How would one make understandable the challenges my sister faces in holding a cup or tying her shoes with only two working fingers? How would my brother communicate the significance of being unable to speak until he was six when he remains largely non-verbal? In what ways are these and other experiences defined as disabilities, and to what extent does this define the person?
Increasingly, the scholarly and historical understanding of disability has evolved from a “medical model” to reflect “what many disabled persons have long known: there are many different ways to think about disability…”  As Susan Burch, Michael Rembis, and Katherine Ott discussed in Disability Histories, this scholarship has encouraged people to discuss disability in meaningful ways by embracing the challenge of seeing disability as culturally- and socially-relative, addressing how disability history has been recorded, and exploring museums’ role in interpreting disability. Given the field’s stated focus on accessibility, museums should be at the forefront of rethinking how disability is interpreted and exploring how disability has historically been viewed.
As Burch and Rembis discussed, disability was historically understood as a “loss or deficit that was fixed, natural, timeless, and rooted in [the] individual bodies” of helpless victims and social outcasts.  What this focus obscured was how these ways of thinking about disability were in social creations. As views and understandings of what was “normal” evolved over time, so too did the socially constructed meanings of physical and mental attributes that, as aberrations from what was “normal,” were deemed disabilities. In other words, “disability is relational, created through relationships among people, with things, to power and resources,” meaning “no one is disabled for all things; disability depends on the person, environment, and activity.”  The challenge for interpreting disability history is to promote this relational perspective and move past the tendency to see disability as definitive of people’s entire experience. This is something museums, with their larger interpretive perspective, could have a key role in.
However, such efforts must grapple with the legacy of silence and degradation that surrounds disability histories. This includes the hidden histories of disability issues such as institutional abuses and the intentional social engineering of eugenics, how many historical accounts fail to capture the essence of disability (from how bodies move to how aneurotypical minds think), and how museums have long been silent in this area.  Recognizing the void in which interpreting disability histories stand, museums must embrace approaches that speak to and bridge this gap in understanding the experience of disability.
A key mode of interpretation for museums in exploring disability’s multifacetedness is through analyzing objects.  From objects and technologies to aid in “activities of daily living” to “everyday” objects that can either create impediments or be used without difficulty, material culture significantly informs “disabled existences.” Analyzing material culture illuminates how disability is fluid and situational, and how objects communicate social perceptions of “normal” and “abnormal.”  It is essential that museums navigate the interplay between these different types of objects, moving past labels towards seeing objects and accounts related to disability not as “additive components” tacked on to a larger interpretation, but as essential to understanding their interpretation within a larger, more complete historical context.
Reflecting the growth of disability scholarship, many museums have looked to collect and curate objects and histories through a more nuanced lens. In 2013, the National Museum of American History opened EveryBody, an artifact-driven history exploring how “normal” and “disability” change over time, while also showing how “valuing disability as a part of one’s core identity is a principle of social empowerment” through disability pride objects.  And in 2014, Mat Fraser (an actor with Phocomelia, a limb malformation) exhibited Cabinet of Curiosities, a critical analysis of museum’s silence in interpreting disability histories. Fraser used “disability artifacts” from museum collections in a provocative performance exploring how medicine shaped views of disability and difference by removing individual voices, voices Fraser argued museums could restore.  “A medicalized image of a disabled person,” he said, “can be revolutionarily expanded (with) a social perspective.” 
Video excerpt of Mat Fraser’s presentation Cabinet of Curiosities. The title is a deliberate play on the historical identity of museums as “cabinets of curiosities” full of odd and unusual items to experience, something that mirrored the experience of people with disabilities who were depicted as odd and unusual in “freak shows” of the nineteenth century. (Courtesy of the University of Leicester, School of Museum Studies)
Fraser’s talk underscored that interpreting disability should not be seen by museums as an accommodation, but an opportunity to expand their focus. To achieve this breadth, museums must explore new and innovative approaches. Artifacts are only the start of what could include oral histories for non-verbal communities and further dialogue on interpreting seen and unseen disabilities. Only in making this attempt can individuals and institutions move away from the perception of disability as a fixed deficiency that defines the individual. To the extent that “we study gender, race, and sexuality not as add-ons but as constituents of what it means to be human,” so too should we interpret disability.
Everyone deserves to experience their own history on their own terms. This is not a radical proposition—our semester has been a testament to the idea that identity, in all forms, is worth exploring.
Click here for link to full video of Mat Fraser’s Cabinet of Curiosities presentation.
 Susan Burch and Michael Rembis, “Re-Membering the Past: Reflections on Disability Histories,” in Disability Histories, ed. Susan Burch and Michael Rembis (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 1.
 Ibid, 3.
 Katherine Ott, “Disability Things: Material Culture and American Disability History,” in Disability Histories, ed. Susan Burch and Michael Rembis (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 119, 121.
 Ralph Brave and Kathryn Sylva, “Exhibiting Eugenics: Response and Resistance to a Hidden History,” The Public Historian 29.3 (2007): 35-37 http://www.jstor.org (accessed April 30, 2016); Ott, 120-121.
 Ott, 119.
 Ibid, 125-133.
 Smithsonian Institution, “EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America,” National Museum of American History, https://everybody.si.edu/ (accessed May 3, 2016).
 The Community Consortium Inc. “The Willard Suitcases,” The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, http://www.suitcaseexhibit.org/index.php?section=about&subsection=suitcases (accessed May 2, 2016).
 Lyn Gardner, “Mat Fraser’s museum piece challenges us to bring disability out of the box,” The Guardian, January 22, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2014/jan/22/disability-mat-fraser-museum-cabinet-curiosities-theatre (accessed May 2, 2016).
 University of Leicester, “Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability was kept in a box,” School of Museum Studies, http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/rcmg/projects/cabinet-of-curiosities (accessed May 2, 2016).
Featured Image: Gas-powered arms for very young children affected by the drug Thalidomide, from the collections of the Science Museum in London. (Courtesy of Richard Sandell, The Guardian)