The Disability History Museum

Image of a Man Making Heavy Metal Leg BracesThe Disability History Museum is an online museum of documents, images and photographs related to disabilities and disability history. The collection isn’t huge at the moment, but there’s still plenty to explore. Pages can be viewed with graphics, or as text-only; images all have descriptive tags. Content can be accessed through searches, but there is also a nice ‘browse’ feature that also lets you go through the artifacts by clicking on categories.

According to the About Us page,

[T]he Disability History Museum’s mission is to promote understanding about the historical experience of people with disabilities by recovering, chronicling, and interpreting their stories. Our goal is to help foster a deeper understanding of disability and to dispel lingering myths, assumptions, and stereotypes by examining these cultural legacies.

At the moment the site is still incomplete, with the “Museum” section (which will feature online “exhibits”) and the “Education” section (resources for teachers) still under construction. The “Library” is online, though, with a fascinating collection of artifacts available. Here’s a sampling of what you’ll find:

Image of Two Sisters, One With Apparent Disabilities, and her Affectionate Younger SisterThis image of two sisters, taken about 1880, is filed, in part, under the keywords “cognitive disability”. The affection between the young women is obvious, and their importance within their family is, too. Though their clothing is simple and somewhat worn, the family paid for this enduring portrait. As evident here, the museum’s images suggest a rich social history that’s not readily available elsewhere.

Image of a Donation Request Card Showing a Man with a Spinal Injury in a WagonDecades ago, it was not uncommon to be accosted in public places in urban USA cities by beggars claiming to have particular disabilities. (Sometimes the disabilities were real.) Cards were handed out in public places, in the hope that those who received them would give a donation in return. This “charity postcard” from 1910, requesting similar donations, suggests that the use of the written word to make an immediate personal appeal may have paralleled the rise of persuasive advertising. This card implicitly invokes another social issue; nearly 100 years later, earning a living is still problematic for many people with disabilities.

Among the documents in the museum’s archives is a fascinating one reporting on the trial of one Dr. Heiselden (Jury Clears, Yet Condemns Dr. Heiselden). This Chicago Daily Tribune article, published in 1915, outlines one jury’s response to the ethical dilemma faced by Dr. H. when he was asked to treat — or not — a newborn he considered to be non-viable. The doctor’s dilemma was by no means unique; the detailed coverage, and the openness of the discussion, is not so common today — at least in newspapers. There were, perhaps, fewer personal injury lawyers around in 1915.

Image of 1931 Plans for Accessible BathroomsIf these plans (right) are any indication, architects have been designing accessible bathrooms nearly as long as bathrooms have existed. Nowadays, we’d hope for a roll-in shower instead of that bathtub, but otherwise, these plans, published in The Polio Chronicle in 1931, would serve pretty well today.

Another document details plans for putting “the handicapped” to work to alleviate the labor shortages of World War II. The Physically Handicapped on the Industrial Home Front, published in Crippled Child Magazine (June 1942) details plans for testing and training people who had been marginalized when employment was scarce or when employers had an ample pool of ‘able-bodied’ workers to draw from.

Living independently is the subject of the 1970 article Bachelor Girls, written by a young woman whose brush with polio left her unable to care for herself. The article’s tone is straightforward, cheerful and practical, and addresses essentially the same issues people who must live with attendants face today. Though the article was published a scant 40 years ago, some of the suggestions are surprisingly different from solutions available today. One thing has certainly not changed; options, then as now, were expensive. The magazine in this case was the Rehabilitation Gazette — whose title alone indicates a shift in consciousness, at least where vocabulary is concerned.

Much of the language used in the collection is jarring to the modern eye or ear. The museum has a sensible note regarding language in historical use on its Library Orientation page.

Photo of the Brace Maker (1932) (uppermost, left) also from the Disability History Museum