I recently happened upon a delightful surprise. While planning for a family vacation, I learned of an interesting tourist attraction: The Museum of disABILITY History in Buffalo, New York.
“The museum is the result of the desire of Dr. James M. Boles,” said 51-year-old Doug Platt, museum curator, in a telephone interview. “Boles was teaching an introduction to developmental disabilities course at University of Buffalo and wanted to direct his students to a website for a comprehensive look at how people with disabilities have been treated throughout the ages. There wasn’t one. That’s how the museum was born, in 1998.”
Boles also was president/CEO of People Inc., a New York nonprofit providing employment, residential, recreation, community outreach, and healthcare programs for people with disabilities. The Museum of disABILITY became a People Inc. project.
Said Platt, “I’m museum curator and my job is the safekeeping, arrangement, and description of artifacts I have helped collect. We used items we collected to create displays and exhibits that resulted in the way our gallery and website appear now.”
The museum has a website and a brick-and-mortar location in Buffalo. Visitors to the latter include elementary and high school groups, college social work and physical therapy students, and University of Buffalo medical students learning about disability history.
“We want to give people an idea of the role people with disabilities have always played in history,” said Platt, also a 26-year People Inc. employee. The museum’s online version has “wings” dedicated to people with disabilities and events in media, medicine, society, education, and advocacy. One recent exhibit was called Eugenics in America: Perfecting the Population. In part, it explained the history of the 1927 Buck vs. Bell Supreme Court ruling allowing forced sterilization of “unfit” Americans well into the 1960s.
“We have an Invacar, too” said Platt, referring to the three-wheeled vehicle manufactured for disabled British veterans from 1948-77. The museum also features well-known Americans such as President Roosevelt, Temple Grandin, John Elder Robison, and Stevie Wonder.
Platt said, “The museum wants to include a wide range of disabilities. People with disabilities have been marginalized and part of our vision is to create a society accepting of people with disabilities. By our presenting to the public the role people with disabilities have played, perhaps that will better help society understand and accept them.”