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Rethinking Disability: the Global Impact of the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981) in Historical Perspective

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - DISABILITY (Rethinking Disability: the Global Impact of the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981) in Historical Perspective)

Reporting period: 2018-10-01 to 2020-03-31

Approximately 10%-15% of the world’s population is estimated to have a form of disability and this number is expected to rise in the next few decades. Disability has consequences not only for the individuals concerned, but also for their families and their environment, it is a human and social issue that touches us all. People in different cultural settings ascribe different meanings to disability; consequently, its repercussions are both culturally contingent and universal. This project brings together the local and global dimensions of disability and examines the interaction, tension and conflict between these two aspects by undertaking the first comprehensive study of the far-reaching political, societal and cultural implications of the International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP), a landmark event organized by the United Nations in 1981, which appears to have gone virtually unrecognized in scholarship. The hypothesis of this project is that the International Year, together with its counterpart, the International Decade of Disabled Persons (1982-1993) was the most significant watershed in the modern history of disability. It was the first occasion to place disability into a global context by endorsing it authoritatively as a human rights issue and thereby raising the question as to how the concept may be understood in a multicultural world. The project’s innovative contribution lies in connecting the IYDP to broader political, social and cultural processes in the last quarter of the twentieth century and thereby bringing disability in a global context to the attention of mainstream historical scholarship.

IYDP as a catalyst for change
The International Year was marked not only by celebrations, but also by vigorous protests in several countries: the official rhetoric associated with the event raised expectations significantly, but these could not be met in a period which coincided with the first major financial crisis in post-war history. This project purports that the vast gap between official discourses and everyday realities at the grassroots level produced a creative tension, from which a new paradigm started to emerge. Historical time became ‘compressed’ and, by accelerating pre-existing tendencies, the International Year led to the kind of fundamental changes, which would, under normal circumstances, take several decades to occur. It became a major catalyst for the politicization of disabled citizens, who were at the time still not regarded as part of the ‘general public’, but as people with separate and special needs.

IYDP and the formation of a new identity
The International Year inspired disabled people to think about their status in new ways. It encouraged them to no longer hide their condition and take pride in it. As a result, in several countries disabled people came to reject traditional approaches of charity and pity and realized that they were better equipped than anyone else to understand their own needs. They came to feel a sense of belonging together and disability gradually evolved into a distinct identity, giving rise to an alternative lifestyle and unleashing artistic potentials. Frequent meetings and an intensive exchange of ideas informed this period and - in addition to the transnational networks of medical experts, politicians and policymakers - for the first time disabled people themselves started to contribute to those exchanges, forming Disabled People’s International, the first global organization entirely run by disabled citizens.

IYDP and the developing world
It was in preparation for the IDYP that, in 1980 the World Health Organization (WHO) produced the first classification of disability designed for universal application. This classification was based on an ideological framework which reflected the standards of the modern ‘Western world’ It focused on the individual and assumed that equality, independence, self-reliance and personal self-fulfilment are universally desirable and applicable values and that dependence constitutes a problem. The conscience of the international community was stirred during the International Year, spawning numerous governmental and non-governmental initiatives in ‘developing’ countries, in which approximately 80% of the world’s disabled population lives. These initiatives brought into sharp relief the notion that focusing on individual rights runs contrary to accepted norms and practices found in many developing countries, where the disabled person is seen as part of a larger whole: the care-giving family and kinship networks. Given that such projects are never purely philanthropic ventures and that they were often pursued by former colonizing powers, it is unsurprising that some of IYDP initiatives came to be criticized as impositions of neo-colonialism.

The research intends to illuminate how disability became a global concern. It will do so by identifying the contribution of international agencies, governmental and non-governmental organizations and, just as importantly, disabled people themselves, to the IYDP and by showing the connections, interactions and entanglements between these various agents. To that end, the novel feature of this project lies in its understanding of human rights in the context of disability as a universalizing, and not (necessarily) a universal discourse, which was conceived in the ‘modern Western world’; and subsequently ‘transferred’ to developing regions. The ambition of this research is to historicize and ‘provincialize’ the prevailing Western concept of disability and to discover how it can be rendered meaningful and relevant in diverse cultural settings.

1. to examine the IYDP’s impact on human rights discourses and to scrutinize their applicability within global settings;
2. to document the IYDP’s contribution to emancipation and social change and to consider the different trajectories of emancipation in various parts of the world;
3. to assess the ways in which the IYDP influenced everyday life experiences, galvanized identity formation and inspired the emergence of a distinct subculture;
4. to analyze the transnational exchanges and knowledge transfer in conjunction with the IYDP and to examine how the ‘Western’- oriented discourses penetrating the developing world interacted with the local environment
Conferences and workshops organized within the remit of the project:

Whose Welfare? Fresh Perspectives on the Post-war Welfare State and its Global Entanglements, Leiden University, 19-20 January, 2017

‘Calendar Propaganda’ of Human Rights? Historical Perspectives on the United Nations’ Global Observances, Leiden University, 13-15 June, 2017

Workshop Historians without Borders: Writing Histories of International Organizations, Leiden University 22-23 March 2018

Co-organized events:

Workshop co-organinized with Babette Hellemans, Douwe Draaisma, Anne Baker, Elise de Bree and Piet Devos, Perspectives on diversity: the cultural history of absence, Lorentz Center, Leiden, 10-13 January 2016.

Workshop co-organized with Gildas Brégain, Colonialism and disability, L'École des hautes études en sciences socials (EHESS), Paris, 20 June 2016.

Individual work by project members:

Monika Baár, Principal Investigator

Conference attendance
Workshop ‘Communicating International Organizations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European University Institute, Florence. Paper: ‘Vulnerable groups in the centre of global attention: communicating the UN's International Years in the media’, 13-15 March 2016.

Workshop ‘The emergence of Global Mental Health’, King's College, Department for Social Science, Health and Medicine, London. Paper: 'The emergence of a common language for Global Mental Health', 28 April 2016.

Conference ‘Objects of psychiatry: between think-making, reification & personhood’, University Hospital of Psychiatry, Zürich. Paper: 'Inventing the psychiatric patient in the non-Western World', 8-11 June 2016.

3rd Conference of the International Federation of Public History, Universidad de los Andes, Bogota. Paper: 'Oral history interviews with vulnerable people: methodological problems', 7-9 July 2016.

Conference ‘Africa, Eastern Europe and the dream of international socialism’, St Anthony's College, Oxford University. Paper: ‘Socialist countries’ development projects in Africa in the context of the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981)’, 28-29 October 2016.

Conference ‘History of Disability and Disability Policies’, Katholische Akademie, Schwerte. Paper: ‘The UN’s International Year: A Paradigm Change?’13-14, March, 2017.

Intersections: 24th Annual Conference of EUROCLIO (European Association of History Teachers), San Sebastian, 2-7 April, 2017, discussion group leader: Teaching the History of Groups with Vulnerabilities, subsequently holding training sessions on disability studies in the Hague

Conference ‘Histories of Socialist Medicine’, Wellcome Unit, Exeter University. Paper: ‘The Resonance of Health for All and the Alma Ata Declaration (1979) in Cold War Europe and Beyond’, 1-2 June, 2017.

Conference ‘5th ENIUGH (European Congress on World and Global History)’, Central European University, Budapest. Paper: ‘Competing Missionaries, Clashing Ideologies in Latin America during the Cold War: the Birth of Liberation Psychology in El Salvador’, 30 August, 2017.

Workshop ‘Socialist Health Histories’, Exeter University. Paper: ‘History of Rehabilitation and its Place within the Study of Global Health’, 12-13 January, 2018.

Conference ‘1st Riyadh Humanitarian Forum’. Paper: ‘Integration of Disability into Humanitarian Action: Opportunities and Challenges’, 25-28 February, 2018.

Workshop ‘Historians without Borders’, Leiden University. Paper: ‘Writing Disability into the History of International Organizations’, 22 March, 2018.

Invited talks
Boundaries of History lecture series, High School of Economics, Department of History, St Petersburg. Lecture: 'Rethinking disability: historical perspectives on disabled citizens at times of crisis', 11 February 2016.

London College of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine: ‘Disability, Global Health and Ideology’, 9 February, 2017.

Evangelische Hochschule Bochum, 7 November, 2017, ‘Geschichte des UN Jahrs 1981’

Collaboration with international organizations
19 February, 2018, contribution to the United Nations Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Working Group, Palace of Nations, Geneva

28-30 November, 2018, selected participant of the European Parliament’s Member of Parliament (MEP)-Scientist pairing scheme, visit and lecture in the European Parliament, Brussels

30 September 2017, contributor to the Multi-stakeholder Workshop, Palace of Nations, Geneva, IASC Guidelines on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action

Research visits
UNESCO Archives, Paris, 18-19 June, 2016.

Archives of the English Directorate of the IYDP, Liverpool, University Archives, 13-15 July, 2016.

Archives of the European Community, Brussels, 21-22, September 2016.

United Nations Archives and Library, Palace of Nations, Geneva, 19-22 February, 2018

Other activities
Advisory board member, Public Disability History blog.

‘De-pathologizing Disability: Politics, Culture and Identity’, Neue Politische Literatur, 62 (2017), 281-303, with free online access at

‘Singing and Painting Global Awareness: International Years and Human Rights at the United Nations’, Heidi Tworek, Jonas Bredenbach, Martin Herzer (eds.), Communicating International Organizations in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Routledge, 2018), 182-203.

Blog posts
‘Disability and the cultural meaning of signatures’, Public Disability History (2016).

Paul van Trigt, Postdoctoral Researcher

Conference attendance
Conference ‘The road to global inequality, 1945-present day: New Historical perspectives’, Aarhus Denmark. Paper: ‘The concept of socio-economic inequality in postcolonial state practices’, 3-4 November 2016.

Master course ‘Welfare state change and the recognition-redistribution debate’, Universiteit van Humanistiek, Utrecht. Guest lecture: Geschiedenis Verzorgingsstaat, 13 September 2016.

Graduate School Research Network Care Ethics, Universiteit van Humanistiek, Utrecht. Presentation: ‘Concepts contested humanity: dis/human; in/ability; be/longing’, 20 June 2016.

Conference ‘International solidarity movements in the Low Countries during the long twentieth century. New perspectives and themes’, Brussels. Paper: ‘Dutch disability activism and the human rights revolution since the 1970s’, 26-27 May 2016.

Conference ‘European Social Science History’, Valencia. Paper ‘Preventing suffering. The history of abortion as a case of contested modernity’, 31 March 2016.

Workshop: ‘Social Citizenship during the Decolonization of the Dutch Caribbean’, Leidne University. Paper: Whose Welfare, 19-20 January 2017.

Conference ‘Information and Power’, Amsterdam University. Paper: ‘Governing the social by (un)covering information. The case of disability in the postcolonial Netherlands’, 16-17 March 2017.

Conference ‘Global Inequality: A Divided History’, Warwick. Paper: ‘Which inequality? The Neglect of the Concept Socio-economic Inequality in the UN’s Observances Dedicated to Disabled People’, 19-21 April 2017.

Conference ‘Calendar-propaganda’, Leiden University. Paper: ‘A Comparison between the World Population Year and the International Year of Disabled Persons’, 14-16 June 2017.

Conference ‘Politics of time’, London. Paper: ‘Did Utopia fall in 1989? Human rights and the politics of time in the UN Observances dedicated to ‘vulnerable groups’, 21-22 October 2017.

Workshop ‘Urban Utopias: Memory, Rights, and Speculation’, Utrecht University. Paper: ‘Missing Utopia: Human Rights and the Politics of Time in the Global Disability Movement’, 21-22 February 2018.

Research visits
UN Archives, New York, 9-13 January 2017.

National Archive, Koblenz, 18 August, 2017.

Other activities
Board member, Network Sources for inclusive citizenship.

‘Human rights and the welfare state. An exploratory history of social rights in the postwar Netherlands’, in: Zapruder World 3.

‘Writing disability into colonial histories of humanitarianism’, in: Social Inclusion 4:4 (2016) 188-196, together with Susan Legêne.

‘Editorial humanity as a contested concept: relations between disability and ‘being human’’, in: Social Inclusion 4,4 (2016) 125-128, together with Jacqueline Kool and Alice Schippers.

‘Handicap in Nederland. Een historisch overzicht van benaderingen van mensen met een beperking in het moderne Nederland’, in: Geert Van Hove et al. (eds.), Disability Studies in de Lage Landen (Antwerpen/Apeldoorn 2016) 320-333, together with Luc Brants en Alice Schippers.

‘Hoeveel diversiteit kan de familie Doorsnee aan?’, Sociale Vraagstukken 2016 (digital).

‘A short history of approaches to disability in the Netherlands’, Brants Luc, Trigt P.W. van, Schippers Alice (Eds.) The Routledge History of Disability (Routledge, 2018).

Blog posts
‘De historicus, de moralist en de kunstenaar’, Blog Disability Studies in Nederland (2016).

‘Beyond the last utopia? Introduction to a student blog series about the history of human rights’, Rethinking Disability Blog (2018).

Anais Van Ertvelde

Conference attendance
Conference ‘International solidarity movements in the Low Countries during the twentieth century: new perspectives and themes’, ULB, Brussels, 26-27 May 2016.

Graduate School Research Network, Meeting on disability and care ethics, Universiteit voor Humanistiek, Utrecht. Paper ‘The International Year of Disabled Persons (1981) - Making connections between citizenship, care ethics and processes of humanization’, 20-21 June 2016.

5th Annual Conference of ALTER on ‘Inclusion, Participation and Human Rights in Disability Research: Comparisons and Exchanges’, European Society for Disability Research, Stockholm University, 30 June-1 July 2016.

International conference on ‘Resistance: between theory and the field’, Université Libre de Bruxelles. Paper: ‘“If there was no so thing as a disability movement, how did people with disabilities influence the UN?” The UN International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP) 1981 and Belgium’s disability organisations through a resistance studies lens’, 14-15 December 2016.

Workshop ‘Whose Welfare. Fresh Perspectives on the Post-war Welfare State and its Global Entanglements’, Leiden University. Paper: ‘A true revolution of the minds concerning the handicapped person, his social situation and the implementation of care?. The Impact of the UN International Year of Disabled Persons (1981) on Belgium’s shifting social Policies for Disabled Citizens’, 20-21 January 2017.

Conference ‘1989 and the West. New Perspectives on the Consequences of the End of the Cold War’, Utrecht University. Paper: ‘How the end of the Cold War influenced Belgian policy-making and civil society, using the lens of disability in the midst of being rethought’, 20-21 April, 2017.

Workshop ‘The Boundaries of Socialist Medicine’, Exeter University. Paper: ‘Rights and Rehabilitation. ‘Polish scientific approaches to disability across the Iron Curtain’, 1-2 June 2017.

Conference: ‘“Calendar Propaganda” of Human Rights? Historical Perspectives on the United Nations Global Observances’, Leiden University. Paper: ‘The International Women’s Year (1975) and The International Year of Disabled Persons (1981) in Belgium: from immediate failures to intermittent success stories’, 14-16 June, 2017.

Conference: ‘Breaking the Wall. A national and transnational perspective on East-European Science’, Bucharest, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung - The Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile – Université D’Angers. Paper: ‘Rights and Rehabilitation. Polish scientific approaches to disability across the Iron Curtain’, 11-12 October, 2017.

3rd International Disability Studies Conference ‘The art of Belonging’, Amsterdam University. Paper: ‘Writing to belong. Disability memoirs from across the Iron Curtain’, 30 November-2 December 2017.

Invited talks
Ghent University: ‘Good cripple. Bad Cripple. An introduction into critical disability studies’, December, 8, 2017.

Ghent University: ‘Divergent. naar een duurzame en inclusieve arbeidsmarkt’, 8 February 2018.

4th Disability MUNDUS Doctoral School ‘Making disAbility’, Uppsala University, 26-29 June 2016.

Political History Research School Seminars, 2017-2018.

Polish language course, IKLON, Leiden University, 2017.

Research visits
VN Jaar Personen met een Handicap (UN Year of Disabled Persons), Diplomatic Archives, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Brussels.

Rijksfonds voor de Sociale Reclassering van Mindervaliden (National Fund for the Social Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons), National Archives, Brussels.

Hoge Raad Personen met een Handicap (High Council People with a Disability), undisclosed archives, Brussels.

Katholieke Vereniging Gehandicapten (Catholic Association Handicapped), Kadoc and KU Leuven Library, Leuven.

Action Commune Nationale des Handicapés (National Collective Action of the Handicapped), Kadoc and KU Leuven Library, Leuven.

Archiwum Akt Nowych, Warsaw 1-10 March, 2017.

Warsaw University Library + Biblioteka Narodowa (Warsaw) + Poznan Archive + Lodz Archive + Wilanow Poster Museum, 10-29 September, 2017.

Blog posts
‘Window, Mirror, Meeting Place (1) A very short history of disability film festivals’, Rethinking Disability Blog (2017).

‘Window, Mirror, Meeting Place (2) A very short history of disability film festivals’, Rethinking Disability Blog (2017).

Other output
‘Kennisclip: Is there such a thing as the disability movement? (15313)’ [film].

‘Mindervalide is geen synoniem van zielig, Meryl. Hoe we onze betuttelende ideeën over mensen met een handicap kunnen doorprikken’, De Morgen, 14 January 2017 [article in newspaper].

Anna Derksen

Conference attendance
5th Annual Conference of ALTER on ‘Inclusion, Participation and Human Rights in Disability Research: Comparisons and Exchanges’, European Society for Disability Research, Stockholm University, 30 June-1 July, 2016.

Seminar Handikapp historisk a föreningen ‘Frånvälgörenhet till välfärd’ (Swedish Association for Disability History: ‘From charity to welfare’), Stockholm, 16 December 2016.

Conference and PhD workshop ‘The healthy self as body capital: Individuals, market-based societies, body politics and visual media twentieth century Europe’ (Strasbourg), 23-27 February 2017.

Conference ‘Aufbrüche und Barrieren’, Katholische Akademie, Schwerte. Paper: ‘Vom Patienten zum Mitbürger - Behindertenrechte im schwedischen Wohlfahrtsstaat’, 13-14 March 2017.

Conference 'Global Inequality : A Divided History', Warwick University. ‘“Full Participation and Equality”? Disabled Persons in the Swedish Welfare Society and International Development Projects’, 19-21 April 2017.

Conference ‘Calendar Propaganda’ of Human Rights? Historical Perspectives on the United Nations’ Global Observances, Leiden University. Paper: ‘The First UN Development Decade (1961-70) and the Shaping of an International Aid System’, 14-16 June 2017.

Conference ‘The Body Politic: States in the History of Medicine and Health’, EAHMH Bucharest. Paper: ‘The Disabled Body, Citizenship and Social Belonging. The International Year of Disabled Persons (1981) and Its Impacts on Welfare Policies and C
ivil Rights Debates in the Nordi
Progress beyond the state of the art:

The 'state of the art' in the global study of disability barely exists, and it is primarily based on Anglo-Saxon research frameworks. With its events, archival visits and publications, the project is on the way to bring about a very substantial change in this.
There are two major ways in which the project moved beyond the state of the art: by initiating a multi-level (international, regional/national and local) analytical framework that goes beyond 'Western' paradigms and by bringing disability to the attention
of scholars who have so far thought of the concept as being only relevant for historians working on the history of rehabilitation. The project has therefore contributed to the destigmatization of the subject, and it is determined to continue the efforts in that direction.

Expected results:

Three further conferences and some smaller side-events are planned until the end of the project. In June, 2018, a talk given by Sam Moyn at Leiden University 'The Neoliberal Maelstorm' will be followed by a discussion on
the implications of neoliberal regimes for disabled citizens. The first major future events is supported by the Dutch Embassy in Cairo and the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo.
This conference is titled 'Interdisciplinary Approaches to Disability: the MENA Region in the Modern Period and it will take place on 25-26 November, 2018. Speakers and participants will include academics, artists,
and activists. This is an excellent opportunity for knowledge transfer and the conference will give a significant impetus to the promotion of the academic study of disability in Egypt. An edited volume (presumably
in Brill' s Leiden Studies in Islam and Society series) is envisaged on the basis of selected papers. Another conference 'Criptic Identities. Historicizing the Identity Formation of People with Disabilities Across the Globe' is
planned for 21-22 March, 2019 at Leiden University, to be accompanied by a special issue/edited volume. Lastly, the final conference, which will also showcase the main findings of the project is expected to take place in spring, 2020.
Other smaller-scale events will include a workshop on disability and sexuality and on the visualizations of disability, while the project members will make conscious efforts to showcase their work at Area Studies conferences,
in order to stregthen its global appeal. In July, 2019 Leiden University will host the ICAS convention (International Convention of Asia Scholars) and the project will be present with a special panel. Ongoing collaboration will be
streghtened with the Asia Studies Centre of Leiden University, while project members will be co-founders of the Leiden Deaf Studies Network.

A travelling exhibition highlighting the visual findings of the project is being planned to be launched in September, 2019 in the Palace of Nations in Geneva, to be later displayed in the European Parliament and at Leiden University.

For 2019 a Proof of Concept application is being planned with the aim to strengthen the presence of disability history in European school curricula.

Altogether, the most important expected (albeit longer-term) result arising from this project is the laying down the foundations for a truly global study of the history of disability.

Discussions have started with Brill on launching a new journal on the Global History of Disabilty.