How do people feel with learning disabilities feel about intelligence testing? How have these tests affected people’s lives? Why were they designed the way they were, and how might they have been discriminatory?
These were some of the topics explored at a Big Ideas event at the Peltz Gallery at Birkbeck, University of London, earlier this year.
Big Ideas sessions were started by researchers Nicola Grove and Jan Walmsley to open up discussion of theories that influence policy and research with self-advocates and activist researchers.
Self-advocates visited an installation by artist Sasha Bergstrom-Katz, On the Subject of Tests, part of the Psychotechne exhibition at the Peltz Gallery.
The artwork included a two-sided desk with space for exploration, engagement and interaction with materials related to intelligence testing.
Each side contained objects from historical, commonly used intelligence test kits, including those around the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children and the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales.
Each drawer contained an object from the test kit accompanied by objects, images and articles that directly connected these objects to issues including play, education, military recruitment, eugenics movements and psychology.
The artwork was designed to be interactive, and to prompt challenging discussions. Bergstrom-Katz introduced some of the objects from the tests and their histories to the group.
We learned about how intelligence testing had been linked with the dark history of eugenics in the 20th century. This classified different people according to ability and was used to wrongly justify the institutionalisation of people with disabilities or to support claims that their lives were worth less than other people’s.
In America, tests were developed at Ellis Island to discriminate against people from different backgrounds who tried to emigrate to the US. Even now, immigration questions are biased towards those who know a lot about American life.
Self-advocates discussed their own encounters with intelligence and educational testing, and the resulting separation from their peers.
We were grateful for the contributions of Sunderland People First, Ben McCay, chair of self-advocacy charity My Life My Choice, and the University of East London’s Rix inclusive research group.
Ros Weinberg, a co-researcher from the Rix group, explains: “It reminded me of when my social workers came to my house and asked me intelligence test questions like who the prime minister was and who the queen was and all sorts of different questions.
“My mum and dad would sit there thinking ‘why they are asking me these different questions?’ ”
Some participants described the anxiety or stress that testing caused. Others talked about how test results might give diagnoses that could give people the right to services and support for special educational needs, but that often it was difficult to access this support.
Many argued that the very idea of intelligence itself was flawed as it focused on one type of ability, overlooking the wide range of ways that people with learning disabilities could be involved in work and society.
Ultimately, we need to support different ways of learning and working, and traditional intelligence tests are too narrow and simplistic to help with this.
The workshop enabled us to learn from the experiences of people who have been directly affected by the policies and practices linked with intelligence testing.
This reinforces the message of the Big Ideas group: if we make complex ideas accessible and relevant, the insights of self-advocates come to the fore and are an invaluable contribution to further discussion. n
Matt Prothero is a director at Sunderland People First; Sarah Marks is director of Birkbeck Centre for Interdisciplinary Research
The exhibition was reviewed in our summer issue