Reprint from the National Council on Public History
It is time for a Smithsonian National Museum of Disability History and Culture. Considering the fact that one in four Americans, or approximately 61 million people, is disabled, a national museum would acknowledge disability as an essential component of American life. This is the largest minority group in the United States. The disability community consists of people with a wide variety of disabilities, and it intersects with all ethnic identities, class backgrounds, genders and sexual orientations, and cultural beliefs, sharing strong ties with the other Smithsonian national museums. The museum would highlight disability’s contemporary resonance in public policy and legislative and judicial decision-making, as well as providing a site for historical and educational opportunities. It would recognize the disability community for its often-forgotten or unrecognized contributions to U.S. history and culture, celebrating our accomplishments and acknowledging our struggles. A primary example of this combination of struggles and accomplishments is the Capitol Crawl of 1990, when approximately 60 disability activists out of several hundred left their mobility devices behind and crawled up the Capitol stairs to demonstrate the need for the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) to address inaccessible buildings. Congress passed the ADA later that year.
Ten years ago, an ad hoc group organized by the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance (PMPA) inspired a vision and initiated planning activities for a National Museum of Disability History and Culture that included discussions with members of Congress and staff at the Smithsonian. A national steering group for the establishment of the museum is in the process of being proposed by PMPA and will consist of people with disabilities, representatives of national disability organizations, public historians, and individuals who are dedicated to the study and preservation of disability history and culture. We hope this group will serve as a permanent resource advising the president, Congress, and the community as the plans for a national museum move forward.
African Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, and women have successfully advocated for the creation of Smithsonian museums specifically devoted to their history, experiences and culture. Current Smithsonian museums periodically address disability and examine the cultural, legal, political, and social contributions of disability to American history, such as in the online exhibition EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America. Other federal institutions such as the National Park Service have developed online disability history resources. Funders are paying more attention to accessibility, too. We would like to build on the existing work of academic and public historians, as well as advocates, to raise disability history’s profile and make it more accessible for all through the creation of a new museum. The Disability Rights Movement that emerged in the past half-century represents both resistance and triumph over a legacy of social devaluation and exclusion. It is time for the disability community and individuals within that community to be recognized through a museum dedicated to their history.
In 2017 the Smithsonian adopted a five-year strategic plan. One of the goals in that plan is to “…tell the complete American story, in person and online, in all our museums, exhibits, and programs-and across all of them-with a focus on all Americans.” A Smithsonian Museum of Disability History and Culture would encourage a broader understanding of how the disability community plays a significant role in the story of America. Three years ago, five high school students from Massachusetts exemplified this sentiment with an op-ed piece published in New York Times arguing for a National Museum of Disability. In that article they wrote that such a museum “…would bring all aspects of disability history together in one place and tell a cohesive story using artifacts, firsthand accounts, media and more. It would allow visitors to interact with the story and better understand what it means to be part of the disability community.” Those students had it right.
It is time we recognize disability history and culture through a dedicated national museum, use the past to understand the present, and imagine a more dignified and humane American future. It is time for a national museum of disability history and culture. To join us and receive more information about the dream, contact the PMPA.
~Henry J. Kennedy is a member of the PMPA National Museum Planning Committee. He is a New York lawyer and a parent of a woman with an Intellectual/Developmental Disability (I/DD). He has most recently been involved with the development of the “Willowbrook Mile,” a project that remembers and honors the history of the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, NY.
~Nathan R. Stenberg is a first-generation disabled artist, personal trainer, and scholar from rural Minnesota. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Theatre Arts & Dance, and a Leadership in Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Fellow at the University of Minnesota. Nathan serves on the board of directors of, and as the chair of the research committee for, the PMPA.