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UK Disability History Month: Laws, Relationships and Sex

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This blog article was written by Ann Moghaddami to mark UK Disability History Month (UKDM). The blog looks at how the records held in the Parliamentary Archives reflect changing legislative and societal attitudes to disability, family life and sex, one of the UKDHM themes for 2021.

UKDM runs from November to December and aims to celebrate the achievements, challenge disablism and fights for equality.

Relationships and sex

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination against disabled people.  The UK has come a long way from previous Acts of Parliament, societal attitudes and the science of Eugenics. All of which previously viewed disabled people as being incapable of enjoying married life and having children, often incarcerating them in asylums, enforcing sterilisation, and segregating them in single sex institutions.

Image of printed Act tied with a red ribbon.
Equality Act 2010, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/2010/c15


The eugenics movement focused on ‘good breeding’ and was at its height in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  At its worst, it sought to control the reproduction of those considered ‘unfit’. Namely, people who had physical and social disorders and traits associated with the poor, such as alcoholism, habitual criminality, prostitution, diseases, epilepsy and ‘feeble-mindedness’.

The Mental Deficiency Act

This Act was designed to prevent the ‘feeble-minded’ from becoming parents.  It became law in 1913, allowing ‘mental defectives’ to be segregated into asylums.  Although sterilisation was proposed, there was sufficient opposition for it to be rejected in the bill stages and as a result not included in the final Act.

The Sterilisation Bill of 1931

This was a proposal to legalise the voluntary sterilisation of ‘mental defectives’.  It was rejected by 167 votes to 89.  However, in 1933 a Parliamentary report of the departmental committee on sterilisation, known as the Brock report, concluded that “allowing and even encouraging mentally defective and mentally disordered patients” was justified.  Not only did the committee consider sterilisation to be a ‘right’ of the mentally ‘defective’ but it also advocated extending it to those with physical disabilities.  The passing of compulsory sterilisation in Nazi Germany and the ensuing horrors of the Second World War meant that the idea of compulsory or voluntary sterilisation of disabled people in Britain lost most of its popular appeal and did not come to pass.

Mental Health Acts in the last 200 years

The poor law of lunacy had intentions of paternalistic benevolence, with the view of looking after those that could not look after themselves.  However, legislation had resulted in those who were genuinely ill being mixed with those who were considered most dangerous in society. Individuals could be kept in inhumane and abusive conditions at lunatic asylums such as Bethlem in London. Individuals were forcibly made docile, and often portrayed as being responsible for their own misfortunes.  Would this be an early form of lobotomy?

There have been 3 acts of Parliament in the last 200 years which sought to make improvements:

  • The Lunacy Act 1845
  • The Mental Treatment Act 1930
  • The Mental Capacity Act 2005

The Lunacy Act 1845

The following changes were made:

  • People detained in asylums were required to have been given an order/ medical certificate by two independent medical professionals.
  • People detained in asylums were classed as patients.
  • Abuse of patients by asylum staff was classed as a misdemeanour.
  • Visitation rights and the right to leave the asylum if accompanied.

An interesting quote from the Act states:

“LVI: If any Superintendent, Officer, Nurse, Attendant, Servant, or other Person employed in any licensed House of registered Hospital shall in any way abuse or ill-treat any Patient confined therein, or shall wilfully neglect any such patient, he shall be guilty of a Misdemeanour”.

It was still difficult for family members to make visits to their loved ones in asylums, requiring an “Order in Writing” to be made.  There was also much control over patients:

  • “LXXXVI: It shall be lawful for the Proprietor or Superintendent […] to send or take, under proper Control, any Patient to any specified Place for any definite Time for the Benefit of his Health”.
Image of a handwritten document.
Care and Treatment of Lunatics Act, 1845, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1845/8&9V1n293

The Mental Treatment Act 1930

The following changes were made:

  • Voluntary admission and right to leave psychiatric hospitals- patients given more freedom and understanding to make choices about their health and treatment.
  • Visitors allowed to stay overnight.
  • Introduced legislation about temporary psychiatric care.

The quote below from a Hansard debate at the time shows the taboos around mental health which existed then, and which exist still, although differently, today:

“There is in the mind of the general public a very great horror and shame about the name lunacy which is not confined to those who may be afflicted, but applies even more to the relatives, the wife or the husband, and particularly to the children. We have this shame and horror of any relationship in any shape or form to the person who may be mentally afflicted. The whole object of the Bill is so to get the co-operation, the approval and the goodwill of the people of the country that they will recognise that we are, for the first time, attempting to deal with mental illness in the same way that we deal with physical illness. In the same way as we deal with diseases of the heart, the lungs or some other part of the body, we now propose to deal with any trouble in the brain.” (Mental Treatment Billlords - Friday 11 April 1930 - Hansard - UK Parliament)

Mental Treatment Act, 1930, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1930/20&21G5c23

The Mental Capacity Act 2005

The following changes were made:

  • Provides legal framework for people deemed mentally unable to make their own legal decisions, listing which decisions they can and cannot legally make for themselves.
  • Definitions of “best interests, “deprivation of liberty” and the role of the Court of Protection etc.

A Hansard debate stated:

“Many people feel disempowered while in a hospital environment. This amendment would help to protect them from abuses of power and is designed to ensure that independent advocacy is available and that the patient will have an automatic right to a complaints procedure”.(Mental Capacity Bill - Tuesday 25 January 2005 - Hansard - UK Parliament)

Where we are today

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination against disabled people and has come a long way from previous Acts of Parliament.  However, many disabled people still feel the stigma of being disabled.  This can lead to people feeling hesitant or fearful about disclosing their disability or asking for help.  In July 2021 the Government launched the new National Disability Strategy, which sets out actions to improve the everyday lives of all disabled people.  Time will tell if this will make real change for the better.

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