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The United Nations is seen by many as a rigid bureaucracy without sparkle, wit, or creativity. The general public—graciously stimulated by the mass media—sees a traveling circus, a talk shop, and paper-pushing. This is a very uneven view of the world organization. The story of the last seven decades is incomplete and misleading without a discussion of its goals and achievements, including its intellectual leadership.

The hallways of the Leuven provincial house are more lively than usual after dark. Scattered groups of people, most of them rather youthful, only a handful of them visibly disabled, are trying to find their way to the auditorium where one of the screenings of the 2017 edition of the Leuven Disability Film Festival, with the theme Bodies and Minds, will soon begin.

Film festivals are a core site of disability culture labor’, Petra Kuppers posits in her 2014 publication Studying Disability Arts and Culture. The disability culture activist, performance artist and professor at the University of Michigan goes on to point out that the increased accessibility of recording devices has made it easier than ever before for minority groups to take representation into their own hands.

In an era in which prenatal screening has made it possible to detect and prevent genetic and chromosomal diseases, disabilities such as Down syndrome are becoming increasingly rare. And as their number dwindles, some fear that a significant component of our social diversity will disappear with them.

Little Henrik, about six years old, sits in his wheelchair with bracers around the spastic arms to prevent them from contracting, so that the muscles don’t become too short. ‘He is a pretty boy, but ‘empty’, they say. But his eyes aren’t empty.

Recently Anaïs van Ertvelde has written opinion piece in Dutch for the Belgian newspaper DeMorgen entitled: “Mindervalide is geen synoniem van zielig, Meryl” (“Disability is not a synonym for pitiable, Meryl”), wherein she critically discusses the treatment of disability by Hollywood.

Malformed embryos in formalin, a school desk for wheelchair users at a former institution for intellectually disabled, and artfully staged portraits of people with Down syndrome dressed as kings, divas or superheroes: As diverse as the subject of disability can be, showing it in museums is generally considered a sensitive issue.

Conference: ‘Calendar Propaganda’ of Human Rights? Historical Perspectives on the United Nations’ Global Observances, Leiden University, The Hague Campus, 14-16 June, 2017.

The PhD candidates of our project are introduced in the newsletter of the Leiden Institute for History.