A Struggle for a Curbless World

Three handmade keys, created from a tobacco tin, a nail and wire, show the desperation of individuals trying to escape from the Winnebago, Wis., Mental Health Institute. Enlarged copies of protest buttons on the floor read “Not Dead Yet”, “Cripple Power” and “Independence for 36 Million.”

In time for the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act on July 26, the small collection of objects at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History may be the first to commemorate the movement. “I don’t know of any place in the country or world that has assembled an exhibit focusing on the disability movement as a coherent entity,” said Jonathan Young, the White House liaison to the disabled community.

Curator Katherine Ott said one of the exhibit’s goals is to encourage visitors to see the disability rights movement as a civil rights struggle. “The issues are the same whether you’re African American, Latino or a woman: autonomy, self-definition, being allowed to vote. It plays out differently if you’re disabled–you may have the right but you can’t get into the voting booth,” she said.

“I can’t even get to the back of the bus,” reads a poster attached to a wheelchair in one of the photos. In another, showing a neatly mowed suburban street, a sign mandates, “No wheelchairs beyond this point.” Personal objects include a letter from a school nurse encouraging a parents’ group to help a disabled child, and a T-shirt that says, “Same struggle, different difference.”

Finding material for the exhibit was harder than usual, Ott noted, in part because little has been collected or written about the relatively young movement. She started her research by e-mailing a questionnaire to people and organizations involved in disability rights. “Getting people to trust us was hard,” Ott said, “because we’re the Smithsonian, we’re the government. The government is the adversary a lot of the time.”

The exhibit focuses on life for people with disabilities before the ADA. The disability rights movement came after the 1960s, and often used methods developed during the struggle for civil rights. “In the 1940s and ’50s parents organized to get their kids [with disabilities] educated, and once those kids grew up they got mouthy. That’s when civil rights really began. They had an education and they knew they had a right,” said Ott.

One of her respondents, disability rights leader Justin Dart, contributed his trademark cowboy hat and boots, as well as the pen President Bush used to sign the ADA into law. Visitors “will receive the strong message that people with disabilities are full citizens of the United States . . . because they are in the world’s greatest history museum with artifacts of some of the greatest history makers in the world,” Dart said. He called the exhibit a “landmark in the fulfillment of the American dream.”

Although Dart is one of the movement’s most prominent leaders, he said in a phone interview that he wants visitors to understand the contributions of “nameless thousands.” “The illusion that somebody like Abraham Lincoln all by himself freed the slaves, and Martin Luther King all by himself made us equal, that illusion is a very damaging illusion . . . because it discourages people who consider themselves to be ordinary from acting to further democracy,” he said. “People think . . . ‘I don’t have any powers so I may as well just watch television.’ That’s not true.”

He said he was surprised when he first heard about the exhibit. “This is astounding. We didn’t go and picket the museum and say [why] isn’t our stuff in there. This is democracy at its best.”

Democracy at its best also includes corporate funding; the Smithsonian partnered with NCR, a technology corporation, to develop Web kiosks containing all the information in the exhibit in a form accessible to people with disabilities. Steve Jacobs of NCR said the system doesn’t “demand that the person using it has any specific abilities; it adapts itself to that person.” Blind people, for example, can touch the large buttons and the kiosk will give them verbal directions. According to Jacobs, this technology, which is not yet available in stores, will work toward closing the “digital divide” by making Web pages available to people who don’t speak English or are illiterate, or to people while they are carrying babies, driving or lacking their glasses. He said in 10 years, businesses won’t be able to compete without accessible technology.

The exhibit also strives to be accessible to young children and their parents, who may be uncomfortable around people with disabilities. A doorknob hanger reads, “Hey Kids, Open the Door! . . . Having a disability doesn’t make you sick. It makes you creative! I’m not an alien. . . . I just do things differently. . . . You tap your foot when you’re nervous, I rock and wave my hands.”

Ott expects more donations after people see the show. She has already received e-mails from people with disabilities telling her about objects they own that are related to the movement and said she hopes to build a larger exhibit in the next few years.

“There will be a lot more people pulling out their chests, looking under pillows and in sock drawers for history,” said Mark Johnson, advocacy coordinator for the Shepherd Center, one of the groups that helped Ott put the collection together.

The Disability Rights Movement, at the National Museum of American History, is open until July 6, 2001. For more information, and to see objects from the exhibit, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu/disabilityrights.