Learning Disability, Eugenics and the Social Model Approach

Learning Disability can be traced back to classical Greek Society, with both Hippocrates and Galen referring to learning disabilities within their writings. At this point, there were no attempts to cure ‘idiocy’. Unlike those with physical impairments, children with ‘idiocy’ were not offered for sacrifice, since they were believed to lack a soul, this meant that infanticide was rare. However, those with learning disability were often forced into slavery (Quo Vadis, 2001). The terms ‘idiocy’ and ‘lunacy’ (used to describe those with learning disabilities or mental health problems) can be traced back to a 13th century legal doctrine, which dealt with the issues of property and title inheritance.

‘ this…doctrine distinguished those who were unfit to inherit because of supposedly innate mental incapacity from those who could be temporarily deprived of their inheritance while they were judged to be out of their minds’ (Rushton, 1988:36)

From this it can be deduced that the labels were not created by medicine, they were a way of categorising people in order to assess whether they were worthy of their title or to inherit land. ‘Idiots’ were those with ‘innate mental incapacity’ whilst ‘lunatics’ were those who had been judged to be ‘temporarily out of their minds’. Rushton argues that those labeled ‘idiot’ were probably young dependants who were able to remain part of their community unless their caregivers become poverty stricken. On the other hand, ‘lunatics’ were adults and

“were subject to a wide range of constraints, both domestic & institutional, and this confirms the basic idea of earlier theorists (such as Foucault) that lunacy, even when not actually dangerous, requires social control for the public good.” (Rushton, 1988)

During this period, those with caring for ‘idiots’ or ‘lunatics’ were provided with relief by the parish council. In 1601 the Poor Law was introduced to replace that system. The Poor Law meant that every parish was assigned a...