Universiteit Leiden

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Introducing: Monika Baar

Monika Baar started working in Leiden in September 2015. She's currently the project leader of the ERC Research Project 'Rethinking Disability'.

After having studied History, Literature and Linguistics in Budapest, London and Oxford I held positions at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the University of Essex and Groningen University. My doctoral and postdoctoral research focused on historiography, political thought and cultural history with special attention to East-Central Europe and, in more general terms, the trajectories of small cultures. While I maintain my interest in these fields, serendipity – in the form of a short article on blind people and guide dogs in the in-flight magazine of the (now defunct) Hungarian airlines – assigned me new research subjects.

One of these is our research project Rethinking Disability: the Global Impact of the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981) in Historical Perspective, the first comprehensive study on the history of disability. The research seeks to demonstrate that the analytical potentials of disability are comparable to the concepts of class, race, gender and sexuality. Certainly, many scholars still consider this topic weird and unpromising, but did not people think about gender studies and postcolonial studies in the same way just a few decades ago? The project seeks to offer an alternative prism through which to analyze societal problems, particularly the way in which societies treat their vulnerable members, their tendencies of exclusion and inclusion and their definitions of the ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’. It also aims to offer new perspectives on the Cold War, of which its dynamics were also reflected in global health. For example, in the rivalry between the ‘communist’ Sabin vaccine and the ‘capitalist’ Salk vaccine in the fight for the global elimination of polio.

In our research we place under the magnifying glass the long-term repercussions of the International Year, which the United Nations dedicated to disabled persons upon the recommendation of the Libyan (!) government. We critically explore the activities of actors as varied as the UN, the non-Aligned Movement, the Arab League, the Esperanto movement and the Vatican, while we also study the impact of the year at the regional, national and grassroots levels. It brought about fundamental changes, but in quite a different way from how policy makers had expected: its patronizing tone triggered protests and catalyzed the emergence of a new social movement. This contributed to the redefinition of disability as a social and cultural identity, rather than a medical category.

Unlike in other countries, no major mass demonstrations took place in the Netherlands. Nevertheless a group of disabled citizens occupied the Cultural Center De Lindenberg in Nijmegen, protesting against its inaccessibility with the motto ‘geen drempel in onze cultuurtempel!’ The community-building aspect of the year was also significant. Often under the influence of Marxism, and in Latin America under the inspiration of liberation theology, disabled people formed communities in which they were able to live independently and they also discovered their artistic potentials. Perhaps the most spectacular longer-term achievement in the United States was the ratification of the Americans with the Disabilities Act of 1990, but not before paraplegic activists had got out of their wheelchairs and crawled up the 83 stairs of the Capitol in order to embarrass their ‘senators-in-denial’ into recognizing the huge problems.

Nevertheless, the global scope our project requires that it reaches out beyond the ‘Western world’, and provincializes existing universalizing classifications of disability. In that context, our research provides a historical dimension on some of the most ardent contemporary debates in global health. For example: does poor mental health of many people in the global South lead to poverty and hence requires interventions by the pharmaceutical industry? Or is it precisely poverty that leads to mental health problems in which case the best ‘cure’ for mental illness should be the alleviation of poverty?


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