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Women, Learning Difficulty and Identity: a study through personal narrative

Debby Phillips

The aim of this project was to explore the lives of women labelled as having a "learning difficulty". I was interested in the processes with which this label braids, or is rejected by, other hidden or visible constructs of self identity. For example, what structural, social and cultural discourses influence and shape the lives of women labelled in this way and what knowledge results from these situations? How do local and traditional understandings of the label filter into concepts of personhood, and is this resisted ? How are these events woven into stories?

In seeking to answer some of these questions I began collecting biographical / narrative accounts of both individual women and groups of women in a range of locations i.e. day centres, group homes, private residences, in three different geographical sites in the UK. The twenty three participants came from a variety of backgrounds and were of mixed ages. Some women presented histories of early lives spent in long term hospitals, while other younger women were embarking on college courses and living independently. In effect, the diversity in the womens' life courses mirrors the chequered history of welfare and "care" i.e. de-institutionalisation, the impact of community care and more recent moves from day centres into educational environments. However, rather than chart factual "life history", or embrace accounts told by others (carers, family, professionals etc.) this investigation concentrated upon the reconstruction of narrative "life story" and the multiple vantage points from which the women identity and tell their stories themselves.

Significant themes emerging during the data generation process and later analysis have now created a revised focus for the project. Firstly, I was particularly struck by the practices and strategies employed by participants to convey their personal or collective group narratives. Not only do these techniques challenge the fixed label "learning difficulty", they also question the conventional methods of qualitative research routines and the research/ researcher relationship. Secondly, the predominant reference to bodily matters during data collection has revealed a concept of "embodied identity". This suggests an identification of the body as an active agent, located within a socio-cultural framework, with capacity to signify time, place, event, structures of power relations, oppression and opposition. My present work remains in the arena of "embodied identities" - with the intention of using the narratives to examine how the body is a site of policing, imprisonment, conflict and abuse as well as integrity, performance and active resistance.