Editor’s Note: People who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat that history. In less fortunate countries, people with disabilities still may be ignored or mistreated, but the United States has made great strides in trying to remedy the way that our citizens with disabilities are perceived.
Celebrating our national journey of disability rights and achievement is the main focus of the Museum of disABILITY History in Buffalo, New York. The museum has researched, recorded and cataloged thousands of items, paintings and photographs depicting how people with disabilities have fared since medieval days.
“We haven’t accomplished all we’ve hoped for to help people with disabilities,” Doug Farley, director of the museum, explains. “However, we make gains every day. We all need to know our shared history to continue to make gains into the future and to become advocates for future generations of people with disabilities.”
A Civic-Minded Beginning for the Museum of disABILITY
In 2005, James Boles, the retired CEO of People Inc., was teaching a course on the history of disabilities. People Inc. is a human service agency in western New York that provides services for community outreach, health care and recreation programs for the developmentally disabled.
Boles realized there wasn’t a museum where people could see some of the artifacts commonly used by people with disabilities in prior times; nor was there a research facility where people with disabilities could learn the challenges that people with disabilities once faced.
He decided that part of the mission of People Inc. would be to create a museum for students of disabilities and also for the general public. Boles wanted everyone to have a better understanding of disability history, and how people with disabilities were treated in the past.
The museum was born thanks to Boles’ commitment and passion for serving others.
The museum started out as just a display case in one of the rooms in the People Inc. building. From that humble beginning, it expanded to taking up a room in the People Inc. building.
Then in 2010, the museum was moved to a stand-alone building at its location today. It is accredited by the New York Board of Regents as an educational institution. Curator and Museum Director Doug Farley shares his perspective of the museum below.
What You’ll Discover in the Museum of disABILITY
Laid out chronologically, the museum displays early paintings of people with disabilities that were produced in the Middle Ages. You also can see paintings of people with disabilities in Renaissance art. We have artifacts and pictures of what’s known as the Institutional Era too, which was a common occurrence not only in Europe but also in the United States during the 1600s and 1700s in Colonial America.
Many atrocities took place in the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance Period against people with disabilities.
In later years, many institutions were created in France and England to more or less keep these people out of sight and out of mind, and they might be put in leg irons and handcuffs to keep them from hurting themselves.
In the early American colonies, people with disabilities who couldn’t care for themselves were put into poor houses. These were institutions where they could be cared for, a carryover from Elizabethan England. Eventually, each state took over the responsibility of caring for people with disabilities and the poor and put them in institutions that were often referred to as state schools.
Eugenics: A Phrase Best Left in the Past
Eugenics came from the idea that breeding certain types of plants and animals could create better plants and animals. Using this philosophy, some scientists thought people with disabilities could be bred out of the population, which would reduce the financial burden of governmental organizations to care for them. This philosophy was espoused by Gregor Mendel (a Czech Republic monk in the 1800s). This same philosophy was espoused by Adolph Hitler in his efforts to create a pure Aryan race of German people.
At the beginning of the 20th century and even up to as late as 1963, about 60,000 people with disabilities were forcibly sterilized.
Even though we abhor the way people with disabilities were treated in Nazi Germany, at that same time, many of those atrocities were being implemented against people with disabilities in our own country.
As the public became more informed about the way people with disabilities were being treated by their own governments, a ground swell of outcry began to change the way people with disabilities were handled in society. The U.S. reformed some of its old policies and started to improve the way that people with disabilities were treated.
Grassroot groups of people with disabilities and advocates for people with disabilities made themselves known and heard, gaining even more support from the public and politicians. Just as the American Civil Rights Movement started changing public opinion of the way African-Americans were being treated, people with disabilities began to change the way America thought of individuals with disabilities.
Special Exhibits Found Only at the Museum of disABILITY
One of the most interesting artifacts that we have in the museum is a car from post World War II called an Invacar, which is a shortened version of the term “invalid carriage.” In Great Britain, if a soldier came back from the war and wasn’t able to use his legs or had lost his legs, he was allowed to use an Invacar that the British government loaned him.
Operated by hand controls rather than foot controls, the Invacar was a very economical form of transportation for veterans with disabilities after World War II.
We also have a display of a large number of other artifacts in the museum that once were used as mobility devices, including canes, crutches, leg braces and a collection of wheelchairs. Most of the artifacts we receive come from donations, but we also have purchased quite a few artifacts.
If anyone has an artifact that they’d like to donate to the museum, you can contact us through our website.
The Middle Ages to Pop Culture: Disability is a Common Theme
At the museum, we also have an abundance of information on pop culture and how people with disabilities have been portrayed in the media over time, including the early motion pictures that often showed people without disabilities winning Academy Awards for portraying people with disabilities, a practice considered largely taboo in the media today.
Individuals with disabilities should be able to speak for themselves and act on stage like people without disabilities do.
I believe this stereotype in the movie and the television industry has been changing as recently as the last 4 or 5 years. For instance, Corky (Chris Burke), a person with Down syndrome, was in a television series, “Life Goes On,” that started airing about 15 years ago. Burke was a ground breaker for people with disabilities appearing in the media.
Also Noah Galloway – a soldier who was injured in an IED attack in the Iraq War, who lost his left arm above the elbow and his left leg above the knee – was a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars” TV show last year. But there’s still plenty of room in the media to make more changes and create more opportunities for actors with disabilities.
Editor’s Note: Progress is hitting the silver screen soon. Stay tuned this Fall for a new show on ABC called Speechless. Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver) is a mother who is willing to do anything for her family. Her son, JJ (Micah Fowler) has cerebral palsy and she will fight for justice in order to give him what he deserves. See the video clip below for a preview:
Our Hope: See Disability in a New Way After Your Visit
When people with disabilities come to our museum, I hope they can see that through history there always have been people with disabilities. We want them to learn what their lives would have been like if they had lived in a different time and in a different place. I hope people without disabilities will see that people with disabilities aren’t really any different than anyone else.
We all have our set of disabilities that we deal with, and we all have shortcomings that we can change or improve.
I hope that people who visit our museum realize that we’re all the same with aspirations and goals for our lives.
Also, I hope our visitors will get a better understanding of people with disabilities and learn better how to interact with people with disabilities. I hope they’ll see that we all can be in the same situation as a person with a disability and realize how we want to be treated, if we have a disability.
One fact for sure is that the longer we live, the more likely we are to become disabled in one way or the other. As time marches on, we all are getting closer to becoming disabled. I believe a fair statement is that if we live long enough, 100 percent of us will be disabled in some way.
Membership Perks at the Museum of disABILITY History
The Museum of disABILITY History offers traveling exhibits that are suited for different themes on disabilities that you can use for educational purposes, presentations or meetings. We also literally have a complete Museum of disABILITY History on our website at www.museumofdisability.org.
If you want to use an extensive amount of the photography that the Museum of disABILITY has, an individual membership to the museum is $25. A corporate membership is $100, a one time cost. You can pick out and receive as many images as you need. If you need research help, you can get that research for free too, if you’re a member of the museum.
Disability Etiquette Programs Available
Host a disability and etiquette training for your staff – it’s a great learning opportunity for human resource professionals, medical and direct support staff, drivers and those who work in the transportation and retail fields. For more information, contact Doug Farley, director, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 716.629.3626.
Please feel free to visit us when you’re in the Buffalo, New York area.
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About the Author: John E. Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites.
He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.