Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Museum of disABILITY History and Training Center for Human Service Excellence opens in Buffalo, NY

From The Buffalo News:

The opening of a new museum in Amherst brought back some bittersweet memories for Maria Bell.

Born with cerebral palsy and using a wheelchair all of her life, the Cheektowaga resident had been institutionalized until she was 12 years old.

Last year, the 50-year-old Brooklyn native got her first apartment and has been living independently since.

During Oct. 15's grand opening of the People Inc.'s Museum of disABILITY History and Training Center for Human Service Excellence, Bell realized the exhibits mirrored her personal evolution -- and that of many others like her.

"To me [the museum] represents how we were institutionalized many years ago ... and it shows people we have moved on," said Bell, a curator at the new museum.

The museum -- inside the old Eggertsville Fire Hose Company station, on Main Street near Eggert Road -- is the only free-standing facility in the country dedicated to the history of people with disabilities, according to People Inc. officials.

The grand opening comes just in time for the first observance Oct. 18 of New York State Disability History Day.

The idea for the new museum came about when James Boles, president and chief executive of People Inc., was teaching a course at the University at Buffalo and was looking for some history about developmental disabilities.

He went to the library and did some research on his own, searching microfilm and old newspaper articles. He discovered that in the 1820s through 1870s, about one-third of the people in Western New York living in so-called poor houses were people with developmental disabilities, including intellectual, physical and mental, he said.

"But there were no museums," he said. "Today we are filling a large hole in understanding the history of developmental disabilities."

Formerly housed on North Forest Road in Amherst, the new museum has twice the square footage of the old one and features several new exhibits. Some are permanent. Others -- including one featuring the Kennedy family's involvement with the developmentally disabled -- are traveling displays.

The Kennedy family's involvement dates back to Rosemary Kennedy, who was thought to have an intellectual disability and was sent to an institution, explained Elizabeth Marotta, education coordinator at the museum. So her siblings, including President John F. Kennedy, made it their mission to advocate for people with disabilities. Among their most notable work was Special Olympics started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

The other traveling exhibit is called "Madness in America," the History of Mental Health.

The permanent displays include "Sports and Disabilities" and the "Evolution of Adaptive Equipment," such as crutches, wheelchairs, prosthetics and hearing aids. The third new permanent exhibit is the Invacar, a specially equipped automobile that was manufactured from 1944 through 1977 in Great Britain. Developed initially for returning World War II soldiers who lost their legs but wanted to drive, it goes about 35 mph, and both the steering wheel and gas pedal are controlled with the same lever.

The museum also chronicles points in history such as the 1850s and early 1900s, when people with all kinds of developmental disabilities were housed in places that included the State Asylum for Idiots, the Syracuse State School for Feeble-Minded Children and Professor Richard's Private Institute for Imbeciles in Harlem.

"Those were acceptable terms," said Douglas Platt, museum curator. "They were all medical terms to describe what we now call intellectual disabilities."

Also new are a gift shop and training center for all new People Inc. employees who work in groups homes or day habilitation centers, Marotta said.

"[The museum] shows people who are nondisabled that we, too, can achieve our dreams and goals," said Gwen Squire, of Blasdell, who was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. "We just have to do it in a different way."