Swansea University worker uncovers hidden lives with Mencap

Teresa Hillier, a Senior Clerical Assistant within Swansea University’s College of Human and Health Sciences is working with Mencap, the leading voice on learning disability, on a new project which seeks to showcase the heritage of people with a learning disability in Wales.

Teresa Hillier“Hidden Now Heard” is a £292,900 Heritage Lottery Funded project capturing the hidden and often painful memories of former residents and staff from six of Wales’ long-stay hospitals which closed in 2006.

Teresa said: “In addition to working for the University, I volunteer as a researcher for Mencap and my employed role is as volunteer co-ordinator – specifically for the Hidden Now Heard Project. 

“Before I became employed by Mencap I volunteered for them, as my research interest is in disability history, specifically the role of the voluntary sector in the lives of people with disabilities.” 

The project is working with six museums across Wales which will host exhibitions based on captured memories and the research undertaken, with Swansea Museum currently hosting an exhibition on Hensol Castle. 

Hensol, located in the Vale of Glamorgan was used as a long stay hospital between 1927 and 2003. The rarely seen images from Hensol were taken by renowned photographer Jürgen Schadeberg in 1967 and range from the surprising to the thought-provoking and the unsettling, focussing on individual faces and personalities at a time when people with learning disabilities were invisible, herded into high-walled hospitals and hidden away for years.

Teresa said: “The exhibition at Swansea Museum, running until 1 March has been very well received.  As well as people visiting the museum on a casual basis, we have had many planned visits from people working directly with adults with learning disabilities, and people who used to live near Hensol. 

“The exhibition is very interactive and full of research and historical information.  This has very much been a team effort; with the Hidden Now Heard project team and volunteers at Mencap.  We are now focusing on St David’s Hospital with a call out to people with connections to St David’s to come forward.”

Mencap will be working in partnership with St Fagans National History Museum where a permanent exhibition will be installed so that information about Wales’ long-stay hospitals will be available and accessible to the public, creating a better understanding of a previously underrepresented part of Welsh society.

Teresa said: “The hope is that these compelling exhibitions will challenge perceptions of adults with a learning disability.”

Teresa is taking her research in this important area a step further in the next academic year with plans in place for her to start a research Master’s at Swansea University’s College of Arts and Humanities.  She said: “I want to build on the research I have already done and look at the rise of the voluntary sector and disability charities since the 1950s where this sector has grown significantly from its small beginnings into the ‘third sector’”.