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EveryBody: The Smithsonian’s New Artifact History of Disability in America

AbilityLinks Blog ImageA new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has “everybody” talking: EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America. With a considerate nod to the subject content, the museum has chosen to make the exhibit accessible online, enabling people with disabilities to view it at their convenience. It’s available in both English and Spanish, broadening the access even more.

On the museum's blog, curator Katherine Ott observes: People with disabilities have been present throughout American history, but rarely appear in textbooks or shared public memories.” It’s a problem people with disabilities have faced throughout history: the tendency to become, if not ostracized, ignored.

The Smithsonian wanted to address this problem by making a statement in the most direct way a museum can. In their continued effort to showcase all facets of American history, they have compiled images from their collections with accompanying facts about the sometimes weird, sometimes heartbreaking, and always fascinating history of disability in America. The introduction to the online exhibition illuminates the Smithsonian’s choice of multimedia presentation: “When history comes through artifacts, distinct themes emerge—for example, the significance of place, relationships, and technology—that are less apparent when only books and words are used.” It’s a choice that makes sense for a museum—a choice that, interestingly, bonds people with disabilities across distance and time. The same could be said about any exhibition at any museum, but the statement holds special meaning for a group that has, historically, experienced a distance from society that could feel insurmountable.

“To broaden the familiar narratives of American history and give presence to some of the ‘disappeared’ in American history, we created an online exhibition about disability drawn from the museum's collections,” Ott explains. For all those who have been voiceless over the centuries, this exhibit certainly speaks for their history. "Being anonymous or forgotten does not mean that you are invisible," says Ott.

One item of note, which may be a good starting point for viewing, is the timeline of disability history the museum links to; you can see the 1990 ADA event in bold that Janice talked about in her most recent blog post.

A display that is particularly disturbing to me is the one entitled “Appearance.” As someone who has experienced disability personally, I recall feeling extremely uncomfortable when people would stare at my injury, especially when it first happened. (Refer to my “welcome post" if you’d like to know more about my personal story.) However, I was downright horrified when I read that “Ugly Laws” in the mid-1800s forbade people with physical deformities from being in public. This "no wheelchairs allowed" photograph is also chilling, especially since it is from the 1970s, when there was an increase of disability for Vietnam War veterans. Seeing how things used to be really puts it in perspective. Not that staring is acceptable, but I’d rather have that than being banned from going where I’d like.

Going where we’d like—that’s really the point this kind of examination, isn’t it? Yes, we have a lot to be proud of, and we should applaud ourselves as a country for how far we’ve come. But let’s not forget our goals for the future, and that we’re still on that journey. What do you think, readers? What kind of legal and social advances for people with disabilities would you like to see? And what do you think of this exhibit? Perhaps with more accessible education to all people about disabilities, like the Smithsonian’s new exhibit, we can continue to become a more considerate, informed, and helpful community. 

In closing, what impresses me most about this museum is how well it shows the perseverance of people with disabilities throughout history. "Many people with a disability must be pioneers," the exhibit says. I'd like to point out two images that really inspired me: two people following their passions, in spite of how challenging it must have been. They engineered adaptations to allow them to pursue activities that even people without disabilities might find difficult: playing the violin (1860s) and skiing (1940s)! I am in awe--and what a nice reminder to us all that with some simple adaptations, people with disabilities can shine brightly, not just as a representation of disability, but as a testament to the beauty and talent of humankind.