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Disability History as Public History? On questions of inclusion and target group-oriented science communication using the example of a digital exhibition project.

In November 2018, the research project “DisHist – People with Disabilities in the GDR” started. The project consists of three scientific subprojects on families with disabled children (1), mobility techniques and built environment (2), and the staging of disabilities in GDR media (3). Another subproject, together with the scientific subprojects, prepares the research results for people with and without disabilities and makes sources and historical background accessible to them.


The DisHist project and the need for participatory and inclusive science structures.

Note: This is the English translation (automatically with DeepL). The German original written by Sebastian Balling, Saskia Alina Rahn and Charis-Fey Westensee (Universität Kiel) can be found here.

In November 2018, the research project “DisHist – People with Disabilities in the GDR” started. The project consists of three scientific subprojects on families with disabled children (1), mobility techniques and built environment (2), and the staging of disabilities in GDR media (3). Another subproject, together with the scientific subprojects, prepares the research results for people with and without disabilities and makes sources and historical background accessible to them.

The background of this project structure is formed by considerations of disability history and the concrete world of experience of people with disabilities. Research in this area has long been shaped by the so-called medical model, which primarily situated disability as a category within the dichotomies of disease/health and normality/divergence. Prompted by the U.S. and British disability movements of the 1960s and 1970s, there was a paradigm shift toward a social model of disability. This model conceived of disabilities as products of social conditions that made people disabled in the first place through complex processes of exclusion and discrimination.[1] The activist character of this model had repercussions for disability studies and was reflected, for example, in the demand of the Disabled Peoples’ International: “Nothing about us without us!”[2]

For the field of historical studies, this demand meant that people with disabilities should no longer be perceived merely as objects of research, but should participate as subjects of their own history in the generation of research results and in their public communication. Therefore, people with disability experiences are collaborating in the DisHist project. The research results of the project will be processed in a digital exhibition, project films and teaching materials for the general public, but especially for the disabled public. This process is accompanied and co-designed by so-called education specialists – people with disabilities trained by the Kiel Institute for Inclusive Education and employed there. In the following, we will go into more detail about the concrete design of a Public Disability History, but at the same time we will ask self-critically: To what extent is our approach at all able to break up dynamics of discrimination? How can we present sources in need of contextualization in a reduced, comprehensible and barrier-free language?And how does the project’s approach change the interpretation of sources that usually applies to historical texts?

From public history to public disability history: what can content generation for inclusive scholarly communication look like?

One of the goals of the DisHist project is for people with disabilities to be able to access information about disabilities in the GDR and for this information to be presented in the most understandable way possible.

Education professionals noted during the project that low-barrier language accessibility to Internet resources is of high importance for people with intellectual disabilities. The research results of the project should therefore be available in as simple a language form as possible, without at the same time distorting the historical source material too much. Therefore, it was decided against the use of plain language and in favor of the use of less regular understandable language in scientific communication. The embedding of original historical sources on an exhibition website, explained by source commentaries in comprehensible language and in complex language, and the creation of a glossary explaining necessary complex terms in a short and comprehensible way, will take these considerations into account.
The content that will fill the digital exhibition was developed in a triangular editing process with education specialists, master’s students, and historians involved in the research project during the summer semester 2020 and the winter semester 2020/2021 in inclusive project seminars at CAU Kiel. Trained by the education specialists in comprehensible language, students created exhibition commentaries on selected sources at both language levels. Several editing loops and an editorial process that took place in the seminar were intended to ensure that the research results were prepared in a way that was appropriate for the target group and did not become blurred in academic jargon.

Disability History as Public History? On questions of inclusion and
Digitality, Historical Exhibitions and Comprehensible Language: www.behinderung-ddr.de

Building on these comments in complex and understandable language, the Digital Exhibition of the research project will be filled with source material, introductory texts, glossary entries, as well as teaching materials in the form of a website under the domain http://www.behinderung-ddr.de by fall 2021. Already now, several sources can be viewed on the website, although the exhibition content is not final yet and will be edited several times until fall.
Fundamental changes have already been made during past editing loops with education professionals. The website is now designed to be readable by screen readers, and the audiovisual source material has been subtitled. The website’s color scheme has been kept deliberately subdued to be accessible to people with perceptual difficulties.
A common problem of contemporary historical research is that it is “logocentric”:[3] that is, it relies mainly on written sources and does not adequately include audiovisual sources in analyses. This challenge was particularly posed in the website design: the sources, some of which are heavily influenced by written language, result in inaccessibility for a target group that may have impairments in reading. The educational specialists pointed out this deficiency, and the website will be revised again with regard to its visuality until the final launch. Each source exhibit will be enhanced with illustrative photographs to visually capture the interest of visitors and introduce them to the source topic outside of the textual level. In addition, the entire website has been given a cover image: toys made by parents of disabled children in the GDR. However, the extent to which this problem can be definitively overcome remains to be seen – after all, much of the source material on display will be written.

The most fundamental problem in designing a historical, digital and inclusive exhibition is the different language levels of the texts accompanying the exhibits. The translation of the textual bases, written in complex language, into comprehensible language and the editing of these texts result in content inconsistencies between the two text forms that are difficult to resolve. The content of the texts can change depending on the level of language, so that the historical sources can also be interpreted differently.

As part of a master’s thesis at the University of Kiel, these effects are being explored and the question of inclusive purpose is being examined in more detail. We will briefly touch on these points below.

Exhibition design and feedback to research: Preliminary results of a master thesis

The master’s thesis deals in detail with the issue of inclusive access to history through language. It is entitled “Simplified language, the key to (another) world? – A qualitative study of the influence of simplified language on historical narratives” and rhetorically connects to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s well-known words, “Language is the key to the world.”

Language is fundamental to the communication of history. One can use it to grasp constructions of history and to address them in a differentiated way. However, the question arises to what extent all people possess the said “key of language” to access the world or history. Can people with language difficulties grasp history in the same way, or do different levels of language necessarily mean a different representation? Do these individuals possibly receive a key to an entirely different world?

With these considerations, the master’s thesis ties in with the observation that there are sometimes inconsistencies in content between the different language levels of the commentaries on the exhibition objects, which in turn could lead to a different interpretation of the sources. The thesis examines the extent to which the project’s source commentaries actually create barrier-free access and whether different narratives and images are generated by the two linguistically different versions of these commentaries.
The source comments on a comment by Bernt von Kügelgen on a postcard, which was printed in the Berliner Zeitung shortly after the end of the war in 1945, and which was intended to answer the question whether disabled Wehrmacht soldiers were victims of fascism, were selected for the study (https://behinderung-ddr.de/lebenswelten/medien).

In the qualitative study, four test persons are used to shed light on the historical ideas evoked by the two source commentaries. Through an interview and the method “thinking aloud”, the participants are asked to describe their first thoughts, intentions, and images that come to mind when they read the respective versions of the accompanying texts. The participants are people who attribute different degrees of text comprehension to themselves. Thus, among them, an education specialist was chosen to also consider the approach “Nothing about us without us!” in this work. At this point in time (as of July/August 2021), not all empirical results of the qualitative study are available yet – all results are preliminary. However, it has been determined so far that comprehension difficulties have arisen with the glossary entries (https://behinderung-ddr.de/glossar) – although it is precisely these entries that should serve to explain necessary complex terms in a comprehensible way. In addition, there are already results that suggest that the different language levels of the exhibition comments do indeed convey different historical narratives and emotions. For example, some test persons associated very different facts and situations when reading the respective text versions.

At this stage, it can be concluded that while simplified language offers an inclusive approach to history, it can also lead to narrative shifts and different content emphases.

Bringing Disability into Schools: Toward the design of scientifically informed instructional materials

That the didacticization of newer research approaches that historicize the lifeworlds of marginalized groups and (re)think categories such as class, race, gender, sexuality, and disability as sociohistorical categories can work is demonstrated by projects such as Queer History (since 2011) from Berlin, which aims to bring queer history into the classroom and into teacher education and has already made multimedia learning materials available on the web portal of the same name.

This also corresponds to the objective of the DisHist project: to make the research approach of disability history accessible to all interested parties, including school students. To make this possible, teaching materials were designed by staff and students, which were divided according to the three work areas of the project (family, technology and media) and – just like the digital exhibition – are made freely available on the website http://www.behinderung-ddr.de. It proved to be absolutely necessary to also develop an introductory block in order to familiarize the students with the new learning object. At this point, the complexity of the topic should not be overlooked: the students not only deal with disability as a social construct and are thus forced to question and re-sort internalized concepts, but also have to approach the (possibly new) topic of the history of the GDR. One difficulty that inevitably arises at this point is adapting the materials to different learning levels and stages. As with the entire digital exhibition, an inclusive approach applies. In preparing the teaching materials, it had to be recognized that this could not be fully guaranteed. For example, there was a lack of resources to develop different versions for different levels or to translate texts into understandable language. Again and again, the danger of content and conceptual overload loomed, since the topics have hardly ever been dealt with in a purely scientific manner. It must therefore be stated that the didacticization and accompanying reduction of a complex scientific, partially unexplored subject matter poses complex challenges in terms of content as well as form and organization. On the other hand, this also shows the significance of the project: Even though not all demands can be completely fulfilled, the provision of the teaching materials is an important start to bring research approaches such as disability history into schools.

This is achieved by the materials provided. They are designed in such a way that teachers can use them flexibly and, for example, pick out only individual parts. At the same time, the materials are designed in such a way that no teacher guidance is required. This reduces the threshold for teachers to implement the subject matter in the classroom. Accordingly, the structure was designed according to a simple scheme: After a text that outlines the respective starting point of the topic block, sources follow, which are then worked with in tasks. “How did people in the GDR deal with disabilities?” can be used as a guiding question for the various lifeworlds and discourses to be dealt with in the areas of family, technology and media.

This article is licensed under the following license: CC-BY 4.0. When reusing, please include the attribute rel=”canonical” in the link to the original post!

How to cite this Article: Balling, Sebastian, Rahn, Saskia Alina und Westensee, Charis-Fey (2021): “Disability History as Public History? On questions of inclusion and target group-oriented science communication using the example of a digital exhibition project.”. In: Kolodzie, Lisa, Schumacher, Mareike, Seltmann, Melanie and Brenn, Daniel (eds.): Public Humanities. https://publicdh.hypotheses.org/228.

[1] Colin Barnes, Understanding the Social Model of Disability. Past, Present and Future, in: Alan Roulstone/Carol Thomas/Nick Watson (Hrsg.), Routledge Handbook of Disability Studies, London 2012, S. 12–29.

[2] Anne Waldschmidt/Anemari Karačić/Andreas Sturm/Timo Dins, “Nothing about us without us” – Disability Rights Activism in European Countries: A Comparative Analysis, in: Moving the Social – Journal of Social History and the History of Social Movements Special Issue on Disability Movements: National Policies and Transnational Perspectives 53 (2015), S. 103–137.

[3] Thomas Lindenberger, Vergangenes Hören und Sehen. Zeitgeschichte und ihre Herausforderung durch die audiovisuellen Medien, in: Zeithistorische Forschungen: Teil des Portals Zeitgeschichte-online 1 (2004), H. 1, S. 72–86, hier S. 78–82.


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