THE MUSEUM OF disABILITY HISTORY
Disability, regardless of the form it takes, can be isolating. Innumerable barriers to access exist for all disabilities, not least of which come from our fellow members of society. Whether the hot new restaurant has a ramp, sufficient lighting to read the menu, and restrooms on the same floor as the dining room becomes somewhat moot if we don't have anyone to dine with. Sometimes, it can feel as though a barrier stands between the disabled community and the rest of the world. Much of that barrier is created by the bodies and minds we inhabit, and what their difference communicates without our consent.
The UK-based charity Sense and the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness recently reported that more than half of disabled people regularly experience loneliness. These statistics are surprising, probably, only to those who have never lived with a disability. Let's face it: disability is exhausting. Finding accessible locations and events, seeking out accommodations that aren't automatically provided, and explaining to friends and loved ones why you need them all present barriers to access that often feel insurmountable. It's no wonder we become isolated when so many hurdles exist just to participating in a world not made for us. And for those who do not live with disabilities, a chasm stands between us, as well.
A new report released by Sense revealed that disabled people in the UK bear the brunt of negative perceptions, with a full quarter of responders admitting they avoided conversations with disabled people. An additional 20% said they felt uncomfortable talking to disabled people, which likely stems from a lack of exposure and insufficient education. And is it any wonder people see disability and fear the "other?" On the whole, disabled people lack representation in society. We're largely not present in mainstream media, severely underrepresented in government, and take a back seat to many discussions, even about policies that disproportionately affect us. But one museum – the only one of its kind in the United States – exists to help change that.
The Museum of disABILITY History in Buffalo, NY seeks to help alleviate some of that discomfort through education, awareness and a platform for dialogue. Started in 1998 as a project of People Inc., a nonprofit human services agency, the museum "is dedicated to advancing the understanding, acceptance and independence of people with disabilities," according to its mission statement. With exhibits, events and programs focusing on disability etiquette, media and history, it provides a doorway for disabled and non-disabled people to learn about each other in an open, accessible environment.
"I think that the museum provides a platform for dialog and discovery of an often-overlooked segment of society," said curator Douglas Platt. "By chronicling some of the events and occurrences in disability history, people with and without disabling conditions can begin to find an understanding of the place of the individual in the greater society that has not always embraced ‘diversity.'"
Associate Vice President David Mack-Hardiman noted that the museum also provides a place for people to express themselves and demonstrate their integrality to society. "The museum seeks to bring humanity to forefront through exhibits, films, panel discussions, publications and community dialogues," he explained.
Today more than ever, that open dialogue feels necessary. History is written by the victors, and the disabled population so rarely "wins," and therefore often struggles in relative obscurity. The less the able-bodied world knows about the rest of us, the less "important" our struggles seem. If they don't already have disabled friends and family members, many able-bodied people likely don't understand their own biases. At least, that is, not until they join our ranks themselves. "If we look at disability as difference, we can start to realize that like other marginalized populations, people who have disabilities are seeking inclusion, access and a chance to be ‘under the big tent' that makes up that greater society," Platt explained. For its contributions to the visibility of disabled people, the MODH recently earned awards from the National Federation of Just Communities and the Museum Association of New York State.
The museum, located in a big, beautifully accessible building, has a wealth of resources available for those who live nearby. Local colleges and schools bring students there, to learn more about disabled peoples' history, contributions, and hopefully, dispel some of the stigma that creates the barriers we rail against. For the rest of us, a virtual museum provides a wealth of resources. You can get as lost in this museum as any other, wandering its e-halls and reading placards that lead one to the next through a web of experiences, of lives lived, of history never taught in the classrooms we rely on to give us a sense of our world. The MODH fills in the gaps in our incomplete educations many of us never realized we had, and once learned, we'll never forget again.
We need spaces like the museum, all of us. Whether we live with disabilities now or serve as allies to those who do, all of us need context. We need history. And we need a place where we feel welcomed and included, not just as tokens or concessions, but essential members of a society that couldn't exist without us. Too often, disabled people are shoved aside, sometimes literally. Our books may appear on "special interest" shelves, our art in one-off exhibits, our perspectives marginalized and discarded. Initiatives like the MODH give me hope for a better future. For a day when a researcher asks whether a person feels uncomfortable relating to disabled people and their question is met with stunned silence. "What a question," I imagine this future citizen saying, blinking with astonishment. "Why would I?"