In the mid-1800’s so-called “Ugly Laws” were enacted in many cities across the United States. For example, in 1867 San Francisco city leaders declared, “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.”
Just as United States (and Canadian) history is riddled with racist actions taken by community leaders, likewise many community leaders enacted ableist laws like this one, discriminating against people who live with disabilities. Yet, for the most part ableism has flown under the radar in history books and museums until a new exhibit opened at the venerable Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
The exhibit examines more than disability prejudice and includes artifacts that reveal America’s complex relationship with people who have lived with disabilities. “Many stories and events related to people with disabilities never make it into the history books or shared public memories,” said Katherine Ott, curator of medical science at the National Museum of American History. “Knowing this history deepens the understanding of the American experience and reveals how complicated history is.”
Publicity for the exhibit notes, "Such things as surfaced roads, escalators and elevators, the Internet, as well as the closing of asylums and even the availability of inexpensive eye-glasses and a host of medical treatments have created circumstances that enabled political and social change."
If you are in Washington in the coming months, "EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America" looks like a fascinating exhibit. If not, you can take a virtual tour on the Smithsonian Institution website. Brief essays examine a variety of topics including the slippery ways that "normal" has been used about people over the years, changing definitions of beauty, and the fact that the inability to read or write was not always considered to be disabling. The website even includes posters for download, a plus for teachers.
I wonder why history writers and museum curators have largely ignored the lives of people with disabilities. What do you think?