Approximately 10%-15% of the world’s population is estimated to be disabled and this number is expected to rise in the next decades. How did disability become a global concern and how can the concept be understood in a multicultural world?

This European Research Council-funded project seeks to answer these questions by undertaking the first study of the far-reaching 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. Its hypothesis 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, which placed this issue into a global context. By focussing on four closely-related themes, the project examines the interaction and tension between the universal and particularistic aspects of disability.

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. The project’s innovative contribution and primary impact 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.

Full project description (pdf).

Research Team

Rethinking Disability: the Global Impact of the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981) in Historical Perspective is a five-year project funded by an ERC Consolidator Grant and led by Dr Monika Baar. The core research team comprises Paul van Trigt (postdoctoral researcher), Anna Derksen, Anaïs van Ertvelde and Sam de Schutter (PhD students). Read more about them and the project on the Leiden University website.

Anna Derksen – PhD candidate

My PhD thesis will examine the impact of the International Year for Disabled Persons (IYDP) in 1981 on the Nordic countries, with emphasis on their respective health policies and the integration of disability questions into humanitarian aid. How did governmental institutions, NGOs and grassroots movements promote the rights of disabled people? And to what extend have the Nordic welfare model and the region’s leading role in human rights politics influenced the countries’ contribution to shaping disability agendas – both at home and worldwide?

Anais van Ertvelde – PhD candidate

My PhD project intends to test the hypothesis that the IYDP or International Year of Disabled Persons (1981) and the subsequent IDDP or International Decade of Disabled Persons (1982-1993) brought forth a paradigm shift in the way government agencies on the international and national level, disability organisations and people with disabilities themselves conceive of and deal with disability. A shift that is intricately linked to broader social, economical and political evolutions in the last quarter of the 20th century such as increasing global interactions, the evolving cold war context and the advance of neoliberalism. In order to demonstrate this I will make use of an innovative cross-Iron Curtain analysis and focus on three local case studies and their global entanglements: Belgium, Poland, and the US. Countries whose ideologies and practices reflect different degrees of state provisions and state influence.

Sam de Schutter – PhD candidate

In the second half of the 20th century, disability became a ‘global’ concern with a universal definition, driven by the attention it received from international organizations (UN, WHO, ILO, Unesco, etc.). In my research, I will study how this translated into programs and interventions aimed at the so-called ‘developing countries’ and how this global flow of ideas, actions and experts impacted the way disability has been conceptualized and experienced locally. This will be done on the basis of two case studies: the two Congo’s, and more specifically their two capitals, Kinshasa and Brazzaville.

Rethinking Disability is connected to the following persons and organisations: