, these broad frames of reference within the historiography of learning disability do point to wider social, cultural and political concerns, which are worth holding in mind as we consider how the ‘work’ of history can and does act to inform attitudes, policy-making and change. The authors describe the encouraging recent emergence of historian activists who seek to write and define their own history, and who may constitute a fourth wave in the historiography of learning disability.

Viewing alternatives

Download history


Public Attention

Altmetrics from Altmetric

Number of Citations

Citations from Dimensions

Item Actions