Subversive Access: Disability History Goes Public in the United States

By Catherine Kudlick
(Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability, San Francisco State University)

In summer 2015, the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University mounted an interactive, multi-media exhibit “Patient No More: People with Disabilities Securing Civil Rights". We faced several daunting challenges that ultimately made our installation like no other. In fact, we have been sharing our process with museum professionals and continue to learn as we go.

First, the story itself: on April 5, 1977, more than 100 Americans with and without disabilities began a twenty-six day occupation of San Francisco’s Federal Building to insist on getting civil rights. Four years earlier, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 made it illegal for any facilities or programs funded by the national government to discriminate against disabled people. One official’s signature stood in the way of the law taking effect. After four years of waiting, a coalition made up people with different disabilities launched protests across the country. San Francisco’s occupation proved the most involved and successful. In fact, thanks to support from local community groups like the Black Panther Party, Glide Memorial Church, the Gay Men’s Butterfly Brigade, as well as local and national politicians, it remains the longest unarmed take-over of a federal building in US history. The occupation itself and subsequent victory gave birth to a national disability rights movement and helped pave the way for passing Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) thirteen years later in 1990.


T4 and public disability history in Sweden

By Matilda Svensson Chowdhury

The boy in the black and white photograph is smiling widely at the camera. He is well-groomed and well-dressed in a white shirt and a dark jacket. His eyes are glistening. This photograph is the first picture in a Swedish exhibition on Aktion T4. Across the boy's chest there’s a turquoise text: “Aktion T4 – on the view of human beings in Nazi Germany”. The boy in the picture is named Robert and a little further in the exhibition, we learn how his mother cunningly was able to could save him from becoming a victim of T4.

Picture of Robert, exhibition on Aktion T4
Picture of Robert, exhibition on Aktion T4

The Living History Forum (The LHF) is a Swedish public authority [myndighet] which, on behalf of the Swedish government, shall “promote work to enhance democracy, tolerance and human rights with special focus on the Holocaust.” It might seem a bit strange to have a public authority working with these issues, but this is the way it has been in Sweden for the last almost 20 years. A large part of the work the LHF is doing is directed at school children and thus there is almost always an educational framing to the produced material, for example in the form of teachers’ guides. One of the first information materials, which was developed already in 1998, was the book “Tell Ye Your Children...”. This book was however intended primarily for an adult audience and came about as a part of the first information campaign, Living History. To date, more than 1.5 million free copies have been distributed in Sweden.