Disability history and the cultural meaning of signatures

By Monika Baar

One of the most crucial and most rewarding tasks of scholars studying the history of disability is to contribute to the integration of disabled citizens’ voices into mainstream historical discourses. This also constitutes an important ambition of the research project Rethinking Disability: the Global Impact of the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981) in Historical Perspective which I am directing in the Institute for History at Leiden University with the support of a Consolidator Grant by the European Research Council.

International Year for disabled persons, stamp from Trinidad and Tobago
International Year for disabled persons, stamp
© Mark Morgan (CC BY 2.0)
Self-evident the ambition to render disabled people’s experiences accessible to the academic and non-academic public comes with particular challenges. One of the acute problems is the dearth of available historical sources. Documents relating to disability policies typically receive low priority when it comes to archival preservation and storage. On the fortunate occasions when those sources have ‘survived’, they have often not been systematized and catalogued and as such are particularly difficult to study.  Moreover, while such policy-related documents provide us with valuable information about how representatives of the state, various institutions and organizations have approached disability, they can hardly offer an insight into the everyday life experiences of disabled people. Occasionally serendipity helps the researcher to find some interesting pamphlets, magazines, photos and other sources at some unexpected locations, such as the cellars and attics of disabled people’s homes or those of their organizations.

DBP 1981 1083 Internationales Jahr der Behinderten
West-German stamp from 1981
Yet, this material can only complement and by no means replace the richest source available to the researcher – the conversations, or put in more professional terms, oral history interviews with disabled people. Not only do these occasions provide the indispensable ‘human touch’ which no other source material can offer, but they also supply information on topics and events about which traditional sources remain silent. Researchers must adhere to stringent ethical expectations when conducting such interviews. They are expected to provide interviewees with sufficient information on the purpose of their research and to create a relaxed atmosphere which allows for the fruitful exchange of ideas. Participation is always voluntary and confidentiality is maintained as expected, and participants can at any stage withdraw from the process, even retroactively. To that effect, interviewees are asked to sign a form that confirms that they have understood the nature of the research, and they have given their consent to participating in it.

Stamps of Germany (DDR) 1981, MiNr 2622
East-German stamp from 1981
The signature is thus meant to protect the interviewees’ rights. All this probably sounds simple and straightforward, but sometimes deceptively so. In the course of conducting such interviews in the past, I have occasionally come across suspicion and resistance when asking my otherwise committed and enthusiastic interviewees to sign the consent form. In order to understand why this could happen, we have to remind ourselves what an important role the cultural and historical context might play when doing research.

Perhaps this remark implies that I conducted those interviews in some ‘far-away’ place, where norms and values are significantly different from those in the ‘Western world’. Yet all this happened in the heart of Europe, in Hungary. In a country, where nevertheless not so long ago a signature could have had serious implications. During the communist period, thousands of people were forced to sign - or tricked into signing - documents about joining the party which they had no intention to join, or to offer their property to the state from which they had no intention to resign. Others gave consent with their signature, often under pressure, to become informants and spy on their colleagues and families. It has taken for me some time to realize that such bitter legacies, transmitted to the next generations, may have caused the suspicion about being asked to sign official documents. The legal and ethical purpose of these signatures is to offer protection. But interviewees in some countries may perceive signatures in very different terms: as an act that may become an obligation for them to do something in the future, something they had no intention to do in the first place. As it happens, the intention to uncover disabled peoples’ experiences can lead to unexpected revelations, revelations that extend well beyond the remit of our original research questions.

Recommended Citation
Monika Baar (2016): Disability history and the cultural meaning of signatures. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 11.

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