Disability Heritage: from medieval to the local

School of Arts and Sciences, Fitchburg State University (Massachusetts)

Created by the Fitchburg State University community, the “Disability Heritage: From the Medieval to the Local” exhibition combines local disability heritage artifacts and stories with medieval artifacts and stories in order to highlight the lineage of disability and its presence throughout history.

This exhibition has provided a case study for examining the significance of and the challenges with communicating disability heritage. Disability is rarely included in cultural heritage spaces in systematic ways. In working with Fitchburg Historical Society and the university, artifacts and stories with connections to disability were buried in the archives, their existence let alone their context having to be rediscovered. The same is more than true of premodern disability. Once collected, certain conclusions started to emerge. This heritage reveals an emphasis on individuals, on the universality of disability. Simultaneously, it is complex, revealing positive and negative experiences of people with disabilities and the attitudes of the abled. This study aids in correcting preconceived notions and challenges the singular narrative of what is “normal,” “progress.”

The purpose of the exhibition is to engage viewers in conversations about the heritage of disability and to explore how more distant heritage connects with local heritage. But, more importantly, the goal is to help make visible a heritage that is all too often marginalized. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines “historical trauma” as that which “refers to the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, as a result of group traumatic experiences, that is transmitted across generations within a community.” They identify it as “often associated with racial and ethnic population groups…who have suffered major intergenerational losses and assaults on their culture and well-being.” People with disabilities are such a community with their heritage forgotten, either consciously or unconsciously, or sensationalized. The study and sharing of disability heritage allow for a restoration of historical well-being.