14 Dec 2015 Towards an Inclusive Disability History? - Paul van Trigt


The Disability Studies in the Netherlands team with Professor Geert van Hove, second left

[The Disability Studies in the Netherlands team with Professor Geert van Hove, second left]


In July 2015 I visited the wonderful symposium of the Disability and Industrial Society project in the National Waterfront Museum. Back in the Netherlands I was overwhelmed by teaching obligations, but I decided that I would write a flashback-blog. Now my students are working on their exams and papers, I have the time to write my blog about the symposium, but also about what I have learned from teaching.

For me it was a long time ago that I had visited a conference with so many disability historians. Disability history conferences are scarce. That is not a bad thing, I believe. Disability has to be part of mainstream history and is less interesting as a goal in itself. Nevertheless, sometimes you need to meet your fellow disability historians to exchange research results, ideas and struggles. Moreover, we need such meetings to reflect on the entanglement of disability history with the broader field of disability studies and with the disability movement. Disability history is in my opinion always related to disability politics, although this is not always articulated. Of course this relation can have very different forms, but it is the challenge and charm of disability history. My first disability history conference, in Preston in 2010, was a revelation: wow, I thought, this field is not only challenging in the academic sense, but triggers also the societal imagination.

How we have to evaluate the symposium in Swansea in this respect? Thanks to the range of presentations I was impressed by the diversity of disability history research that is going on. However, the relation with disability politics was not always explicitly addressed. Maybe because it is self-evident. The Disability and Industrial Society project for example has involved self-advocacy groups and has managed to bring counter-narratives about disability to the media. Nevertheless, I think we need in particular reflection on the participation of people with disabilities in disability history research. As I discussed during my short presentation at the symposium, I was involved earlier this year in the foundation of the project Disability Studies in the Netherlands, which is relevant in this respect.

In the project I have written policy advice for the Dutch Organization for Health Research and Development about cooperation with people with intellectual anddevelopmental disabilities in research and research related processes. I have written this policy advice from beginning to end together with two temporary colleagues, one with an intellectual disability and the other one working with students with disabilities. The project was not about disability history research in particular, but begs the question how this field could be made more inclusive towards people with disabilities without an academic training in history. In the tradition of social scientific research it is more common to cooperate with societal partners and to work with co-researchers without academic education. In studying the past, historians often do not cooperate with non-historians, with the possible exception of oral history. Traditions of cooperative and inclusive research have to challenge disability historians to think again about their research designs. Are people with disabilities without historical training only involved when it comes to discussing the results or is it possible to cooperate during the whole research process? And is the university willing to pay them as co-researchers?

I hope this is one of the issues to be discussed in the near future. It touches on the fundamental question of what the professional writing of history is. As (disability) historians, we need be open to discuss this question, but that is also the case for people (with disabilities) without professional training in history. I often come to the view that everyone can write history, but after months of intensive training of students I can only conclude the writing of history is a craft that needs long exercise and a lot of thinking. Of course, historians need the fresh contributions of co-researchers, but the profession of (disability) history is also in need of a fresh appreciation.


Paul van Trigt is a lecturer in political history at Universitet Utrecht.

Disability Studies in the Netherlands: