© Museum of disABILITY History/
A three-wheel chair sits in front of the exhibition “The Path to the Institution,” which takes a look at the development of institutional care, at Buffalo’s Museum of disABILITY History.
How much do you know about the history of disability?
If the answer is “not a lot,” you’re not alone. The voices and experiences of disabled people are often nowhere to be found in history books and even museums.
But at Buffalo’s Museum of disABILITY History, they take center stage.
The museum’s mission is to advance the understanding, acceptance and independence of people with disabilities. It does so by laying out a history of both pain and triumph.
Only with advances in medicine have the reasons behind congenital and acquired disabilities become clear. Throughout history, however, disabled people have been marginalized. They’ve faced mockery, fear, social isolation, and sometimes incarceration or institutionalization.
The museum tells those people’s stories and illustrates how a burgeoning movement advocated for disability rights. Exhibits deal with everything from adaptive equipment to the almshouses where people were once forced to live. By showing where we’ve been, the museum makes a powerful case for what a more accepting and supportive society could look like.
And the museum’s extensive website includes a blog and a virtual museum. There, you’ll meet little-remembered historical figures such as Thomas Wiggins, an African American autistic savant who was known as “Blind Tom.”
Born into slavery, he was hired out to play music and recite poetry across the antebellum United States, captivating audiences and becoming one of the most popular performers of the 1850s. You’ll also meet pioneering and inspirational figures in pop culture, law and medicine.
Seeing how disabilities were portrayed in the past can be uncomfortable. For example, the “Little Moron” books, which became popular in the 1940s at the expense of those with intellectual disabilities, are not just disturbing. They’re cruel.
Even today, disabled people “have generally poorer health, lower education achievements, fewer economic opportunities and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities,” according to the World Health Organization. A more equitable future for people living with disabilities begins with looking at where we’ve been — and where we are today.
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