There are many ways to tell the story of who we are and where we have been.  The children of Riviera Middle School see a different world than does the academic historian or the collaborative artist.  This multimedia exhibit weaves together many voices to tell the story of persons with disabilities in America over the last one hundred years.

The Exhibit

The exhibit includes a collaborative mural, created by artist Xavier Cortada working with families and children with disabilities.  There is a timeline, written by historians Jeff Brosco and Chris Murchison, and illustrated by dozens of school children with the help of Lourdes Bravo and other teachers.  There are more pieces of art, a slide show, some video by Robert Gonzalez and Louis Lowy, and a web site by Christina Rojas.  Educators Paula Lalinde and Martha Sheldon helped with the content, design, and organization of each portion of the exhibit.  The children and families who collaborated with us—their words and ideas are the heart of the exhibit and shape the future of the timeline.

The Story

What the children and families taught us

To have a disability is to be different.  There’s something about your body that makes you different from most other people.  Maybe your eyes don’t see or your ears don’t hear.  Maybe your legs don’t move you through space or your brain doesn’t get you through a book.  That’s it.   After that, it’s all the same.  You have the same emotions, struggles, longing, fears, joys, and pains as anyone else.  “Who am I?” anyone might ask.  “Why am I like this?”

But you live in the world, so it gets complicated.  The differences in your body have names: visual impairment (eyes), sensorineural hearing loss (ears), spastic diplegia (legs), neurocognitive disability (brain).  And other names: blind, deaf, lame, retarded.  And still others: courageous, pitiful, broken, crippled.

The names come from the outside, from people who aren’t different in the same way that you are.  Some people are trying to help, some are scared, others are mean or sad.  These emotions, and these names people use, are important in your life.  Doctors and teachers, friends and families, peers and policy-makers use language to understand who you are, how they feel, what they should do.  Do you have a disease to be cured, a learning deficit to be met, a condition to be pitied or endured or ridiculed?  Are you a burden to society or a gift from God?

Here’s the irony.  There is very little that pulls you together with people with differences other than yours.   Sure there’s some connections, sometimes.  But in general you are you and nobody else, and it is only the outsiders who see you as the same, as “the disabled.”  Physical disabilities are different from cognitive ones.  Medical needs aren’t educational needs aren’t emotional needs.  You may even feel lucky that you don’t have some other kid’s difference—that would be so much worse you think, so you use the same language that an outsider would use, on “one of your own.”  So where’s the catch?  Here’s the only thing that pulls you together with all the kids who have a difference: you don’t want to be different, and they don’t either.

What history can teach families and their children

You are right.  Being different is hard.  But here’s some news, which is probably not news to you.   There is joy and power in being different.  Look around you and see how your predecessors have changed the world.  See the curb cuts and wheelchair ramps, see the medical buildings and laboratories, see the teachers and doctors and therapists who trained specifically to help you.  See yourself—in school, in parks, at the beach.  Not forgotten in an institution or hidden away at home.  Do you know who did this?  You did.   Families and persons with disabilities, some famous and some anonymous, changed our world over the past 100 years.

History teaches us that you can make a difference.  You are surrounded by people of good will, who though they may be sad or scared, want to do what’s right.  Look how much you have taught us, our society.  We—all of us, you too—have laws to protect civil rights and educational needs.  We have 50 federal and state programs designed to make the world a better fit, and we spend over 40 billion dollars a year in research, education, home support, and health care so that things keep getting better.  You want to know what there was 100 years ago?  Only hospitals and institutional homes—places where no one wanted to go.

And there’s more.  Your predecessors—we call them disability rights activists—have taught us that there is no shame or honor in disability.  And many of us, including you, have learned that we all need to celebrate our differences, cry when we are in pain, laugh when we are happy, feel pride in our accomplishments, and recognize the endless variety of the human experience.

LINK TO ORIGINAL PROJECT WEBPAGES: http://web.archive.org/web/20030424185205/http://pediatrics.med.miami.edu/historydisabilityart/index.htm

The History | Disability | Art project began in 2001 and the History of Disabilities mural was unveiled in 2003 during the VSA arts for Florida Annual Conference at Parrot Jungle Island Rooftop Lounge.