“People with disabilities in the GDR” – perspectives on public history from an inclusive historical research project

By Isabell Paulick and Sebastian Balling

Disability Studies is a trans- and interdisciplinary branch of science, which emerged from the international disability movement of the 1960s and has been discussed in scientific contexts in Germany since 2001 (Köbsell, 2012; Waldschmidt, 2015). It is based on a social model of disability, according to which people are hampered by society, for example by barriers, attitudes, actions and laws. This can be understood as a criticism of the medical model according to which people are handicapped due to a "defect".  Disability Studies thus represent a human rights model of disability (Degener, 2015). The emancipatory slogan "Nothing about us without us" is at the center of Disability Studies and therefore emphasizes the active role instead of the passive role of people with disabilities in the research process.

Started in April 2002 with the founding of the nationwide working group "Disability Studies in Germany" (AGDS for short), this branch of science has been gaining in popularity in Germany since the beginning of the 21st century. In 2004, the International Research Center for Disability Studies (iDiS) was established at the University of Cologne, and in 2005 the Center for Disability Studies (Zedis) was established at the University of Hamburg. In addition, research and teaching in Disability Studies is now being conducted at various universities in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The first professorship for "Sociology and Politics of Rehabilitation, Disability Studies" was created at the Faculty of Human Sciences of the University of Cologne at the end of 2008. Within the scope of these institutions, various research projects have been established and are investigating the topic of disability.

A current research project is the joint project Menschen mit Behinderungen in der DDR (People with Disabilities in the GDR), which is carried out since November 2018 in cooperation between Kiel University, Bundeswehr University Munich and the Drachensee Foundation in Kiel. The historical research project examines the life of people with disabilities in the GDR from different perspectives in four subprojects.

Subproject 1 (Families with disabilities in the GDR) focuses on the lives of families with children with disabilities. From an everyday perspective, the project tries to uncover the lived experiences of families with disabled children, e.g. in regards to the (gendered) distribution of tasks and roles within the families or their communication with state or ecclesiastical caregiving institutions. Embedded in the broader context of general political, social and cultural developments in the GDR, the project analyzes changes of family everyday-life throughout the span of life of the East-German state.

Subproject 2 (Techniques of mobility and built environment) investigates the technologies of transport and housing as well as planning and architecture as related aspects of inclusion and exclusion. It also reviews state plans and announcements for the social integration of disabled people in terms of their actual implementation in everyday life. Therefore, people from various social spheres of the former GDR are being interviewed in guideline-based interviews. These include city architects and manufacturers of aids, those involved in disability policy, and disabled people affected by the decisions of these groups.

Subproject 3 (Media representations of disability) tries to uncover the largely unknown discourses on disability in official GDR-media such as dailies and television as well as small media such as private films and Samizdat-prints. The project asks about the changes in representations of disability during the GDR’s lifespan, the political use of disability representations for state narratives and their usage by different political groups. Further research focusses on the producers of media about disability: who produced which media narratives on disability/disabilities? How big was the share of people with disabilities and their relatives and friends in the production of these representations?

Some of the sources included in the subprojects 1 to 3 will be integrated in a digital exhibition with didactically edited accompanying material in cooperation with the Drachensee Foundation in subproject 4 (Digital Exhibition/Production of Open Educational Resources). The close cooperation between the Drachensee Foundation and the Kiel Institute for Inclusive Education is a central point in the project implementation and in particular in the creation of the digital exhibition. The Institute for Inclusive Education develops and implements educational programs by and with people with disabilities. In a three-year full-time qualification, people with disabilities are trained to become educational specialists. As qualified educational specialists, they convey the worlds of life, needs and specific perspectives of people with disabilities. The team sensitizes (future) teachers, specialists and management staff on an equal footing.

Education specialists of the Institute for Inclusive Education during a seminar.

Education specialists of the Institute for Inclusive Education during a seminar.

In order to ensure that people with disabilities have barrier-free access to the digital exhibition, the exhibition is being worked on closely with two educational specialists from the Institute for Inclusive Education. For them, this is the first research project they are actively involved in. This gives them the opportunity to actively incorporate their life experiences and expertise as directly affected people with disabilities into the research process. The educational specialists perceive this as an opportunity for a change of perspective. People with disabilities are not only perceived as research objects, but as active participants, which was not possible for a long time in this form. In particular, when creating the digital exhibition, they have the role of an expert in their own cause. The focus of this participative research should be on working at eye level with low hierarchies between project participants with and without disabilities. This is an important point to keep in mind throughout the research process.

Accessibility is an important issue in the context of the Internet as well as in the context of science communication. Accessible web offers can be used by all users regardless of their limitations or technical capabilities. Thus blind and visually impaired users can read out websites by software or have them printed in Braille. Deaf or hard-of-hearing people whose first language is sign language need tailor-made, special forms of presentation on the Internet. In addition to addressing the needs of people with disabilities, accessible means that in general, non-disability users will not face any barriers.

It is also very important that the scientific content is presented in a clear and easily understandable language without distorting the source material too much. Accessibility includes setting educational, training, and intellectual standards that are not excessive but adapted to the topic – this means that highly complex sources such as submission, TV-documentaries or need to be contextualized and commented in order to make them accessible to a larger audience. This context is particularly binding on public service web sites, in order to realize the demands for equal rights also of people linguistically handicapped in one country (mother tongue deviating from the majority), but also covers the problems of older people, which are not with the possibilities and methods modern communication and socially disadvantaged classes.

If asking the educational specialists of the Institute for Inclusive Education involved in the research project about their experiences in dealing with the Internet, they report some problems. For example, the use of complicated terminology or foreign words is a problem for the comprehensibility of the contents. It was also critically noted that when using audio-visual media, the tempo of videos, for example, often cannot be set. Too fast or too indistinctly spoken texts cause contents to be harder to understand. It would also be important to use audio descriptions to allow deaf people access to audio-visual content. Illustrated descriptions of complex content and the use of plain language are also helpful. The educational specialists also criticized the presentation of some webpages. For example, a too bright or dark color choice of the Internet pages leads to the fact that the font cannot be read well. Even too confusing presentation of the control elements or content is in the way of a good understanding of the Internet pages.

The close cooperation between the educational specialists as experts acting of their own cause and the scientific staff in the research project should ensure that these points are taken into account in the creation of the digital exhibition. Moreover, in other points concerning the research project, the expertise of the educational specialists will be included in order to meet the premises of Disability Studies.

Sebastian Balling is doctoral candidate at the History Didactics Department at the University of Kiel. Isabell Paulick is an educational research scientist at the Drachensee foundation in Kiel.


Degener, T. (2015). Die UN-Behindertenrechtskonvention - ein neues Verständnis von Behinderung. In T. Degener & E. Diehl (Hrsg.), Handbuch Behindertenrechtskonvention. Teilhabe als Menschenrecht - Inklusion als gesellschaftliche Aufgabe (S. 345–351). Bonn: Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung.

Köbsell, S. (2012). Wegweiser Behindertenbewegung. Neues (Selbst-)Verständnis von Behinderung. Neu-Ulm: AG SPAK.

Waldschmidt, A. (2015). Disability Studies als interdisziplinäres Forschungsfeld. In T. Degener & E. Diehl (Hrsg.), Handbuch Behindertenrechtskonvention (S. 334–344). Bonn: Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung.

Recommended citation:
Isabell Paulick/Sebastian Balling (2020): “People with disabilities in the GDR” – perspectives on public history from an inclusive historical research project. In: Public Disability History 5 (2020) 1.

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