guest post by Monika Baár
No one would question today that the concepts of class, race and gender are indispensable for historical analysis, but for quite some time mainstream scholarship was reluctant to embrace the work of historians who had made innovative use of those notions. Over the last few decades, the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of disability studies has added another useful concept to the scholarly toolbox which has opened up new vistas for uncovering the underlying values of society. Nevertheless, the study of disability has not yet fully found its way into the disciplinary confines of history. Many a historian would consider such research ‘grim’, ‘obscure’ and ‘not exactly prestigious’. Not so long ago perhaps I was myself not immune to these prejudices and my interest in this topic did not develop organically, but was sparked by serendipity. In fact, the article which appeared in the May 2015 issue of Past and Present ‘Disability and Civil Courage under State Socialism: the Scandal over the Hungarian Guide-Dog School’ was my first excursion into the subject. It evolved from my interest in the history of guide dogs for the blind (a recent article on this topic can be found here ) and it focuses on the question how blind people could exercise their agency in an authoritarian state.
The first guide-dog training institution in Hungary came into being during the 1970s. It was both initiated and realized by blind people themselves: they succeeded in creating a training school entirely on their initiative, with virtually no help from the state and while battling against formidable resistance from the official welfare organization of the blind. When the authorities took the bizarre decision to close the school after it had been operational for a mere two years, they formed an action group whose persistent protests led to it being reopened. This story surprised and puzzled me, particularly because scholarly intuition would not necessarily expect agility and determination under those circumstances. Quite the contrary, it might suppose that passivity and conformity were the norm; partly because of what is often, however unjustifiably, considered the limiting effect of disability and partly because of the restrictive milieu of an unfree society. Against this backdrop, my article explores the resourceful and multifarious strategies which a small group of blind people employed in order to achieve the goal of establishing guide-dog training in Hungary. When circumstances dictated, they emphasized their ability and strength. On other occasions they consciously drew attention to their vulnerability in their attempts to influence or outsmart the often inflexible authorities. In addition to reconstructing this story, my article also places it within the broader context of the Cold War period, when caring for vulnerable people became the subject of ideological rivalry between the two world systems.
Disabled people rarely leave a trace in records, a situation which is further exacerbated in societies that lack a free civic sphere and where the most significant events open happen in informal settings. My work would not have been possible without access to some extraordinary resources. The rewarding conversations (or, to put it more professionally, oral history interviews) with three blind people without whose activities the guide-dog school could not have been created constituted the highlight of my research. But these interviews would not have been sufficient alone. I was fortunate to receive from my interviewees a lot of written documentation and 22 audiocassettes which had recorded numerous conversations – with fellow blind people, party officials, ministers, journalists and more. What an experience it was to play these cassettes (with my hands trembling – given their ‘socialist’ quality) on the audio player which my father had unearthed from the garage! Not only because they gave me a unique insight into the micro-world of a small community nearly four decades ago, but also because they offered me a trip down memory lane by reminding me of a period when audiocassettes were identical with cutting-edge technology.
Last but not least, this research has provided the foundations for my major collaborative research project, Rethinking Disability: the Global Impact of the International Year of Disabled Persons in Historical Perspective (1981), which I will be carrying out at the University of Leiden with the support of an ERC Consolidator Grant. What initially started as a micro-study seems to have gone a long way and will surely continue to serve as an inspiration in the years to come.