EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America

EverybodyPosterEnglish052113.inddThis week as we celebrate America’s independence, we also turn an eye to her long history. But as everyone knows, history isn’t about dates and documents and wars. It’s about people and how their lives impacted the generations that followed them. The Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History is dedicated to documenting how individuals and groups of people have affected the world in which we live in today. And their newest exhibition highlights the history of America’s largest minority: people living with disabilities.

EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America is a new online exhibition from the National Museum of American History that looks at history from the perspective of someone living with a disability. The exhibit highlights ideas about disability throughout American history, adaptive tools and technology, accessible design, civil rights, eugenics and more. All sections feature some very cool artifacts, ranging from old photographs to adaptive tools to political campaign posters and everything in between.

Here are just a few interesting (and disturbing) facts we learned from the exhibit:

  • The 19th century was an incredibly difficult time for Americans living with disabilities. The rise of social Darwinism (“survival of the fittest” mentality) led to less and less acceptance and understanding of people living with disabilities, and even unbelievable cruelty, such as forced sterilization.
  • It was also during the 19th century that some US cities banned certain people from being on the streets. These laws were directed specifically at people living with disabilities. Here is an example from San Francisco in 1867:
    •  “Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares or public places in the City of County of San Francisco, shall not therein or thereon expose himself or herself to public view.”
  • The 20th century saw a shift in ideas. World War II had a huge impact on living with disabilities. With the troops away, many jobs on the home front were now open to Americans living with disabilities. Additionally, the war created a new generation of people with disabilities, and inspired incredible advances in adaptive technology.
  • The Disability Rights Movement in the 1970s was unlike any other civil rights movement in the country – before social change could occur, basic architectural changes had to first be made. Learn more.

To view the exhibit, visit everybody.si.edu.

After you’ve taken a look, we want to hear from you. What did you find interesting? Upsetting? Inspiring?

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