Is invisibility a type of discrimination? This is the question posed by the ROM’s latest exhibit Out From Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember. Billed, shockingly, as the “first of its kind in Canada,” it’s clear that disabled people as a minority group have not had their voice properly heard thus far. “Today, we’re making history,” said Sheldon Levy, president of Ryerson University, Wednesday at the ROM. Their School of Disability Studies is the co-presenter of this exhibit.
Out From Under revolves around thirteen objects that were “found” by students for a seminar given by the University. Each one illuminates a specific aspect in the evolution of the history of people with disabilities in Canada. “We can tell stories so straightforwardly, effectively, and powerfully,” said ROM Director and CEO, William Thorsell. And he’s right. The exhibit is subtle in its construction; not an oversized, interactive circus, like their recently opened Darwin exhibit. The glass cases, tastefully back-lit, present the objects for the viewer’s education, and act as a springboard for further reflection on the current state of the rights of disabled Canadians.
In Dressing, the object presented by Sandra Phillips, sixteen identical sweat suits hang in a closet to represent the uniforms worn by inmates at Ontario’s various institutions. “The clothing is a symbol of the lack of choice in these people’s lives,” said Phillips. “When I worked in a facility here, I would just pull clothes off the racks to help people get dressed in the morning. They were never asked what they felt like wearing. They never had the power to make any choice.”
Equally distressing is the object accompanying Naming (pictured above), a poster created by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health to help classify different types of mental disorders. Phaedra Livingstone, fascinated by the way people are represented and understood through objects and texts, contributed this poster as a disquieting example of how attaching a label to a person, or group of people, can disallow them their human rights.
Perhaps the most disturbing object on display was donated by Cindy Mitchell. Remembering features a baby’s bassinet that belonged to Cindy’s daughter Kristen Anne Inwood, who was given a deliberate digoxin overdose without her mother’s knowledge, at Sick Kids Hospital in March of 1981. Kristen was one of a series of babies who were labelled “FLKs” (funny looking kids!) and subsequently euthanized to prevent them having to live a life “marred” by disability.
What is clear throughout the exhibit is how disability is the last frontier of discrimination. There are still places that are off-limits to disabled people; cultural and social diversions that they’re barred from. Rarely are queer or African-Canadians refused entrance to restaurants or businesses because of their perceived difference, yet many disabled people are because the buildings are not accessible.
But it’s more than just that, as Professor Catherine Frazee, leader of the Ryerson seminar explained. “To make a cultural institution accessible is not simply about installing ramps and braille signage, but letting disabled people behind the glass, and into the exhibits.”
Photo courtesy of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Archives, and Phaedra Livingstone.