Part 6: Disability Cultural Heritage

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • articulate why disability heritage needs to be emphasized.
  • discuss issues related to disability heritage.
  • communicate reviews through writing.
  • identify topics by locating areas in existing writing that could be expanded.

Why Do We Need to Emphasize Disability Cultural Heritage?

In conducting research in 2017-2018 for an article on how trauma is represented in museums, I attempted to contact over a hundred small cultural heritage institutions in the New England area of the United States, asking questions about any exhibitions or artifacts related to trauma and/or disability in general. The results were quite mixed and generally fell into one of three categories: 1) assertions that they did not have any information on the topic, 2) expressions of interest in the topic for future focus, or 3) descriptions of individual artifacts in their collections, generally ones that had not been previously emphasized as disability heritage. What this survey revealed is that, despite the number of individuals with connections to disability, the heritage of people with disabilities has often been overlooked. There are several reasons for this oversight, but a primary one is that the subject of disability can make some people uneasy:

“Erin McGough, the Executive Director of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society […] has seen the impact of [disability heritage] exhibits. Many visitors find personal connections and express support that disability is being addressed. Visitors talk about how it reminds them of family members, that the ideas in the exhibit “sound familiar to them.” Yet, the reaction is not straightforward. McGough notes that the exit surveys are usually divided on this part of the exhibit because the “conversation is difficult and uncomfortable” (personal communication, December 7, 2017).” (Tracy 52)

In addition to the unacceptable yet typical discomfort with human difference, perhaps one reason for this apprehension is a difficulty accepting that disability can happen to any individual at any time. A person may experience disability at any point in their lives. On one hand, some have trouble coming to terms with that concept, but, on the other, it emphasizes just how natural a part of the human experience disability is and how much people with disabilities deserve to have their heritage represented.

“As human beings, we go about our lives searching for representation of ourselves, our culture, and our identity in the world around us. People with mental and physical disabilities rarely find a true representation of themselves in history, literature, and media. In fact, many people with disabilities feel that the existing depictions are meant only to inspire able-bodied people. This distorted representation caters to those who see disability as something to look at and can often dehumanize the life of a person with a disability. As a person with mental disabilities, I always felt a sense of belonging when I read stories written by people like me who lived with a disability. Historically, I knew that people had survived and lived full lives with their disabilities, and that helped me to understand that I could too. Now, as an educator, I emphasize the importance of including literature written by people with disabilities. When students feel represented in the stories they read, they feel connected to a piece of their cultural heritage, and they may feel less alone in their individual journeys. Disability cultural heritage offers a real and personal view of what it means to live life with a disability, and these perspectives must be represented just as much as those of able-bodied individuals.” – Autumn Battista, English Teacher, Fitchburg High School, and Alum, Fitchburg State University

Issues in Disability Cultural Heritage

“Nothing About Us Without Us”

As is the case with marginalized heritage in general, too often it is identified, interpreted, and exhibited without input from the very group of people it is intended to represent. There have been strides to make changes, however. For instance, the 2022-2023 exhibition “Nothing About Us Without Us,” a phrase coined and used by disability activists, in the People’s History Museum in Manchester, United Kingdom, states clearly that it was “co-curated by four community curators who identify as disabled people and guided by a steering group who have been working with the museum since 2018.” It is no surprise then that it was the “most accessible exhibition that has ever taken place at PHM [… with a] range of accessible formats […] to enable visitors to engage with the exhibition in different ways.” When people with disabilities are included in the representation of their heritage, increases in visibility and in accessibility tend to follow.

Making the Invisible Visible

One issue in disability cultural heritage is how to represent invisible or intangible disabilities in visible, tangible spaces. With visible disabilities, quite often, there are physical remnants: wheelchairs, eyeglasses, crutches, prosthetics, etc. With invisible disabilities, this kind of evidence or artifact is not as straightforward. What artifact might we have, for instance, for a person with a mental disability?

This difficulty does not mean it is impossible, however. We just might have to be more creative. For some with mental health issues, journals are a form of therapy. Those journals, if permission is given to make them public, might be artifacts, albeit ones that would need interpretation. For others, they express their experiences through art (Watlington). That art could be disability heritage.

We can imagine other ways in which mental disability might be depicted. Healing or soothing is another method of depicting mental disability. For instance, in the fourteenth-century Zibaldone da Canal by a Venetian merchant, rosemary is presented as having a number of uses, particularly for warding off nightmares and for aiding in the “weakness from rage” (Doston 149-151). Herbals through time, medieval and otherwise, provide insight into how certain symptoms of mental disability were treated and managed. We could, therefore, include manuscripts collected in an exhibit, but with a focus on the mental rather than the physical.

There has been a great deal of speculation about the manifestations of historical PTSD. The fourteenth-century Book of Chivalry by Geoffroi de Charny discusses the psychological consequences of battle, how to manage the act of killing, and the stress factors involved in being a soldier. There are also examples of legal pardons granted to returning soldiers for offenses involving erratic behavior. Henry VIII is a famous case of potential traumatic brain injury. Researchers are considering whether or not he received such injury from repeated falls during ceremonial tournaments and if there was resultant PTSD. The question is how to represent such experiences in a museum. Certainly we have skulls from a wide range of historical battles that demonstrate blows to the head and subsequent surgeries. These could be physical illustrations of battle-induced post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Human Bodies

We do need to remember the issues with examining and displaying human remains. Skeletons from any time period were once people and should be treated with respect. Amanda Rossillo warns, “we study ancient skeletons and build careers on debating their significance while ironically forgetting about the lives that these remnants represent—ancestor or not,” admonishing everyone to “remember those facets of lives lost to history—the parts of humanity that will be forever beyond the grasp of science.” This issue is compounded when we consider the bodies of marginalized people. There are museum collections of remains of enslaved Black people, which were sometimes used at the time of their collection for unsanctioned studies (studies that were often in support of eugenics and other racist ideas). Delande Justinvil and Chip Colwell write, “As archaeologists, we understand the impulse to gather human remains to tell our human story. Osteobiographies, life histories constructed from skeletal remains, can offer insights into nutritional, migratory, pathological, and even political-economic conditions of past populations. However, scholars and activists across the U.S. are now seeking to recognize and redress the deep history of violence against Black bodies. Museums and society are finally confronting how the desires of science have at times eclipsed the demands of human rights.” So much can be learned from the study of human remains, but we need to respect both the science and the individuals and consider sacrificing potential discoveries if necessary.

See a discussion of “enfreakment of disability and difference in cultures of display” in disability historian Aparna Nair’s article “The Mütter and More: Why We Need to be Critical of Medical Museums as Spaces for Disability Histories.”

Scattered, Misinterpreted, or Misarchived Collections

Another issue is, because disability has traditionally had such a complicated and controversial reception, disability heritage artifacts are frequently scattered and have not been curated with disability deliberately in mind. Thus, when looking for disability heritage, searches can be quite difficult. These artifacts may not have previously been interpreted or archived through a disability lens.

“Disability impacts people of all races, religions, genders, sexualities, socioeconomic statuses, and identity categories. Disability is one of the most overlooked aspects of diversity and has the unique distinction of being one of the only identity categories that individuals can enter at any time throughout their lives. Even if you or someone in your orbit does not identify as disabled, current data tells us that one in four individuals will become disabled (whether permanently or temporarily) at some point in their lives. Disabled people make up over 15% of the global population and account for over 1 billion people worldwide. Because of the prevalence of disability, and the likelihood that individuals will be impacted – either directly or indirectly – by disability at some point in their existence, there is a critical need for college students to understand disability history, rights, and cultural heritage, as disability history and culture is interwoven into the very fabric of American society. So many of the technologies, laws, and strategies that we take for granted everyday were influenced by the creativity, knowledge, advocacy, and legislation first made possible by activists of the ongoing fight for disability rights, equal access, and inclusion.” – Dr. Rachel Graddy, Associate Director of Student Accessibility Services, Worcester State University

Activity 3.6

Write: Review

About This Type of Writing

Developing evaluation skills can help you in everyday life. Just about anything you buy or use will require you to evaluate a range of choices based on criteria that are important to you. For example, writing a good paper or making a good presentation necessitates locating and evaluating sources.You also may be asked to evaluate the effectiveness of your courses at the end of the semester. Or you may be asked to evaluate the work of your peers to help them revise their compositions. In the professional world, you may be asked to evaluate solutions to problems, employees you supervise, and in some cases, even yourself. Evaluating effectively makes you not only a better consumer but also a better student, employee, and possible supervisor.

When you review or evaluate something, the end result is your judgment about it. Should your readers see the film? Is the food and service good at the restaurant? Should you use this source in your essay? Does your employee deserve a raise? Making a clear judgment about the subject of your evaluation provides guidance for the actions that audience members may take on the basis of the information you provide.

Ultimately, your judgment is your opinion. For example, it is expected that some people will love Avengers: Endgame (2019) and others will not. In fact, because some people may disagree with you, reviews provide a perfect opportunity to use evidence to defend your judgment. You are probably familiar with some ways in which reviewers present their judgments about their subjects. Reviews on Facebook, Google, and Yelp have a star rating system (the more stars the better). The film review site Rotten Tomatoes shows the percentage of reviewers that recommend the film. The review site The AV Club rates films and TV episodes by using an A-to-F grading scale.

While it is important to present your overall judgment in a review, a simple “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” is not enough to help your audience make their own judgments. It is also important to explain why you arrived at the judgment you did. Think about some of the titles of reviews you have seen online. One might simply read “DIRTY!” about an experience staying in a hotel. Other reviews might present a thesis, or debatable main idea, as a title, such as Slate culture critic Willa Paskin’s “In Its Immensely Satisfying Season Finale, Game of Thrones Became the Show It Had Always Tried Not to Be.” In both examples, the title provides an overall reason for the author’s judgment.

Although a simple rating might be effective when reviewing a business, reviews of creative works such as films, TV shows, visual arts, and books are more complex. Critics —professional writers who review creative works—like Willa Paskin try to review their subjects and at the same time analyze their subjects’ cultural significance. In addition to providing an overall judgment, critics guide audiences on how to view and understand a work within a larger cultural context. Critics provide this guidance by answering questions such as these:

  • In what genre would I place this work? Why?
  • What has this work contributed to its genre that other works have not?
  • How does the creator (or creators) of this work show they understand the culture (audience) that will view the work?
  • How does this work reflect the time in which it was created?

People look to critics not only to judge the overall quality of a work but also to gain insights about it.

Reviews vary in style and content according to the subject, the writer, and the medium. The following are characteristics most frequently found in reviews:

  • Focused subject: The subject of the review is specific and focuses on one item or idea. For example, a review of all Marvel Cinematic Universe movies could not be contained in the scope of a single essay or published review not only because of length but also because of the differences among them. Choosing one specific item to review—a single film or single topic across films, for instance—will allow you to provide a thorough evaluation of the subject.
  • Judgment or evaluation: Reviewers need to deliver a clear judgment or evaluation to share with readers their thoughts on the subject and why they would or would not recommend it. An evaluation can be direct and explicit, or it can be indirect and subtle.
  • Specific evidence: All reviews need specific evidence to support the evaluation. Typically, this evidence comes in the form of quotations and vivid descriptions from the primary source, or subject of the review. Reviewers often use secondary sources—works about the primary source— to support their claims or provide context.
  • Context: Reviewers provide context, such as relevant historical or cultural background, current events, or short biographical sketches, that help readers understand both the primary source and the review.
  • Tone: Writers of effective reviews tend to maintain a professional, unbiased tone—attitude toward the subject. Although many reviewers try to avoid sarcasm and dismissiveness, you will find these elements present in professional reviews, especially those in which critics pan the primary source.

These are some key terms to know and use when writing a review:

  • Analysis: detailed examination of the parts of a whole or of the whole itself.
  • Connotation: implied feelings or thoughts associated with a word. Connotations can be positive or negative. Reviewers often use words with strong positive or negative connotations that support their praise or criticism. For example, a writer may refer to a small space positively as “cozy” instead of negatively as “cramped.”
  • Criteria: standards by which something is judged. Reviewers generally make their evaluation criteria clear by listing and explaining what they are basing their review on. Each type of primary source has its set of standards, some or all of which reviewers address.
  • Critics: professional reviewer who typically publishes reviews in well-known publications.
  • Denotation: the literal or dictionary definition of a word.
  • Evaluation: judgment based on analysis.
  • Fandom: community of admirers who follow their favorite works and discuss them online as a group.
  • Genre: broad category of artistic compositions that share similar characteristics such as form, subject matter, or style. For example, horror, suspense, and drama are common film and literary genres. Hip hop and reggae are common music genres.
  • Medium: way in which a work is created or delivered (DVD, streaming, book, vinyl, etc.). Works can appear in more than one medium.
  • Mode: sensory method through which a person interacts with a work. Modes include linguistic, visual, audio, spatial, and gestural.
  • Primary Sources: in the context of reviewing, the original work or item being reviewed, whether a film, book, performance, business, or product. In the context of research, primary sources are items of firsthand, or original, evidence, such as interviews, court records, diaries, letters, surveys, or photographs.
  • Recap: summary of an individual episode of a television series.
  • Review: genre that evaluates performances, exhibitions, works of art (books, movies, visual arts), services, and products
  • Secondary source: source that contains the analysis or synthesis of someone else, such as opinion pieces, newspaper and magazine articles, and academic journal articles.
  • Subgenre: category within a genre. For example, subgenres of drama include various types of drama: courtroom drama, historical/costume drama, and family drama.

All reviewers and readers alike rely on evidence to support an evaluation. When you review a primary source, the evidence you use depends on the subject of your evaluation, your audience, and how your audience will use your evaluation. You will need to determine the criteria on which to base your evaluation. In some cases, you will also need to consider the genre and subgenre of your subject to determine evaluation criteria. In your review, you will need to clarify your evaluation criteria and the way in which specific evidence related to those criteria have led you to your judgment.

​​Summary of Writing Task

  • Choose one of these exhibitions.
  • Explore the exhibition.
  • Think about what you find interesting or useful, especially in light of previous readings and what you have learned up to this point.
  • Write a review of the exhibition.

Questions to consider:

  • Why should an audience explore the exhibition?
  • Is the exhibition useful for the disability community?
  • What will people learn?
  • Do you have any criticisms or suggestions?

Text Attributions

This section contains material taken from “Chapter 7: Evaluation or Review: Would You Recommend It?” from Writing Guide with Handbook by Senior Contributing Authors Michelle Bachelor Robinson, Maria Jerskey, and Toby Fulwiler, with other contributing authors and is used under a CC BY 4.0 license.

Write: Selecting a Topic

About This Type of Writing

One aspect of writing is learning to select a topic. A good exercise to practice this element of writing is to locate an aspect of a piece of writing on which you want to expand. For example, if you are reading a newspaper article, it is likely that the author has not covered every topic in depth. There will be topics simply referenced or parts of the main topic that need more information or discussion. These are opportunities for topics for your own writing.

​​Summary of Writing Task

  • Re-explore the artifacts in the Cultural Heritage through Image exhibition Disability Heritage: From the Medieval to the Local
  • Select an artifact description that has some element on which you would like to expand by creating a footnote (so, for example, if an artifact description mentions a person but does not elaborate on them, you could add a footnote discussing that person and their connections to disability).
  • Write an extended footnote on the topic you have selected that would add an interesting aspect to the original piece of writing.


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