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New Professor of Learning Disability Studies

Portrait of Professor Tilley- she is looking at the camera and smiling

Dr Elizabeth (Liz) Tilley has been promoted to Professor of Learning Disability Studies. This professorship recognises her long-standing commitment to people with learning disabilities and the importance of inter-disciplinary and inclusive research in helping to address the challenges they often face in society, across the life course.

Professor Tilley joined The Open University in 2009 as a Lecturer in Disability, and since then has continued to pursue research that brings together her interests in history, stories and archives, with contemporary concerns around health and social inequalities, using the past to inform the present, and foregrounding the experiences of people with learning disabilities and their families. She is currently co-lead for the OU’s C20: Social Work and Social Policy REF (Research Excellence Framework) panel, and chair of the OU’s Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group.

Reflecting on her new title, Professor Tilley commented:
“The choice of ‘Learning Disability Studies’ as a title emerged from discussions with my colleagues with learning disabilities in the SHLD group. There is significant debate around terminology in this field; it is highly contested and pretty turbulent. As an historian I’m mindful of how language shifts over time, but colleagues in SHLD felt it was important that the Professorship title emphasised ‘learning disability’, arguing this showed that universities could, and should, take the lives of people with learning disabilities seriously. The ‘Studies’ aspect is a reflection of the inter-disciplinary nature of my work, specifically history, social policy and applied health and social care research.”

Her recent research has explored issues of belonging, reproductive health, ageing and end of life care, the impact of self-advocacy on health and wellbeing, and access to heritage for people with learning disabilities.  The research is interdisciplinary, with a particular interest in historical perspectives, ethics and participatory methods in health and social care research.

Professor Tilley remarked,
“This Professorship is a reflection of the research I have conducted in partnership with self-advocates, family members and practitioners; work I have felt truly privileged to be a part of. It builds on the important work of colleagues like Professor Dorothy Atkinson, Professor Jan Walmsley and the inspirational Mabel Cooper, all of whom laid the foundations for the Social History of Learning Disability Group in the early 1990s.”

Professor Tilley started working with people with learning disabilities at the age of 18, whilst studying for a history degree. She became interested in the origins of the service she worked for, and so a dissertation on the history of Mencap followed. This connected her to colleagues in the SHLD group which subsequently led to a PhD supervised by OU colleagues.

Professor Tilley concluded,
“It’s also important to acknowledge the ongoing support of the OU; research with people with learning disabilities often relies upon time, relationships and care; it would have been impossible to sustain this over the decades without the University’s backing. I am quietly confident that this professorship will further strengthen the work of the Social History of Learning Disability group, supporting the next generation of researchers.”

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