People with learning disabilities were often slow to acquire the ability to read and write – which were not normal skills for many people until the 19th century. We know little of their mental worlds. Those who cared for the intellectually and socially impaired, on the other hand, did record the decisions made on their behalf, both to enable and prevent them acting in ways that might not be in their best interests. The case of Alice Hill, where the issue was whether she should be allowed to marry, shows the fine line between protecting and inhibiting people with learning disabilities, which those close to them have walked over the centuries.
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IMAGE: Wellcome Library, London, V0030051. Young girl with Down’s syndrome, sitting, wearing striped socks. Photograph. By: Joseph Arthur Baldry after: George Edward Shuttleworth. Collection: Iconographic Collections. Library reference no.: ICV No 30534. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
NOTE: We do not know if Alice Hill had Down’s syndrome, but appearance was an important indicator of mental capacity in early modern times and she may well have looked distinctive.