The second collection of documents I curated this summer focus on the topic of disabilities in medical history. This is topic that is rich for exploration and requires careful contextualization. The words used to describe physical, mental, and emotional impairments have, over time, come to be used as degrading and dehumanizing terms, yet many such (including “cripple,” “feeble-minded,” “moron,” and the like) were commonly used in medical literature of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. My goal with these collections, therefore, was to provide ample specific context and to demonstrate how understandings of physical, mental, and developmental disabilities have changed over time.
两个collection areas are organized around what historians of disabilities have called the medical and social models of disability: the former sees conditions labeled as disabling as based in an abnormal process that must be corrected, while the latter considers disabilities to be the problem of the social or built environment (to cite a common example: using a wheelchair isn’t inherently a problem, until one encounters stairs). The sources contained in the medical model collections (which I termed interventions/care), were chosen because they each give a perspective on how the medical community at a specific point in time approached care for people with disabilities. This 1867 text,Infantile Paralysis and its Attendant Deformitiesby Charles F. Taylor, details not only the design of various apparatuses to treat children with lingering paralysis, but expounds on the author’s theory as to why the disease developed (nervously-exhausted parents were to blame!).
Likewise, the social model collection (policy/society) highlights items from MHL’s collections that show how individuals with disabilities coped with the challenges of their day, or how society has tried to accommodate people with disabilities. One particularly rich set of sources was produced by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Labor, which in 1944 set out to survey the prevalence and types of assistance available to citizens with disabilities (in all likelihood, for the purpose of having a list of what soldiers returning from World War II might expect). The “Hearings on Aids to the Physically Handicapped” ran to eight sessions and produced 1,138 total pages of testimony pertaining to services available to individuals with disabilities (and often on what was NOT available). The first volume in the series can be locatedhere.
Rather than organize around specific types of disability, I chose these classifications in order to highlight commonalities across those categories. However, I thought a sort of “case-study” approach would also be useful, as it could provide a through-line narrative. For this, I chose the topic of veterans with disabilities. This allowed me to take advantage of collections digitized by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery Office of Medical History Collection. One common theme was that of rehabilitation, especially in the wake of World War I. This magazine,Carry On: A Magazine on the Reconstruction of Crippled Soldiers and Sailors,是由美国红十字会作为resource for individuals and relief societies interested in veterans with disabilities. It’s oft-repeated message was “not charity, but a chance.”
Creating this collection necessarily turned up sources that may be unsettling or disturbing to some, and where necessary I have included notes to that effect. One tendency in historical medical literature that discusses patients with disabilities is the use of images of patients (clothed and unclothed, face obscured or not) to illustrate examples. While the case can be made that these have been valuable teaching tools for medical students in the past, the question of whether the patient consented to the use of their image is not always answered. Unfortunately, it’s often safe to say that consent was not considered in the era prior to the 1970s.
After engaging with the materials curated for this exhibit, viewers should be able to:
- Explain how the experience of disabilities has changed over time.
- Explain what sorts of conditions have been labeled as disabilities and why, given changing historical conditions.
- Describe how medical understandings of disability have changed over time, especially in light of new technologies or understandings of the body.
- Give examples of some of the assistive programs and technologies that have been established to help those with physical and mental impairments.
- Understand the legal and ethical issues that surround disability research and treatment.