Nov. 13: Oral History and Intellectual Disability: Navigating Authority, Authorship and Advocacy

Thursday, November 13, 2014

6-8 PM

Knox Hall, 606 W 122nd St., Room 509

Read current OHMA students Nicole JeanBaptiste's 
and Dong Kue Lee's reflections on this talk.

“Nothing About Us Without Us,” a slogan of the disability rights movement, echoes the ethos of oral history, when we strive to “know with” rather than “know about” the communities whose narratives we record, preserve, interpret and share. In this session, Nicki Pombier Berger will discuss the work she did for her OHMA thesis, a multimedia collection of stories from self-advocates with Down syndrome. She will highlight how the principles and practice of oral history were affirmed, challenged and enriched along the way: from working to share authority in the project design and beyond, attending to power dynamics within the interview, and endeavoring to establish ethical partnerships in the editorial process. Nicki conceived of this application of oral history as a kind of advocacy, and continues to do so in ongoing collaborations with some of her interviewees. Individuals with intellectual disabilities have not only been historically marginalized in broader society but have been largely overlooked by oral history. What can we learn by doing the work of truly listening to people with intellectual disabilities? By sharing where she has struggled and what she has learned so far, Nicki hopes to demonstrate that individuals with Down syndrome are the expert authors of their own perspectives and experiences, and that by paying attention to how we listen, we might expand our capacity to hear people who have long gone un- or misheard.  

Nicki Pombier Berger is an oral historian whose work focuses on intellectual disability. A 2013 graduate of the Oral History Master of Arts program at Columbia University, the centerpiece of her thesis is an online collection of stories from self-advocates with Down syndrome entitledNothing About Us Without Us. She is currently a community partner on Visionary Voices/A Fierce Kind of Love, an oral history-based civic dialogue project on the intellectual disability movement in Pennsylvania. She is also the project lead on the Toward Independent Living and Learning (TILL) Living Legacy Project, which preserves and shares the family histories of individuals with intellectual disabilities supported by TILL. In 2012-2013, she was a graduate fellow in the Future of Disability Studies Group at the Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University. She received her MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College in 2009, and her Bachelor of Science in the Foreign Service from Georgetown University in 2001.

Commentator: Rachel Adams, Professor of English and American Studies, Columbia University

SPONSORS: This talk is part of the “Paul F. Lazarsfeld Lecture Series,” co-sponsored by the Columbia Center for Oral History Research (CCOHR) and the Oral History Master of Arts Program (OHMA). Support from the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE) is provided for programming that embodies late Professor Paul Lazarsfeld’s commitment to improving methodological approaches that address concerns of vital cultural and social significance.

INFORMATION: For more information, please email Amy Starecheski at aas39(at)