The Museum of disABILITY
History: Telling a Special Story

by Douglas A. PLATT

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What is and how did the Museum of disABILITY History get started?
The Museum of disABILITY History started as an idea. In 1998, People Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer James M. Boles, Ed.D. was teaching a class at the University of Buffalo and was looking for a place to direct his students to do research. Information did exist, but it was scarce and scattered. Dr. Boles envisioned a repository for information, artifacts and items relating to the history of individuals with intellectual disabilities. The Museum would tell the story of the lives, triumphs and struggles of people with disabilities and society's reactions. It is a project of People Inc. and chartered by the New York State Board of Regents.

What is the significance of the name: disABILITY Museum?
The significance of the name "Museum of disABILITY History" is that it places the emphasis on the ABILITY of the individual, rather than any particular diagnosis. The labeling of people with disabilities throughout history has created barriers between individuals with disabilities and the inclusion that is their birth right.

Why is it important to have a disABILITY Museum?
It is said that the winners write history. What if you were never considered a "winner," but rather a "burden, a menace or an embarrassment?" The history of individuals with intellectual disabilities is a story that is now beginning to be told in different terms.

Attitudes about disability have varied over time. The intellectually disabled individual has played many roles in society: jester, confidant, guinea pig, secluded inmate, eternal child and good neighbor. Perhaps at some time, individuals with disabilities will be seen as simply "people." Through the use of artifacts, photographs and written material that span the centuries, the Museum staff will explore the various attitudes, beliefs and portrayals of disability that have helped shape the current culture.

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The Traveling Exhibit of People Inc.'s Museum of disABILITY History is updated each year focusing on an aspect of intellectual disability history. It is available to be featured at libraries, colleges, schools, offices, community groups and conferences.

How many visitors do you get at your site?
The Museum exists as three components: The Museum display, Traveling Exhibit and the website. The Museum display has recently opened to the public and is available for scheduled tours. Over 150,000 people have seen the Traveling Exhibit since its inception in 1999. The Museum website had over 90,000 visitors in 2003 and almost 130,000 in 2004.

What is the traveling exhibit? Where are some of the places the traveling exhibit has been?
The Traveling Exhibit is updated each year focusing on an aspect of intellectual disability history. The current exhibit explores "Eugenics in America: Perfecting the Population." This exhibit traces the development of the Eugenics movement from its roots in genetics and heredity to the practices that lead to the segregation, sterilization and xenophobic attitudes towards individuals with disabilities. The Traveling Exhibit has been on display in Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Albany, Liverpool and Rochester. The venues have included: Developmental Disabilities Awareness Day, colleges and universities, the Statewide Social Work Symposium, the Statewide Board of Visitors Convention and the NYSRA 25th Anniversary Gala.

The goal of the Traveling exhibit is to increase the visibility of the Museum, its website and to change the public perceptions of disability history. By engaging partners such as the Advocacy Center, the Rochester Museum and Science Center and other human service and cultural institutions we hope to forge ties that will enable the Museum to expand its collection, impact and its reach into the community.

How is the Museum of disABILITY History funded?
The Museum is chiefly funded by its parent company People Inc. The Museum recently secured grants from the B. Thomas Golisano Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The $10,000 grant from the B. Thomas Golisano Foundation will further enhance the Museum of disABILITY History website to become viewer interactive with multi-media and virtual tour capacity. The $5,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities is for preservation assistance for the holdings of the museum. The grant was awarded to provide a skilled consultant from the Northeast Document Conservation Center to assess the environmental conditions in which the museum collection is stored and displayed.

What are the overall goals of the Museum of disABILITY History project?
The Museum of disABILITY History is dedicated to the collection, preservation and display of artifacts pertaining to the history of people with developmental disabilities. The goal of this community outreach project is to create a permanent space for exhibits and artifacts pertaining to individuals with developmental disabilities, as well as celebrate disability culture and raise community awareness. The Museum offers educational exhibits, tours and activities that expand community awareness.

For more information on the Museum of disABILITY History, to schedule a tour or the traveling exhibit, call Douglas A. Platt at (716) 817-7477, e-mail:, or visit the website

Douglas A. Platt is People Inc.'s project coordinator for the Museum of disABILITY History and the Kids on the Block program.

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