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Changing the World: A History of Disability in the United States

Gann hosted a reception at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, where our 11th grade history students have created a ground-breaking museum exhibit.  Hundreds of visitors have toured the exhibit, which documents the often-hidden history of disability in America.  Senior Sarah Levin describes the exhibit: “The history of disability was to hide it. The approach was ‘don’t talk about it’.  We’re breaking new ground here, which is difficult and challenging, but also is what we hope will be really amazing.”

As in many Gann history classes, the students didn’t merely chronicle events and dates, but rather they became historians themselves.  They combed through archives across the U.S., interviewed disability rights activists and government leaders, and even perused cemeteries housing the unmarked graves of Americans with disabilities.   As teacher Alex Green explains, “what the students are doing is developing the skills of professional historians and applying those skills to real world problems.  As a result, they’re sparking a national conversation that can help change perceptions about disability.”

Throughout the year, the students became passionately involved with their subject, eventually deciding that the topic deserved a far broader airing than was possible within the confines of the Gann campus. They hatched the idea of a museum exhibit, sparked the interest of the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, secured funding from the Ruderman Foundation, and amassed historical artifacts from around the country.  This spring, in conjunction with 10th grade graphic design students, they created a full-blown professional quality museum exhibit.  

This year, Gann’s current 11th graders have taken the project even further.  They’re now researching the lives of nearly 400 people with disabilities and mental illness who were buried in unmarked graves in Waltham’s shuttered MetFern Cemetary.   They’ve begun creating a Yizkor (Memorial) Book to tell the stories of each of these individuals, and to ensure that their memories are honored and preserved.  Last week the students even held a gravesite memorial service for one of the people buried at MetFern.

For senior Ben Jacobson, the work was about impact, rather than grades. “The moment that clicked for me was when I found correspondence from Adolf Hitler and the Minnesota Eugenics Society essentially congratulating each other on the work they’ve done, and effectively saying, ‘Good job with the Holocaust.’” Jacobson is eager to bring this sad history to light. “The fact that we’re putting together an exhibit of the untold story of America is just astounding, especially as high schoolers.”

Already, the students’ work has garnered national attention.  But that’s not enough for them.  They’re now seeking a permanent space for the exhibit, and ultimately want to create a National Museum of Disability History in the U.S.  They’ve already convinced Waltham Mayor Jeanette McCarthy and Councillor George Darcy.  Darcy submitted a resolution for the city to create a museum at the site of Waltham’s Fernald School, the oldest school for developmentally disabled people in the western hemisphere.   The students are now talking to congressional representatives, former governors, museum curators, and activists throughout the country.

History department chair Yoni Kadden explains that the work in this course is emblematic of the way that Gann teaches history: “We want to empower each student to see themselves as a participant and a leader in history and the discussion of that history. That’s why our students build museum exhibits, they write op-eds, they speak at conferences, they blog, and they lobby their legislators. They take the story they learned, and they use it to make an impact on the wider world.”

Click here to read the text of the New York Times editorial by Gann’s students.