These High Schoolers Are Calling For A National Disability History Museum By Making Their Own06:10
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Gann Academy students Gabe Rosen and Elianna Gerut are two of the curators of the "Disability History of the United States" exhibit at the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation in Waltham, Mass. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Gann Academy students Gabe Rosen and Elianna Gerut are two of the curators of the "Disability History of the United States" exhibit at the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation in Waltham, Mass. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

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.

Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd (@odowdpeter) visited with a few of the 11th-graders and got some insight into what they learned while creating the exhibit, which is now open to the public.

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.

A Mears earphone is included in a part of the exhibit titled "Towards Independence and Inclusion." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A Mears earphone is included in a part of the exhibit titled "Towards Independence and Inclusion." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

"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."

More Photos

An image of FDR at a section of the exhibit titled "Society's Attempt at Erasing Disability." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
An image of FDR at a section of the exhibit titled "Society's Attempt at Erasing Disability." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A section of the exhibit titled "Towards Independence and Inclusion." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A section of the exhibit titled "Towards Independence and Inclusion." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Gann Academy history teacher Alex Green talks with students at the "Disability History of the United States" exhibit. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Gann Academy history teacher Alex Green talks with students at the "Disability History of the United States" exhibit. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
An image of a 1933 letter from the Minnesota Eugenics Society to Hitler is included in the "Society's Attempt at Erasing Disability" section of the exhibit. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
An image of a 1933 letter from the Minnesota Eugenics Society to Hitler is included in the "Society's Attempt at Erasing Disability" section of the exhibit. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Digital producer Jackson Mitchell contributed to this story.

This segment aired on July 4, 2018.

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Peter O'Dowd Twitter Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of NPR and WBUR's Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.

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