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Conference Abstract: ‘Habilitating the retarded”: Why sheltered workshops for ‘mentally retarded’ Australians became ‘terminal’, 1945-1970

June 20, 2012

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Abstract for my upcoming paper at Connections, Australian Historical Association national conference in Adelaide, 2-6 July 2012.

The New Disability History, which seeks to trace the changing meanings attached to impairments over time, has alerted us to the contingent and protean nature of disabilities, and exposed the fuzzy boundaries between embodied impairments and culturally constructed disablements. The borderlands of disabilities are often diffuse, and different groups of individuals have moved within or through them over time.

In the decades immediately following the Second World, the group of classifications we now call ‘intellectual disabilities’ was in a state of flux. Australian parents with ‘mentally retarded’ youngsters had emerged as a new political force, organising themselves into large, influential voluntary bodies, and driving particularly rapid shifts in both popular and scientific understandings of who constituted the ‘mentally retarded’ group, and the needs, abilities and potentialities of its constituents.

A key concern of the parent organisations was shifting public perceptions of their children’s place in the national community, and ability to participate in it: were their offspring ‘retarded citizens’, able to play a genuine part in society, or were they something less, requiring sympathetic care and charity, but segregation from the broader world? The answer to these and similar questions dictated the types of facilities voluntary organisations established for their ‘children,’ and the outcomes expected from them.

Using ‘sheltered workshops’ as a case study, I trace the genealogies of ‘occupation therapy,’ ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘special education’ in Australia, examine the discourses deployed by voluntary organisations when discussing the establishment of facilities for ‘retarded’ Australians, and assess the success of these establishments in transforming the position of ‘retarded’ people in our community.

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