Rethinking Disability

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

Approximately 10% of the world’s population is estimated to be disabled 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 ERC Consolidator Grant funded 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.

International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP)

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.

Scope and objectives

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.

There will be four closely-related objectives.
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

See full project description [PDF]

The team

The core team will comprise project leader Dr. M.K. (Monika) Baár, three PhD students and two post-doctoral fellows. This ERC project will also engage six non-resident research associates whose expertise includes the history of human rights and of the welfare state, refugee studies, special education, literature and gender studies, global health, visual and media studies.

Last Modified: 09-10-2015