A group of students from Gann Academy in Waltham, Massachusetts, spent the school year collecting documents and artifacts to create a museum exhibit on the history of disability in America.
They also investigated the checkered history of a local institution that experimented on disabled boys in the 1940s, in an effort to make the case that a national museum should be dedicated to the issue of disability.
One part of the exhibit showcases what at first glance might just look like an old-fashioned pair of headphones. But it’s actually an early 20th century precursor of a hearing aid: the Mears earphone.
“This is the first hearing aid almost that we see in history, which is really cool,” student Sarah Levin says. “It’s the first time that we see people who are hard of hearing or deaf trying to be accommodated to or have their needs met.”
Elsewhere in the exhibit is archival tape from the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon. Lewis raised more than $2 billion for the Muscular Dystrophy Association over his four-plus decades as the telethon’s host. But some of the kids he featured on the program grew up to resent the way Lewis pitied their condition.
There’s a 1973 MDA poster of Lewis standing behind an empty wheelchair. The ominous caption above it reads, “Last year, thousands of little kids were sent to the chair.”
“We talked a lot about victimizing people with disabilities and the effect that that has on society,” student Elianna Gerut says.
“Everything that [Lewis] did wasn’t bad. He raised a lot of money. But I think the reason that I like this exhibit so much is because there’s this back and forth.”
The students asked similar questions about the nearby Fernald School, once known as a leading home for children with disabilities — until researchers experimented on young boys by feeding them radioactive Quaker oats.
“Not for any reason other than to track where the oats were going through their body, to prove that Quaker oats were good for you,” Gerut says. “They were trying to track the nutrients.”
Gann Academy history teacher Alex Green says adults should follow the teenagers’ lead and create a national museum for disability history.
“If this is the work that 35 design and history students can do in one year, collectively as a society, we ought to have a place for this history writ large,” Green says. “And that seems to me a settled fact of the exhibit.”
Digital producer Jackson Mitchell contributed to this story.