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Published: Sunday, 10/5/2008

University of Toledo opens exhibit on northwest Ohio people with disabilities

Helen Keller, center, photographed with children during
her visit to the Feilbach School for Crippled Children in Toledo in 1925. Helen Keller, center, photographed with children during her visit to the Feilbach School for Crippled Children in Toledo in 1925.

History is dynamic, changing as the history-keepers change. The spin may alter and the scope expand to incorporate people and events that were marginalized at one time.

An emerging story is at the core of a new exhibit about people who live with disabilities.

From Institutions to Independence: A History of People with Disabilities in Northwest Ohio, is in the Canaday Gallery through Feb. 27 in the Carlson Library at the University of Toledo.

'Their history must finally become a part of our collective memory. It would be difficult to imagine our nation's history told today without a discussion of the role of African-Americans, women, Native Americans, or immigrants. For the same reason, we need to know about the historical experience of disabled people,' writes Barbara Floyd, director of the Canaday Center, in the 133-page catalog that accompanies this interesting show-and-tell.

Off the library's elevator at the fifth floor, pass through a set of doors and turn left to the gallery. Oversized black-and-white photographs dating to the early 20th century show a group of children at the Feilbach School, propped up with wooden crutches and showing off the gift stockings they received for Christmas. Others depict youngsters in a large music classroom, a polio-stricken girl re-learning to walk, and a blind man who sold newspapers downtown, gripping the harness on his assistance dog. Another set of images highlights the civil rights movement by people with disabilities beginning in 1985.

Display cases and pedestals hold heavy wooden wheelchairs and walkers, images of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose inability to walk was hidden from the American people (only two of 35,000 presidential photographs show him in his wheelchair), and a signed copy of Helen Keller's autobiography, dated Nov. 17, 1920, in her squared-off handwriting.

There are also less appealing artifacts, such as leather wrist restraints and a machine that delivered electroconvulsive shock therapy to people with mental and emotional illnesses. There are books from the early 20th century on eugenics, which was a twisted outgrowth of Charles Darwin's concept of survival of the fittest that morphed into weeding out the weakest.

'The system of human mating must be perfected and the status of social institutions must be raised in order that the individuals produced in each generation may attain an additional increment of the qualities which will, in the end, produce the Super Race,' wrote Scott Nearing in his 1912 eugenics book The Super Race. In 1915, he was hired as a dean at UT.

Drawing inspiration from the American eugenics movement was Adolf Hitler. By the 1920s, Nazi Germany was persecuting disabled and other 'inferior' people, and by 1945, an estimated 400,000 had been sterilized and another 200,000 murdered.

Following World War II, a push was made to hire veterans injured in World War II, as had occurred after World War I and the Civil War.

In the early 1950s, Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck and singer-actress Dale Evans published thoughtful books about their daughters, who were born with disabilities. Until then, people with disabilities were often institutionalized or remained at home, sometimes hidden by their families.

Technology introduced new medicines and surgeries, changing disabilities. The scourge of polio, epidemic in the United States in 1916, 1935, 1946, and 1952, was wiped out with vaccines in the 1950s. Polio still exists in some countries.

As the civil rights movement of the 1960s grew, so did the rights movement among parents of people with disabilities, eventually resulting in laws that accommodated disabled children in public schools, created independent living and job opportunities, and required buildings and sidewalks to be accessible for people with various types of mobility.

Showing the turn of events close to home are materials about the Ability Center of Greater Toledo's 1989 lawsuit against UT, which had designed student housing that was only partially barrier-free. Shortly before the case was to be heard in U.S. District Court, UT agreed to make the housing fully accessible.

'There's a perception that people with disabilities don't contribute to society, but we don't teach that in schools,' says Dan Wilkins, noting physicist Stephen Hawking, actor Christopher Reeves, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Beethoven, and artists Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet, and Lautrec. 'By not teaching that, we perpetuate that.'

The word 'disabled' was once spurned in the community of people with disabilities, but it's being reclaimed with pride, as sometimes happens with language that describes marginalized groups, says Mr. Wilkins, manager of public relations at the Ability Center.

'A disability can be a gift given a person by the perspective of living life in a different way,' says Mr. Wilkins, who has used a wheelchair since he was in a car accident in 1980.

And the scope of disabilities continues changing. Notes the exhibit's catalog: 'Ironically, as polio, HIV/AIDS, and many mental illnesses move out of public consciousness as disabilities because of advances in medical science, we have, on the other hand, a rapidly aging population with mobility limitations that will add hundreds of thousands to our definition of disabled.''

In the last decade, universities began creating disability studies programs. UT's was undertaken seven years ago with a $1.9 million gift from the Ability Center. Since then, the Canaday Center, the special-collections department of UT's library, has gathered historical information about disabilities.

'We hope to attract more records,' which are valuable to people doing research, says Ms. Floyd, adding that only a handful of American archives include disability history.

In addition to attracting local records, Canaday has received other collections, such as the papers of the late Hugh Gregory Gallagher, a founder of the disability rights movement and author of FDR's Splendid Deception.

For this exhibit, the Canaday staff borrowed materials from about a dozen groups, including the Center for Archival Collections at Bowling Green State University, Northcoast Behavioral Health Care, the Lucas County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, Goodwill Industries of Northwest Ohio, the Museum of disABILITY History, and others.

'From Institutions to Independence: A History of People with Disabilities in Northwest Ohio' can be seen through Feb. 2. in the Canaday Gallery on the fifth floor of the Carlson Library on the University of Toledo's main campus. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Evening and weekend tours can be arranged. Information: 419-530-4480.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.

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