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Timeline of learning disability history

Please  note: using the language of the time reflects our desire for historical accuracy. We do not agree with the everyday use of labels which are now seen as deeply offensive.




Key Legislation

1845 Lunacy Act – this legislation, administered by Commissioners in Lunacy, was dominant for the early years of the Royal Albert. It made no clear distinction between learning disability and mental illness stating that 'Lunatic shall mean insane person or any person being idiot or lunatic or of unsound mind.'

1886 Idiots Act. For the first time legislation dealing with the educational needs of those with learning disability. It made a clear distinction between lunatics on one hand and ‘idiots’ and 'imbeciles' on the other.

1890 Lunacy Act which like its 1845 predecessor again muddied distinctions between learning disability and mental illness.

National Developments and Policies

1847 The Charity for the Asylum of Idiots – established in London.

1850s and 60s Along with Earlswood Asylum in Surrey, The Charity for the Asylum of Idiots gave impetus and support to the establishment of 4 regional voluntary large scale asylums for 'idiots' in England: the Northern Counties (i.e. The Royal Albert); Eastern Counties Idiot Asylum (Colchester); Western Counties Asylum (Starcross, near Exeter); and Midland Counties Asylum (Staffordshire).


National Developments and Policies

1902 Mary Dendy's Sandlebridge Colony opened.

1907 Formation of Eugenics Education Society.

1908 Report of Royal Commission on Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded.


1908 Tredgold 1st edition of Mental Deficiency which was the main reference text (with revisions) for the next 50 years. Used in nurse training during that period.


'Mental defective' and 'mental deficiency' most common terms 1900 - c.1950.


Key Legislation

1913 Mental Deficiency Act. Use of terms 'idiot', 'imbecile', 'feeble-minded' and 'moral imbecile'. In particular this influential Act made it possible to institutionalise women with illegitimate children who were receiving poor relief.

1914 Elementary Education Act


1910 Mary Dendy – The Problem of the Feeble-Minded


Key Legislation

1927 Mental Deficiency (Amendment) Act: replaced the term 'moral defective' with 'moral imbecile'; crucially  allowed for mental deficiency resulting from illness or accident - previously it had to have been there from birth.

National Developments and Policies

1920s-1940s major local authority colony (hospital) building.

1929 Wood report published.

Central Association of Mental Welfare (CAMW) major voluntary organisation active in field of 'mental deficiency'.


National Developments and Policies

Campaign for Voluntary Sterilisation.

Eugenics Movement at its height.

1931 South Ockendon colony admitted its first 'mental defectives'.

1931 the average number of patients in the 98 'County, County Borough and City Asylums' was 1,221 (Jones, 1972, p. 357).

1934 Brock Report recommends sterilisation.


1934: Alva and Gunnar Myrdal's Crisis of the Population.

1937 Cyril Burt's The Backward Child published.

1938 Lionel Penrose's Colchester Report (a clinical and genetic study of 1280 cases on Mental Defect).


Key Legislation

1940 First Camphill Community founded in Aberdeen.

1944 Education Act.

1944 Disabled Persons' Employment Act.

1948 National Health Service began.

National Developments and Policies

Eugenics discredited after World War II, but eugenicist agenda still in evidence in local and national policies.

1946 National Association of Parents of Backward Children founded (later Mencap); Local Mencap Societies established.

CAMW voluntary organisation still active.

1948 NHS took over hospital services.

1948 Mental Welfare Officers appointed to work outside hospitals.

Beveridge establishes framework for Welfare State.

Development of Occupation Centres.

Mental Health Subcommittees replaced Mental Deficiency Committees.


'Ineducable' label, introduced by 1944 Education Act, used with regard to people with learning disabilities.


Key Legislation

1959 Mental Health Act (England and Wales; 1960 Scotland) repealed the Mental Deficiency Acts: espoused 'community care' but little funding; and said that patients should only be admitted on a voluntary basis unless seen as a danger to themselves or others (subsequently know as being 'sectioned').

National Developments and Policies

1951 National Council for Civil Liberty's 50,000 Outside the Law highlighted affront to civil liberties represented by detention of 'mental defectives'.

1953 Nearly half the National Health Service's hospital beds were for 'mental illness or mental defect'. Concerns about the level of spending were likely to be a factor in shifting government thinking towards Community Care policies.

1954-7 Royal Commission on the Law Relating to Mental Illness and Mental Deficiency (under Lord Percy);  National Association of Parents of Backward Children gave evidence to Royal Commission.

1955 Botton Village Camphill Community founded.

1955 Guild of Teachers of Backward Children founded.

1958 NAPBC's 'Brookland's Experiment'.

'Little Stephen' logo adopted by NAPBC – representing pathos instead of fear.


'Subnormal' ‘and 'severely subnormal' terms used in 1959 Act.

'Backward' came into vogue as a descriptive term.


1956 Tizard and O'Connor's The Social Problem of Mental Deficiency.


National Developments and Policies

1961 Enoch Powell, Minister of Health, says mental hospitals to close in 15 years.

1962 Ministry of Health Report: A Hospital Plan for England and Wales – a 10-year report that included the development of hostels.

Hospital scandals – Ely, Farleigh, South Ockendon, Normansfield


1961 Erving Goffman's Asylums critiques institutions.

1964 Tizard's Community Services for the Mentally Handicapped argues for small residential units.

1967 Stanley Segal's No child is ineducable paved the way for education for all.

1969 earliest publications on normalisation by Bank-Mikkelson & Bengt Nirje (Sweden); Pauline Morris's Put Away put case against hospitals.


Key Legislation

1970 Education (Handicapped Children) Act made education universal.

1970 Local Authority Social Services Act: new Social Services Departments to assume responsibility for Local Authority health and welfare services.

1970 Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act.

National Developments and Policies

Late 1960s to early 1980s major hostel building era.

1971 White Paper Better Services for the Mentally Handicapped advocated care in the community.

1974 NHS reorganisation.

1975 National Development Group founded to advise on policy and practice.


1971 Maureen Oswin's The Empty Hours showed the deprived lives led by children in long stay hospitals.

1972 Wolf Wolfensberger's The Principal of Normalisation in Human Services published in Toronto.


Key Legislation

1981 Education Act laid down that children should be educated in mainstream schools or classes wherever possible.

1988 Disabled Persons (services Consultations and Representation) Act.

National Developments and Policies

1980s-1990s Group Home era.

1981 Three residents of Calderstones Hospital (for people with learning difficulties) successfully campaign for the right to vote in General Elections.

1982 Three residents of Gogarburn Hospital Edinburgh also successfully campaign for the right to vote in General Elections.

1984 The first People First group founded in England.

1986 The first closure of a large long-stay institution for people with learning difficulties – Starcross, Exeter.

1989 Caring for People White Paper set out principles for shift to community care in NHS and Community Care Act.

1989 Sandlebridge Colony closed.


1980 Kings Fund An Ordinary Life advocated 'an ordinary life' i.e. normalisation.

1986 Open University's Mental Handicap: Patterns for Living course published.


c.1980 'People with Mental Handicap' became the preferred term.

1985 'People with learning difficulties' adopted by self advocacy groups.


Key Legislation

1990 National Health Service and Community Care Act.

1995 Disability Discrimination Act.

National Developments and Policies

Ideal model became the mixed economy of care: state, voluntary organisations, private sector and family.

1994 South Ockendon, St. Lawrence's Hospitals closed.

1994 First ‘England People First’ Conference.

1996 Open University's Equal People published.

1996 Mencap's 50th anniversary.


c1990 Department of Health official term:  'people with learning disabilities'.


Key Legislation

2001 Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA): removed two of three caveats for mainstream education; made educational discrimination unlawful.

2005 Mental Capacity Act: People with learning disabiities have the right to make their own decisions if they have the capacity to do so.

National Developments and Policies

2001 White Paper Valuing People. Revised Code of Practice (DfES); emphasis on consultation with parents. Principles of rights, independence, choice and inclusion.

2007 UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities: UK a signatory to this Convention which commits states to uphold human rights for disabled people.

2007 Putting People First: Department of Health's commitment to making individual budgets a choice for anyone receiving social care.

2007 Mencap publishes Death by Indifference report exposing the fatal consequences of inequalities in NHS healthcare for peoplewith learning difficulties.

2008 Department of Health's report Healthcare for All: The Independent Inquiry into Access to Healthcare for People with Learning Disabilities. Emphasises need for urgent change to improve grossly inadequate NHS healthcare.

2009 Valuing People Now: Re-iterated Valuing People's principles and urging more rapid implementation.

2011 Winterbourne View Hospital scandal: BBC Panorama programme in May revealed widespread abuse by staff of people with learning disabilities.

2012 Mencap's Death by Indifference: 74 Deaths and counting highlights continuing critical inequalities in NHS health care for people with learning difficulties.


Contact us

About the Group

If you woud like to get in touch with the Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group, please contact:

Liz Tilley 
Chair of the Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group
School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care
Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes

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