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EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America

Fighting for fairness is a part of the American story. “For many persons with a disability, the greatest struggle is to have others accept them as human,” read just a few of the words interspersed with images and recordings in EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America, an online exhibition launched by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History seven years ago this month. That truth appears next to a stake used as a grave marker in 1882 that Katherine Ott, project director and lead curator, can’t forget. “The stark, rusting grave marker from the Georgia ‘Lunatic Asylum’ at Milledgeville cuts me emotionally because it documents the brutality of segregation and the inhumanity of institutionalization,” Ott says. “It is especially powerful at this moment because there are more people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities locked up than ever before in prisons, and a significant number of those killed and injured by police are people with disabilities.” Sometimes who is silenced can shout loudest about society. Sometimes what goes unnoticed by others is actually what to pay the most attention to. Images of more recent artifacts include adapted flatware from the 1970s, used cane tips from the 1990s, and a purple T-shirt that says, “I Am NOT a Case, and I Don’t Need to Be Managed!” from 2002. The exhibition is organized by themes. The grave marker from Milledgeville appears on a page titled “Identity,” which is grouped under the “Place” category that’s divided, chillingly, into “Outside” and “Inside.” Inside, of course, means in an institution. Some subcategories are named after telling slogans: from “Help the Handicapped” to “Crip is Hip.” On a page titled “Civil Rights, Disability Rights,” which discusses efforts by disabled people to participate fully in society, a well-known poem by the late writer and activist Laura Hershey proclaims: “You get proud by practicing.” The exhibition is available at https://everybody.si.edu. Free. —Diana Michele Yap