Part 2 | Representation of Persons with Disabilities in your Collection

by John Rae | December 2009

Editor’s Note: In his article series for the OHS Bulletin, John Rae examines a variety of access issues for heritage organizations and institutions. In the following article, he discusses the value of expanding your horizons by taking multi-sensory tours, not just for persons who are blind, but for all patrons. John, an OHS member and volunteer, has recently been appointed to the newly created Inclusive Design Advisory Council to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

This article first appeared in the December 2009 OHS Bulletin (Issue 172).

Persons who live with disabilities have a history, though it is not nearly as well documented as it should be! We have been present in all societies from time in memoriam. Today, we are found among all cultural backgrounds, in all communities, and comprise approximately one-seventh of Canadians.

What material exists in your collection that pertains to the lives and history of people with disabilities in your community? At a time when museums are increasingly concerned to present “hidden histories,” why is disability rarely, if ever, included or discussed?

A project in the United Kingdom, titled Rethinking Disability Representation in Museums and Galleries, identified a wealth of material in museum and art gallery collections throughout the UK. However, much of this was in storage, and not on display. Where objects and artworks were displayed, their connection with disability was rarely made explicit or interpreted to visitors.

Representations of people with disabilities in displays and exhibitions, when presented, most often conformed to prevailing stereotypes found in other media – in film, literature, television and charity advertising. These stereotypes include people with disabilities as freaks, as passive and dependent recipients of charity, Biblical miracle cures; and as heroes who somehow transcend their disability by overcoming the challenges presented by their impairments. Depictions of people with disabilities in everyday life were practically non-existent.

Interviews conducted with curators helped to explain this situation. Many were open to including representations of people with disabilities in exhibitions and displays but were concerned how this might be achieved. Many expressed a fear of causing offence, of making mistakes.

Should we tell (and if so, how should we tell?) the difficult stories surrounding disability history – of asylums, industrial and war injury, holocaust, freak-show history, and the personal experiences of pain, discrimination and marginalization? In what circumstances should an object’s link with disability be made explicit where it might not otherwise be obvious to the audience? How can the material in collections be presented in ways which incorporate perspectives and insights from disabled people themselves?

While I believe in providing more information to the visitor than some may prefer to do, involving individuals with various disabilities from your community can offer their perspectives and help answer these and other questions you may have. Any group is more likely to patronize your facility when they see their group represented in exhibitions and the content of programs such as lectures and discussions.

Making your facility more welcoming to persons with disabilities does involve offering opportunities to touch items on display, an attitude of acceptance, and it should also include representations of the history and lives of persons with various disabilities.

The social model of disability is challenging the negative ways in which persons with disabilities have traditionally been depicted by highlighting the environmental, attitudinal and social barriers that people with various disabilities face in our struggles for equality and basic human rights.

Museums, which depict the past, can play an important role in portraying the role of persons with disabilities throughout history, and our search to achieve the elusive motto of the International Year of the Disabled Person back in 1981, “full participation and equality.”

Note: We would like to hear your experiences, and John may highlight some of them in future articles. Please share your ideas and suggestions by e-mailing