A Nice Surprise


by Victoria Kiolbasa, Student, Fitchburg State University

I believe that the "Disability Heritage: From the Medieval to the Local" exhibition is a must-visit exhibition. Although the virtual gallery was difficult to use at first, I enjoyed going through the entire exhibition, learning both local and global history of disability. The broad nature of the exhibition allows everyone who visits to learn something new, either about the people and city of Fitchburg, or just plain history of people with disabilities. The use of more recent history in the exhibition is also a good reference to remind viewers that the long, rich history of people with disabilities is not very well-known, and many times is not very well documented. Yet this exhibition both reminds us that disabilities have been around for a long time and that accessibility has always been the best way of inclusion. 

The names of past Fitchburg residence with disabilities are memorable, as their stories come with the weight of a whole city. From Harry Doehla to Reverend John Payson. Both of these men had disabilities that changed the course of their lives in Fitchburg, both with very different endings to them. I had never heard of either of them, but Harry Doehla, a man diagnosed with “rheumatic fever and arthritis,” caught my eye. It had been assumed that he would be unable to make money for his family, however, he ended up helping other people with disabilities after he made a successful greeting card corporation, Greeting Cards Incorporated. Described as “forward-thinking” for his hiring other people with disabilities, it is seen as Doehla being able to see “the need to counter such discrimination” as he had faced. His understanding of the experiences of his workers led him to have an inclusive and accommodating workplace. His corporation was leagues ahead of everyone else in the 1950s for these practices, and as a man from Fitchburg, his experience is part of the city. Harry Doehla is just one of the people pictured and discussed in the Disability Heritage exhibition; the other stories are even more engaging, showing the reality of people with disabilities and the history that coincides with it. If you heed my suggestion, please investigate Reverend John Payson, as his story is a tragic history of disability without recourses. 

Although I enjoyed looking into the Fitchburg’s past, I also thought that the entire exhibition was useful for the widely unknown history of disability. After just a few seconds looking at the Technologies and Treatments section of the exhibition, I was shocked at how much of the history I never knew. When looking at the Wax Tablets, the comment of “Quintilianus [noticing] the difficulty of using wax tablets with poor vision” was a nice surprise. I had never known accommodations, such as using parchment for those with low vision, were used that far back into history, and after hearing from a few of my peers, neither had they. It was interesting to hear of accommodations made in the year 95, as it is still difficult for modern day people with disabilities to have proper accommodations, including larger text for those with low vision. This kind of historical knowledge is so often forgotten in discussions of modern accommodations, over a thousand years ago accommodations for disabilities were included in academics in such a casual way, that it could easily be overlooked. This kind of deeper analysis of historical actions is something the Disability Heritage exhibition does exceedingly well. 

The undiscussed history of people with disabilities is ever evolving, yet the exhibition combines both the past and the present. The combination of present day and historical guide dogs is a useful example of this. While service dogs are still used today, the exhibition shows that there is a long history of their use. Now commonly known, the exhibition shows them as having been used since the thirteenth century. It expresses that “some of the current accommodations for those with disabilities were also used throughout history,” something that is a nice comfort to their usefulness. The “unnoticed” history of these service animals is also aided by the mention of their use for veterans after WWI, and how they were presented as, again, a helpful aid for those with visual disabilities. Learning the history of the resource many people today use is both heavily educational, and interesting, as the effectiveness of service animals continues. 

The exhibition is great, and visiting the virtual gallery is useful, but the history and the topics within it are what really shine. While the "Disability Heritage: From the Medieval to the Local" exhibition may be difficult to operate, the knowledge within is well worth your time. Even though I knew nothing about disability history before entering, I have gained a great respect for the complex past of disability and a new interest in the accommodations of both the past and present.