The significance of the learning society for women and men with learning difficulties

Riddell, Sheila and Baron, Stephen and Wilson, Alastair (2001) The significance of the learning society for women and men with learning difficulties. Gender and Education, 13 (1). pp. 57-73. ISSN 0954-0253 (

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This article draws on work undertaken as part of the Economic and Social Research Council's Learning Society Programme. The project from which data are drawn, entitled 'The Meaning of the Learning Society for Adults with Learning Difficulties', focused on lifelong learning opportunities available to people with learning difficulties and experiences of these services. The article begins by examining theories of late modernity, their use by feminist and disability studies theorists and their relationship to ideas of a learning society. Subsequently, using case study material, it is argued that the identities of people with learning difficulties are not chosen freely from a range of options but are socially ascribed. The status of learning difficulties is used as a dominant category to justify deprivation of basic political and economic rights. In addition, the lives of people with learning difficulties are structured by gender and class, and these intersect with the category of learning difficulties. For both women and men, the advantages of middle-class social and economic capital are overridden by the negative category of learning difficulties. In relation to gender, men with learning difficulties are more likely to receive post-school training, but in inappropriate areas of the labour market. Their domestic needs are also likely to be attended to by others, but in the absence of employment, they find themselves without any valued social role. Women with learning difficulties are also likely to be excluded from the labour market, but are more likely to be involved in reciprocal, albeit limited, social relationships. It is concluded that postmodernist theories are inadequate to describe the structuring of the lives of people with learning difficulties.