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In December 2004, at the initiative of Professor Anne Waldschmidt, the University of Cologne established the International research unit in Disability Studies (iDiS). The research unit iDiS is active in these six areas:

  • Literature Review of German and international research in Disability Studies
  • Design and running of research projects, especially third-party funded projects
  • Scientific advice and mentoring of junior scholars and PhD students
  • Organization of conferences and workshops
  • Publication of the scientific book series “Disability Studies: Body – Power – Difference”
  • Regular research colloquia

Disability Studies is an international and interdisciplinary field of research. Its programme can be outlined as follows:

  • Research on “dis/ability” as a social category as defined
    by the “social model of disability”
  • Research on “dis/ability” as an historical and cultural construction
    based on theories and methodologies from the cultural sciences
  • Research on the living conditions of people with disabilities based
    on  participant-oriented methodologies
  • Research on participation, emancipation and equalization in
    cooperation with the social movement of disabled people.

In Germany, “disability” is usually discussed only in terms of the avoidance, elimination or alleviation of illnesses and impairments: in short, prevention, cure and rehabilitation. The theme of disability has, if it is considered at all, so far played only a secondary role in the humanities and social sciences. It follows that the investigation of embodied difference as a dimension of the conditio humana is rarely on the agenda – at least in Germany. The interdisciplinary discipline of Disability Studies, which originated in the 1980s in the USA and the United Kingdom, offers a perspective different from the approach dominant in the rehabilitative sciences. Disability Studies has been established in Anglo-American colleges and universities, as well as in other countries such as Iceland, Japan, India, and South Africa.

Disability Studies was mostly initiated by scholars and scientists who themselves had disabilities, for example, two of its founding fathers – the British social scientist, Michael Oliver, and the American medical sociologist, Irving K. Zola (1935-1994). In addition to their academic profession, both Zola and Oliver were activists in the Disability Rights Movement. Disability Studies, therefore, owes its pulse to the social movements of disabled people throughout the world. Concurrently, Disability Studies has seen an international paradigm shift regarding the understanding of disability and the lives of people with disabilities, as reflected by the World Health Organization’s “International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health” (2001).

In regard to theory, Great Britain has mostly contributed to the situating of Disability Studies within critical social science. Disability Studies is also part of the “cultural turn,” i.e. the establishment of the cultural studies paradigm as a concept integral to the humanities and social sciences. And last but not least, poststructuralist discourse, inspired by French philosophy, plays a major role in Disability Studies because it views the body, the subject and knowledge as cultural constructs – especially in United States discourse.

Disability Studies has also recently gained interest in the German-speaking world. Highly successful conferences have been held: “Der (im-)perfekte Mensch” [“The (im-) Perfect Human Being”; 2001] and “PhantomSchmerz” [“PhantomPain”; 2002] as well as the exhibition “Der (im-)perfekte Mensch” in Dresden and Berlin – all of which were co-sponsored by the German Hygiene Museum, Aktion Mensch, and Humboldt University. Following this, a two- week summer institute entitled “Disability Studies in Deutschland – Behinderung neu denken!,” [Disability Studies in Germany – Re-thinking disability”] took place in July, 2003 in Bremen as part of the European Year of People with Disabilities. This summer institute proved to be the third impetus to German-speaking Disability Studies. Additionally, the nationwide working group , “Disability Studies in Deutschland” [“Disability Studies in Germany”] has been in existence since April 2002 There are research and teaching activities in several German-speaking universities – not only in Cologne, but also in Berlin, Bochum, Bremen, Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Hanover, Marburg and Munich (Germany), Innsbruck and Vienna (Austria) as well as Zurich (Switzerland).