Mabel Cooper, who has died of cancer, aged 68, was a charismatic and inspirational figure in the changing world of learning disability. She had a tremendous ability to draw on personal experience to tell stories that, written or spoken, engaged and inspired her readers andlisteners in many walks of life.
Born in 1944, Mabel had the misfortune to be separated from her family in infancy and to spend her childhood in a succession of children's homes. Eventually, aged 13, she acquired the label of 'learning disability' which led to her being admitted to St Lawrence's Hospital (a long-stay institution) in Caterham, Surrey where she remained for the next 20 years.
Mabel left hospital in 1977 to live in the community, and in the 1980s she joined Croydon People First self-advocacy group, where she became the chairperson. In that role, and in her subsequent role as chair of London People First, she worked with people with learning disabilities to enable them to speak for themselves.
In the 1990s, aware of the sweeping changes in learning disability policy and practice, Mabel began telling her story. Published to much acclaim in a book called Forgotten Lives (1997), her story proved an inspiration to people with and without learning disabilities, in this country and beyond. Her story covered the major changes of recent decades, from institutional to community care and the growth of the self-advocacy movement. Her capacity to recount and reflect on her own experience, and to set this within a wider social context, brought new insights into life in institutions and revealed the otherwise hidden conflict between personal and official accounts.
Mabel's personal testimony was put to practical use in her work with children and young people in schools. Drawing on personal experience, she was able to educate them about the lives of people with learning disabilities. She was skilled in enabling children to understand the discrimination, and the bullying, faced by people with learning disabilities and how these might be countered.
In June 2008, Mabel made her first visit to Scotland. She had been invited to speak at a conference called Forgotten Citizens organised by the Open University in Scotland, the Scottish Consortium for Learning Disability [SCLD] and the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services [Iriss]. Her keynote address, given with her friend and colleague Dorothy Atkinson, was entitled When the Walls Come Down: Telling the history of learning disability. In typically straightforward terms and with no self pity Mabel held her spell bound audience enthralled as she told her history. There could have been no better advocate for 'telling your story' at this event than Mabel Cooper. Her talk was warmly received on the day and inspired further collaborations between the Open University in Scotland, SCLD and Iriss Equal, Connected and Contributing in 2010 and the Scottish Conference on Inclusive Learning Disability Research in 2011.
In making sure her story was told, and recorded, Mabel has left an enduring legacy. For her work with the Open University in researching the history of learning disability and for her work in the wider community she was awarded an honorary degree by the OU at The Barbican in London in 2010. She is survived by her cousin, her many friends and her colleagues at the Open University.
Watch an interview with Mabel Cooper.