Stories That Tell Who We Are
When a social advocacy movement achieves a coherent and
widely-acknowledged identity, it often begins to investigate and claim its history. The
disability rights and independent living movement in America, having arrived at this point
by the 1990s, is compiling a fascinating historical record of people with disabilities.
"History," said Thomas Carlyle, "is the essence of innumerable
biographies." Thus, groups like the Disability Social History Project chronicle the
lives of famous and not-so-famous people with disabilities: Harriet Tubman, hero of the
Underground Railroad; John Wesley Powell, explorer and geologist; Dorothea Lange,
photographer; Frida Kahlo, artist; and Audre Lorde, Poet Laureate of New York State.
The Disability Social History Project, based in Oakland, California, describes itself as
"an opportunity for disabled people to reclaim our history and determine how we want
to define ourselves and our struggles. People with disabilities have an exciting and rich
history that should be shared with the world." For more information, visit the Project's web
site (exit DHS).
PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS RESPOND
Institutions not overtly related to the disability civil rights
movement have joined in this pursuit of historical research. The US Holocaust Memorial
Museum, in a display called The Murder of the Handicapped, reports that "more
than 200,000 handicapped people were murdered between 1940 and 1945" in Germany. The
story of the Nazi Partys frightening program of euthanasia targeting people with
disabilities is remembered on the Museums
web site (exit DHS).
Another public institution that has responded to the call for historical research is
National Public Radio. Its four-part series, Beyond Affliction: The Disability History
Project, revealed "the shared experience of people with disabilities and their
families since the beginning of the nineteenth century." The series considered the
relationship between charity and disability, new and old ideas about social programs, the
evolution of disability identity, and the effects of reproductive technology on people
with disabilities. Information from the series is available on NPR's web
site (exit DHS).
Two new exhibits are being developed in anticipation of the ten-year
anniversary of the
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 2000. The ADA Wisconsin Partnership has
stimulated the State Historical Society to create a display showing how life has changed
for people with disabilities. "Sometimes progress comes from simple things,"
says Jerry Vogt, the Partnerships ADA Specialist. "One picture in the exhibit
could show a city street corner years ago. Next to that would be a recent photo of the
same corner with curb cuts. In the second picture, we notice a man shopping independently
using a wheelchair. You can see the progress."
In Washington, DC, the National Museum of American History plans an exhibit about ADA and
the disability rights movement "as a long, ongoing struggle for basic civil
rights." In addition to acquiring disability-related objects for display, the
curators are collecting anecdotes through a nationwide survey. The exhibit is an outgrowth
of the National Museums two-day conference last May on Disability and the
Practice of Public History.
STORIES OF WHO WE ARE
"Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to
stay alive. That is why we put stories in each others memories." From Crow
and Weasel by Barry Lopez, cited in "Wisconsin Stories: Lessons of Community Life
from People with Developmental Disabilities" (Wisconsin Department of Health and Family
Why document the lives of people with disabilities? Because
finding and telling our stories helps us achieve a sense of wholeness. Because knowing
where weve been helps us avoid the mistakes of the past. Or think of it this way: If
Americans today knew nothing of how people lived in 1776, how would we understand why they
were willing to invest so much to achieve independence?
Disability Social History
255 Third Street, #202
Oakland, CA 94607
The Cinema of Isolation:
A History of Physical Disability in the Movies
by Martin Norden
(Rutgers University Press, 1994)
Independent Living" (exit DHS)
by Gina McDonald and Mike Oxford
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FILE main page.
April 18, 2013