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5 questions for Eline Pollaert

In our ‘5 questions for’ column, we have the pleasure of talking to Eline Pollaert, who is doing PhD research on the history of disability in the Netherlands at VU University Amsterdam. Eline is also setting up a disability archive and is active as a speaker and advocate in the field of disability.

1/ Can you (briefly) introduce yourself?

“Since two years, I have been working at VU University Amsterdam, doing PhD research on the history of disability in the Netherlands. But my interest in disability extends beyond science. Thus, I am also active as a speaker, advisor and advocate in the field of disability. For example, I am part of the Crease Collective, with which we are working on an exhibition at the intersection of disability, history and art. We are also working on setting up a Dutch disability archive, along the lines of IHLIA, The Black Archives and Atria. The podcasts On Frida’s Wings and Sick The Podcast revisit my broad interest in disability.”


2/ You research ‘Het Dorp’ in Arnhem, can you tell a bit more about this?

“When I tell about Het Dorp, I usually get two kinds of reactions: a somewhat glassy-eyed look, or an enthusiastic exclamation about matchboxes, Mies Bouwman and the TV broadcast ‘Open the Village’. Het Dorp is the result of the first Dutch telethon in 1962, which raised money to build an accessible housing estate in Arnhem. At that time, people with severe physical disabilities had no way to build a full and independent life. The Village brought suitable housing, work and co-determination within reach for the first time. Although much has changed over time, Het Dorp still exists. Interestingly, no historical research on Het Dorp has been done before, despite the fact that the TV broadcast is etched in the collective memory. This is what my colleagues and I are trying to change with the NWO project ‘Disability and self-government: a global micro-history of Het Dorp and its cultural heritage from the 1960s onwards’.


3/ Why the oral history method?

“Oral history has a long history as an emancipatory research method. Traditional forms of historiography often overlooked women, black people, migrants and LGBT+ people, for example. Oral history offers opportunities to record so-called “histories from below”, of communities that are not often talked about. Zooming in on individual stories creates a wealth of perspectives on historical, cultural and social developments. For example, the stories of people with disabilities provide a glimpse into changing ideas about care, citizenship and human rights. By approaching disability as a social category, rather than an individual health issue, oral history provides an insight into social relations and structures.”


4/ Who do you interview and what do you notice?

“The former residents of The Village are central to my research. How did they build their own lives? What meaning did they give to The Village? How did living in The Village affect their self-image? Many of the older residents have unfortunately already passed away, so I also interview younger residents and (former) employees of Het Dorp. I also supplement my interviews with archival materials from archival institutions and private collections.

The people I speak to look back on Het Dorp with varying feelings. For some, it was the best time of their lives; others couldn’t get away fast enough. People do agree on the pioneering mentality that existed among residents and staff, especially in the early days of Het Dorp. I get to hear the best memories and anecdotes, from tailor-made clothes residents made themselves at the Sewing in the activity centre to explorations in the field of love and sexuality. These stories provide a wonderful basis for me to reconstruct what The Village meant in people’s daily lives.”


5/ Why do you think this research is important?

“Too often people with disabilities are talked about, rather than with them/us. Most existing oral history research on people with disabilities deals with two extremes: either disability activism or living in a care facility. The Village was neither. It is precisely the stories from everyday life that fascinate me. People with disabilities are ordinary people, with the same dreams and needs as everyone else. I look forward to further discovering how the ordinary got its own place in a special environment like Het Dorp”.



Read more interesting interviews in the ‘5 questions for’ section here.


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