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How 1950s parents were forced to fight for children with cerebral palsy’s right to education

A still from footage captured at Claremont day school for children with cerebral palsy in 1959. Wellcome Library, CC BY-NC-ND

When it was introduced in Britain, the 1944 Education Act mapped out a new era for education. For the first time, local authorities became responsible for providing education according to “age, aptitude and ability”.

Among its implications, enactment of the law meant that children with disabilities underwent physical examinations and IQ testing, which strengthened the already medicalised approach taken towards them. Where possible, disabled children went into mainstream school, with others attending special schools.

But the rules did not apply equally to all children with disabilities. Medical assessments focused on what the child could not do, rather than on what they could do, which resulted in many of those with cerebral palsy being categorised as unsuitable for education, solely due to their physical impairment.

One mother, who gave an oral history for my research project Legacy of Longfields, described the assessment that her daughter, then aged seven, was put through in the 1950s. The girl could just about sit comfortably but couldn’t stand unaided. After being asked if her daughter could walk, which was a no, the mother was then asked if her daughter could walk backwards – the answer was a definite no.

I had a letter and I always remember what it said. It said, ‘your daughter has been deemed to be ineducable’. I will never forget those words.

The parents of these children were quite rightly outraged by the decision not to allow their children access to proper education, and it was only through their tireless campaigning that things eventually changed.

Fighting for rights

The failure not to explore the intellect of many children with cerebral palsy was what angered parents the most. US researchers at the time had found that many children with cerebral palsy were “capable of education” and were able to be “trained in varying degrees of efficiency by special educational methods”. But despite this pioneering work, the research on the treatment of cerebral palsy was not widely disseminated within the UK, particularly to medical and teaching professionals.

Professor JM Mackintosh, chairman of the British Council for the Welfare of Spastics (BCWS), said in April 1948 that they were “deeply indebted” to the researchers behind the study, and that he had “every confidence that Britain [was] going to make a definite contribution to the solution of [a] complex problem”. However, despite this optimism, a continued piecemeal approach led to parental concerns being raised in parliament.

During a debate on education in July 1949, Florence Paton, MP for Rushcliffe, stated that, due to the implementation of the laws, there were approximately 10,000 “spastic” children who had been neglected. She urged MPs to consider the need for cooperation between the ministries of health, labour, and education in providing assistance to these children and their parents.

Yet despite Paton’s support for the cause, the pace of change still remained slow.

Parents take action

The mainly research-based approach of the BCWS did not address the more immediate needs of parents who wanted change. So their desire to work together led to a growing network of parent-led organisations, which were united through membership of The National Spastic Society in 1952 (renamed Scope in 1994).

Within these organisations, many parents found much needed support and help for their children. They promoted their cause through political lobbying and by challenging medical opinion. Together they won community support, secured celebrity patronage, and campaigned prominently in the media.

The approach taken by these parents in the 1950s directly confronted attitudes towards disability and challenged a society which had isolated them. They successfully raised money for their cause, enabling the associations to continue their “charitable good works”.

This was the first time that parents had taken such direct action to highlight their cause. They were not prepared to wait, they wanted change immediately.

From relatively small beginnings, the parents took innovative steps to tell the country about what was happening to their children. Leaflets, films and newspaper appeals used provocative language and emotive images to tug at heartstrings for donations. This innovative use of media and the face of a tragic individual achieved its objective, but subsequently faced criticism.

The change wasn’t overnight, it eventually took decades for children with cerebral palsy to have better access to education. For the children, some who were deemed “ineducable”, there were a number of parent-led schools – for example, Carlson House in the Midlands – set up by spastic associations. But over time local authorities began to accommodate most children in special schools.

It’s now over 21 years since the 1944 Education Act was repealed and replaced by the Education Act 1996. Further progress has been made in the treatment of cerebral palsy and the provision of education, so that children with the condition have access to the same education opportunities as any other child, albeit tailored to suit their specific needs.

But for those children, and their parents, who went through such pain just to claim their basic right to education, the memory of being labelled “ineducable” is one that will never be forgotten.

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