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Story 04: Where Did the Ideas Come From?

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Creating an Exhibit about Disabilities

Written by Janet Kamien

When the Massachusetts class action suit for "mainstreaming" special education kids into regular classrooms resulted in legislation in 1972 (Chapter 766), I, an administrator with only a little exhibit development experience and absolutely no fund—raising experience, broached the idea of an exhibit about special needs.

This is what I knew from my previous life as a state school employee at the Fernald School: people parted like the Red Sea when I took developmentally delayed residents out for an ice cream in town. Although I totally supported the legislation's mandate to provide the "least restrictive environment" for kids with special needs, my own experience told me that parents and even teachers of "regular ed" students would, at least at first, have the same instincts. They would be wary, if not downright afraid and they would pass these reactions to their kids. The "special ed" students wouldn't have a chance. At best, other kids would follow the age—old dictums of don't stare and don't ask, leaving the "special" kids more isolated than ever. At worst, they would make them miserable.

Because the museum had done multiple exhibits about hospitals, dentists and doctors before and after I was on staff, I knew that kids were endlessly interested in the gear and in messing about in pretend environments that in the real world might have scared them to death. From working with interpretive staff in the special education program at the museum, I knew that young people had questions about disabilities they'd never felt comfortable asking and that it was mainly fear of the unknown and fear of making a mistake that got in the way of their relationships with students with disabilities.

My simple idea was to create an exhibit in which the facts, the gear and to a certain extent, the experience of disability were put into the hands of the visitors. To my surprise, the museum immediately found a potential funding source, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Aid to Special Exhibitions, and told me to write a proposal. The further surprises were that the proposal was funded, (I had never written one before) and the exhibit was successful (though it won a Bad Taste Award from Boston Magazine that year.) Even more surprises were to come later.

The exhibit was called What if You Couldn't...? An Exhibit about Special Needs. It opened in 1974 and ran for about six months. The exhibit took the Chapter 766 legislation's disability categories and provided two to three opportunities for learning and experimentation for each one. These included:

  • a way to experience the disability in some fashion;
  • a way to experience tools or skills that remediated the effects of the disability; and
  • text, written at two levels—one for kids, a basic explanation of the disability, and a second for adults that made some suggestions about courtesy and communication with people who have a disability.

Briefly, the exhibit touched upon visual impairments, hearing impairments, emotional problems, learning disabilities, developmental issues and physical disabilities. Visitors could handle a prosthetic arm or a leg brace, try out a wheelchair, use a Brailler, look through some lenses to see what 20/200 or 20/400 vision is like, learn some sign language or try some figure/foreground puzzles. Kids could learn that there is an American Sign Language sign for every letter in the alphabet, or that disabilities aren't "catching." Parents could read that most people who are deaf can lip read, so look directly at the person you are addressing, speak clearly and don't bother yelling, or that most people who use wheelchairs prefer to be addressed directly as well and basically treated just as you would treat anyone else.

Elaine observed that some adult museum visitors were copying down the label text. (This was easy to notice since she sat at one of the windows in our office that looked directly onto the exhibit.) When she remarked that I might take advantage of this, I was ready to go off to the Xerox machine. What she really had in mind was the publication of a book. Again, a bundle of inexperience, I got the Writer's Guide out of the library and was hugely embarrassed when three of the four publishers I had written to called the following week, one chiding me for having approached their competitors as well. We chose Scribner's, and for the next six months I wrote the book on museum time, paid for by the advance. What If You Couldn't...? A Book about Special Needs was published in 1979. For the next five years or so, the museum split the revenues from sales with me. (There were two printings of about 5,000 each. It's now long out of print.)

Then we became truly opportunistic. The development office wrote grants to travel the exhibit, to create a multi—media loan kit for schools and to expand and improve our Special Education School Group effort to include accredited teacher training. We continually built on our success and I continually built on my passion. Twenty years of cloned exhibits in other museums followed.

Of course, passion is not enough to produce good exhibits and programs. There is research, advice, try—out, design, management and a whole host of other needs. But it's an essential ingredient. This was recognized at The Children's Museum. The rest could be taught or supplied. Passion couldn't. So when it was expressed, the institution had the wisdom to attempt to support it. Sometimes, over years.

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