A Journey Through Time


by Christopher Shaw, Student, Fitchburg State University

In recent years, disability in its entirety has slowly begun to bubble to the surface of the public consciousness, but what this exposure often lacks is context. Bringing the concepts and issues of disability to the forefront is not quite enough for a deep understanding. The exhibition Disability Heritage: From the Medieval  to the Local, a project led by Dr. Kisha G. Tracy, is an extensive and growing catalog of artifacts relating to disability, with each entry containing a detailed description of an artifact. The exhibition’s stated goal is to connect the past to the present, starting all the way back from medieval times, to underscore disability’s presence throughout history. This is a goal it delivers on quite well due to its local connections to Fitchburg and extensive historical references, which grants its viewers a dense collection of quality writings that are able to provide context to both disabled and non-disabled people alike.

Foremost in the exhibit are the thematic sections, each of which contain an essential building block of the exhibit’s main ideas. For example, in the section “In the Heart of Fitchburg,” there is a collection of artifacts tied to the local history of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, such as the news article “FSC grad honored by Perkins School for the Blind.” The entry on this particular piece talks about Fitchburg State (then) College graduate Timothy Vernon, a student honored by Perkins for his essay in a writing contest. This article talks about braille and its history in a comprehensive manner, drawing yet another line from the past to the present. Included is a history of braille, as well as information about the inventor Louis Braille.

Much of what the exhibition’s catalog has to offer includes entries like these. They are very specific, tangible pieces of history that connect to multiple ideas and bolster the reader’s understanding of disability and its connection to that specific thematic section. The news article’s entry ties a local student to blindness and its history, bridging that gap with a contextualized timeline.

Another example where this throughline is emphasized is a catalog entry describing a piece of a manuscript from the thirteenth century which shows a man using a guide dog. The rest of the article talks about other examples of guide dogs being represented in medieval times, using these references to compare them to more recent time periods, like World War I and the present day. This entry is placed under the “Technologies and Treatments” thematic section, which is yet another display of the variety of historical connections made in the exhibition as a whole.

Not only is there a vast quantity of entries that help the reader understand the timeline and evolution of multiple sectors of disability, but the quality and depth is generally very high. The number of artifacts from which to draw history would not matter if a connection or elaboration could not be made in them in meaningful and complex ways. 

I can confidently say that the main strength of Disability Heritage: From the Medieval to the Local is contextualizing disability through the use of history. The diversity of time periods covered allows for an understandable throughline, which uses disability in many ways at many points in history to frame where we are now. Each catalog entry offers a perspective on its article that allows the reader to think about these connections beyond just a surface level and, hopefully, helps them see disability in all of its dimensions. Although the exhibition has noticeable peaks and valleys at some points, they are not ever too distracting or disappointing. The standard of quality alone ensures that all who wish to take a look through it may walk away enriched, curious, and left with a broadened perspective on disability.