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Learning Difficulties, Embodiment and Landscapes: narrative accounts of lives, labels, spaces and place

Deborah Phillips, Cornwall College


This paper explores the relationship between women who are labelled as having learning difficulties and the physical and cultural 'scapes' around them. It draws on a range of individual and group narrative / oral history accounts from women who are located in two diverse areas in the UK. Their narratives demonstrate how environmental factors and locality shape how learning difficulties are perceived and understood, not just by the participants, but by others around them.

For example, participants living in an inner city area in the North of England had spent their early and teenage years living in institutions which were set apart from the mainstream of community and city life. In this respect, the women were socially excluded, but their narratives highlight a subculture 'scape' in which they forged a sense of identity. Several participants also had memories of leaving the institutions to 'work the mills' during the war years. This new 'scape' and sense of belonging to a wider community was short lived as they returned to the institutions when the 'men came home from war'. Later, Community Care initiatives saw the women again being transported back into a post industrialised environment, whereby the large factory units became home to the 1970/80s inner city day centres, and participants were 'deinstitutionalised' into smaller hostel-style spaces. Spaces which were once again located on the margins and 'set apart' from the city. Despite efforts to promote integration the participants in this study remain in a position of being socially excluded in their environment.

In contrast, participants who lived in rural environments claimed to be part of the community and did not identity with the learning difficulty label. Some of these small communities were classified as areas of social depravation, yet the narrative accounts did not reflect this as a living reality.

In conclusion, the themes raised in this research project highlight how the disabled body is not only socially produced, but environmental factors, 'scapes' spaces and places are equally as influential in supporting or challenging this construction.

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