Are today’s attitudes any better than those in the past?

In the last of the series ‘Meet the Historian’ Community Living’s Arts Editor Simon Jarrett explains how a startling discovery in a hospital file set him off on a historical journey.

As a young nursing assistant in the 1980s, I began work at a small, all-male ‘mental handicap’ hospital. Many of its elderly patients had been admitted as children, in the 1920s and 1930s. I read through the file of G, an elderly man who had lived on the ward for over 65 years. The notes of his admission, aged six, began: ‘G is a bat-eared cretin.’ I recoiled at the harsh and degrading language, used to describe a young child entering a strange and forbidding institution. I wondered where it had come from. I wondered also why the medical terms of sixty years earlier were now the language of abuse and insult.
During the sixty years G had lived in the hospital life outside had changed dramatically. There had been the General Strike, the Great Depression, World War II and the Holocaust, the birth of the NHS, the Cold War, the Swinging Sixties, the Vietnam War and Thatcherism. Yet in all that time life for him and the other men on the ward (or ‘boys’ as they were known) had changed very little. As the world had changed outside, George and his fellows had grown old following the same routines; eating the same three stodgy meals a day, bed at 7.30 each night, up at 6.30 each morning, passing the time each day. It was a strange Peter Pan existence, never allowed to progress or develop – no wonder they were called boys. G came into the world ‘a bat-eared cretin’ and was never allowed to be anything else. Why?
Lack of curiosity
This affected me, and working in learning disability services in one way or another over the next thirty years, I was baffled by the lack of historical curiosity of the many who worked in the field. What we were doing now was always the best way. The past was wrong, but somehow we always believed we had got it right in the present. We went all the way from ‘Better services for mentally handicapped people’ to ‘Valuing People’, without self-doubt, always certain that this time we had got it sorted.
Which is why I became a historian. I wanted to find and make known the voices of the past, to inform the present. We were beginning to learn a lot about the asylums. But they only began in the 1840s. What about the thousand years of history before them? How did people live then, and how did other people see them? My PhD is about the eighteenth century. It was an age in which those known as people with learning disabilities today were called ‘idiots’ – harsh to our modern ears, and yet this may have been a more enlightened age than ours. People characterised as idiots worked, married, were well-known in their communities. They were, for the most part, accepted for who they were, allowed to be who they wanted to be.
A more enlightened age?
The past may have something to teach us here. Our modern jargon talks about ‘accessing the community’. In the eighteenth century no one needed to ‘access’ a community they were already part of. Being at the heart of community is the historical norm. It is the 140 years of the asylum, and the strange no-man’s land of services we have created today, that are the anomaly.