People With Learning Difficulties Work at the Hadamar Memorial


place/state: Hesse
INSTITUTION: Hadamar Memorial site
AUTHOR: Uta George
age group: 14 years and older
subject: Crosscurricular study group

learning activities
Analyzing a film
Analyzing propaganda
Changing perspectives
Changing perspectives
Creating an exhibition
Encountering eyewitnesses
Oral history
Visiting an exhibition

Operation T4
Psychiatric institutions
Race hygiene

The Hadamar Memorial is dedicated to the victims of the National Socialist "euthanasia" crimes. Between 1941 an d1945, about 15,000 persons were murdered at this former regional mental hospital because they were disabled or sick or regarded as socially maladjusted. More than 10,000 persons were suffocated in a gas chamber in the basement of the building during the so-called "Action T4" in 1941; starting from 1942, about 5,000 more victims were killed by the staff through purposeful starvation and drug overdoses. A memorial to commemorate the victims and the crimes was opened in 1983. In 2004, about 14,000 people visited the memorial; most of them took part in guided tours.

During recent years, several groups of persons with learning difficulties (formerly called learning disabilities) visited the Hadamar Memorial. The pedagogical staff were often at a loss when facing the needs of these groups, because there was no adequate concept and little experience. As persons with learning difficulties are among the victims murdered at Hadamar, they saw it as their moral duty and a special challenge to make the Memorial accessible to this group.

From the Idea to the Concept

In the beginning of 2003, the Hadamar Memorial Support Association (Verein zur Förderung der Gedenkstätte Hadamar e.V.) got into contact with the network "People First Germany", an organisation of people with learning difficulties. It was assumed that people with learning difficulties could best formulate their own needs when visiting a memorial like Hadamar. The aim was not to talk about this group, but to address and hear them as experts in their own case. Network People First Germany agreed to co-operate.

A first jointly planned and prepared conference (Friday to Sunday) took place at Hadamar in October 2003. More people were interested in participating than could be registered. All twelve participants were persons with learning difficulties; in addition there were two assistants. The team consisted of four representatives of People First and four representatives of the support association. Each sequence was tackled in teams of two persons, one from People First and one from the support association. The entire conference was conducted in easy-to-understand language, i.e. foreign words, Anglicisms and complex sentences were avoided. The pace was adapted to the needs of the participants, frequent "flash feedbacks" made sure it remained adequate. During the weekend, the participants were introduced to the Memorial and to the National Socialist "euthanasia" crimes, there was a commemoration ceremony and many more discussions and talks. On the last day, the participants made recommendations for a guided tour of the Memorial for people with learning difficulties, also defining the content and the photographs for a folder in easy-to-understand language. In March 2004, the folder "Hadamar Memorial in Easy-to-Understand Language" was issued by People First and the support association of the Memorial.
The recommendations for pedagogical approaches to the work with people with learning difficulties at memorials include easy-to-understand language, sufficient time, visits to the historical locations (gas chamber, cemetery) on different days and a pace adapted to the needs of the visitors.

The success of the October 2003 conference was based on an equal partnership approach. The greatest challenge for the team members of the support association was not to manipulate the participants but to adapt to their pace and their needs. We think such projects can only be based on a holistic approach to being human. Political education work aimed at groups with social stigmas requires a clear positioning in this respect.

A second co-operation conference was carried out in September 2004. This time, the participants were to come up with recommendations on the content and the documents to be chosen for the Memorial's permanent exhibition. These texts were to be translated into easy-to-understand language by two translators; additionally, a catalogue and an audio-version in easy-to-understand language were to be developed. 16 persons with learning difficulties attended the conference, four of them had also taken part in the previous conference in 2003.

After an introduction to the Memorial and a commemoration ceremony, the participants worked in two groups on different boards and topics of the exhibitions. One group worked on Action T4, another on the murders starting in 1942 and on the trials during the post-war period and the problem of compensation. Interestingly, both groups worked under very different conditions. While very few of the participants of group 1, dealing with "Action T4", could read, most participants of group 2 could read and express their thoughts in a differentiated way. This led to very different ways of working.
In group 1, the role of the team leaders became more important; besides moderating the process, they had to put the contents into easy-to-understand language to enable the participants to select the items they found important.

Participants of group 2 were able to formulate the items that were important for them; the team leaders could restrict themselves to moderation. The participants worked in mixed teams like in the first conference, each group had four participants, two from the support association and two from People First. A focused work process led to the formulation of recommendations for the content and the documents to be included in the exhibition. The participants also pointed out the graphical changes to be made to the exhibition to help people with learning difficulties to cope with it. A final joint day of retreat of members of the conference team and of the team of the Memorial will take place in September 2005 to decide on the changes to be made (e.g. clearer labelling of the boards).

A catalogue in easy-to-understand language was published in March 2005. The texts were checked by persons with learning difficulties who gave feedback whether the texts were easy or difficult to understand. It was important to have the texts read by people who were already familiar with the Hadamar Memorial as well as by others who had never been there. The catalogue succeeded not only in providing an adequate source of information for persons with learning difficulties (and others who prefer to read short texts), but also in letting the perspective of people with disabilities prevail – something which is seldom found in our society. The perspective on the history of people with disabilities is empathic, not neutral and distanced. (See document: Feedback Christoph Munzert).

The audio version was based on the easy-to-understand language catalogue. This version will enable people with learning difficulties and others who cannot read to visit the exhibition. The audio version will also be available as an audio-book.
The easy-to-understand language version led to a significant increase in the number of visitors with learning difficulties. The great demand for the catalogue indicates that there is a need for historical and political education (in this case related to memorials) of people with learning difficulties. We think the easy-to-understand language version is part of a normalisation process. People with learning difficulties should also be able to receive the historical and political education they require. Easy-to-understand language can support this process. (See document: Feedback Stefan Göthling)

A last joint conference is planned for the autumn of 2005. The changes made to the exhibition are to be evaluated in November 2005 by people with learning difficulties.

The project was supported by the Land Hessen, the association of welfare organisations in Hessen (Landeswohlfahrtsverband Hessen) the "Aktion Mensch", the foundation for education and support to disabled persons (Stiftung für Bildung und Behindertenförderung) and "IB-Behindertenhilfe Hessen".

translated by Margrit Mueller