11th grade history US history students at Gann Academy spent an entire year interviewing people, collecting artifacts, conducting oral histories and research, and creating a museum exhibit on disability history. This disability history exhibit is on display this summer in Waltham, Massachusetts at the Charles River Museum of Industry titled, “Division, Unity, Hardship, and Progress: A Disability History of the United States.” Special thanks to Alex Green and Yoni Kadden of Gann Academy for reaching out to me!
I got a chance to interview students Tal Chafetz and Anna Caine about their experiences with this project. Please note: some responses have been condensed for space.
For more about the exhibit: http://waltham.wickedlocal.com/news/20180612/update-disability-exhibit-now-on-view-at-charles-river-museum
Tell me a little about yourself!
Tal: Hello, my name is Tal Chafetz and I am 17 years old. I am a junior at Gann Academy in Waltham Massachusetts and I have been working on the creation of the Disability Museum this past year. My interests include singing, dancing, and working with children. I currently spend my free time working at a preschool and volunteering at a program calling “Gateways; access to Jewish education” on Sundays which helps children with special needs learn about their Jewish identities.
Anna: My name is Anna Caine, I’m 16, and I am in 11th grade at Gann Academy. I very interested in engineering, and I really enjoy video games and playing violin.
Before you took the course, what was your exposure and knowledge about disability history? What surprised you the most about this American history since taking the course?
Anna: Before taking this class, I had never taken a history course that even mentioned disability as a narrative within American history, and I hadn’t really thought about it that much. It was really surprising to learn a whole new layer to history from the perspective of a different group of people.
Tal: My little brother, Ben, is on the autistic spectrum. The only knowledge that I really had exposure to, was to the information about autism. When I had started the process of working on this museum, I had learned how many disabilities I am truly surrounded by every day. Though I may not have thought so, being blind, being deaf or having a stutter are three natural features that had been considered major disabilities in the past. I was truly surprised by the idea that what I thought might have been normal now a day, used to be considered scary and completely unwanted.
Describe the project for this course on disability history that you and your fellow students participated in. How did the idea come about and what was the process like shaping it into what it is currently, an actual museum exhibit on disability history?
Tal: For this project, we had started the year in two ways. One way was by learning about a “school for the disabled” which was placed right around the corner from us, the Fernald school.
The second thing we had done was we were partnered up and given an object or a person to research. Each duo had gotten their ideas and became experts on these objects and people. I had been partnered up with my classmate Daniel and together, we received the task of interviewing Rich Robison. Rich Robison is a man who had been working at the Fernald school, and today is an extremely successful advocate for students with disability in school systems within Waltham. Rich has children and grandchildren with Down syndrome and therefore is extremely invested in his work, he is truly one of the most inspirational figures that we have met over the course of this experience. Recently, the experience has become a lot more tangible. We had been split into groups and received tasks to organize certain parts of the museum. This was the most difficult part of the process because we had to really do justice to all of the amazing work we had put in as well as for the people whose stories we are telling. I feel so proud to say that me and my classmates have accomplished this incredible task and we are so proud of this museum and what it has turned into.
Anna: Alex Green, our teacher, has been working with disability history for a long time, and the idea for the course at Gann actually started by coincidence when our vice principal, Frank Tipton, found the graveyard at the Fernald School in Waltham. He was curious about the unmarked graves so he tried to find out about them which led him to meet Alex, who had been researching the Fernald school. Eventually they came up with the idea of this class.
It would be extremely hard to pick a favorite thing in the exhibit, but I did make an interesting discovery while researching the Mears Earphone, an artifact from the early 1900s intended to help the hearing impaired. I found letters from the Mears Earphone Company on ebay, and the information in those letters (even small things like the name of the general manager printed on the stationary) led me to more new and interesting research.
What was the overall experience for you with this project? Is there anything you can share about the experiences of your fellow classmates?
Anna: I really loved the overall experience of this project and this class in general. The idea of going to class and building towards a tangible goal in my opinion is the best way to learn, rather than just being told a bunch of names and facts to memorize. When you’re working on a project, it’s about learning for a purpose, rather than just learning because they told you to…I feel very very lucky to have been able to take this class this year and get this once in a lifetime experience, and I am very proud of the work my class has done and the museum we created.
I think that there are a lot of valuable lessons to be learned from disability history, and especially that the story of disability history is extremely comparable to the stories of many other minorities, but this story is much less widely known and widely told. I think learning disability history at the junior or high school level can help open people’s minds to stories they might have never thought about.
Tal: The overall experience of this was absolutely life changing. With the help of our incredible teachers Yoni Kadden and Alex Green, we were able to immerse ourselves fully into this project and feel connected in every way possible. I have been able to learn about disability, the good and bad, and get through this with the help of my amazing classmates, incredible teachers, and support systems that were available in my school and in this community. My classmates would definitely feel the same way, this museum has been one of the most impactful ways of learning because it gave us a reason to feel connected and immersed in the material and really find our own ways to show how important this story of disability is…I am grateful for all this project has brought to me, my classmates, and the community around me.