History, Memory, and Disability Rights Public Humanities Program

“History, Memory, and Disability Rights: Creating Inclusive Public Humanities Programs,” a public humanities conference and workshops, will take place on Nov. 19, 2016.

“A regime of state-mandated segregation and degradation soon emerged that in its virulence and bigotry rivaled, and indeed paralleled, the worst excesses of Jim Crow.”–Justice Thurgood Marshall, Cleburne, 1985

Humanities Connection radio program by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, October 30, 2016, on this conference.

Videos of the Conference and Workshops, November 20, 2016

“History, Memory, and Disability Rights: Creating Inclusive Public Humanities Programs,” a one-day public humanities conference and workshops that features current research on the complex and complicated historical narrative that is the disability rights movement in the mid-Atlantic region, will take place on Saturday, November 19, 2016, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at Rutgers University-Camden. It is sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Humanities Center at Rutgers-Camden and affiliated partners. The program will focus on social attitudes and public policy efforts to marginalize individual citizens with developmental disabilities, as well as on the countervailing forces of institutionalization and deinstitutionalization. Afternoon workshops will address the use of history as a tool in community education and public advocacy pertaining to disability rights and interpretation of disability history at historic sites.

The mid-Atlantic region, comprised of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, and Delaware, played a pivotal role in the development and transformation of disability rights and public policy.  At the dawn of the twentieth century, new scientific and social theories (such as eugenics) were indispensable in a shift in social attitudes and state government policy. The result was a well-organized campaign to isolate and eliminate citizens stigmatized as “feebleminded” or in some way “defective.” The terminology was abrasive and dehumanizing, and it served to deny individuals their freedom, dignity, and rights. In addition to legalized sterilization and anti-marriage legislation, more than a quarter million Americans with an intellectual or developmental disability were confined in 300 public institutions, a practice that continued well into the twenty-first century. New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania—in fact, each of the fifty states—each had its own experience with this nationwide trend.

Three-quarters of a century later, the states of the mid-Atlantic region witnessed some of the greatest moments in the disability rights freedom struggle. Often neglected in the mainstream historical narrative, the disability rights movement touches on a host of contemporary social, legal, and public policy issues. The experiences of people with disability also serve to remind us that history is something that happens to people.

A content-based symposium that includes both formal and informal presentations, and two afternoon workshops, this humanities forum will address neglected aspects of American and mid-Atlantic history. The workshops will have the added benefit of assessing a) how museums and historical societies can be more inclusive in content, interpretation, and community education efforts, and b) the relationship of history to disability rights and community-based advocacy. The day-long program will conclude with a roundtable discussion that includes educators, museum curators, advocates, self-advocates, and the general public.

The target audience includes museum and historic site specialists, curators and educators, research scholars, advocacy organizations, people living with disabilities, caregivers, and anyone with an interest in learning more and raising awareness about this important history.


Registration is $20 and includes lunch. We are able to offer 10 “scholarships” that waive the registration fee to people with intellectual, developmental, or other disabilities; self-advocates are encouraged to apply. Funding is available for the first 10 individuals who apply. Please send name, address, and email address to Tamara Gaskell, at tamara.gaskell@rutgers.edu, by October 31.

Morning Sessions

8:00 a.m.    Registration and Coffee

8:45 a.m.    Welcome
                   Introduction: Jean Searle, Disability Rights Network and PMPA

9:00 a.m.    Dennis B. Downey, Millersville University
                   “From Exclusion to Inclusion: Disability and Public Policy, 1880 to the Present”

9:45 a.m.     Ruthie-Marie Beckwith, City University of New York
                   “Disability Servitude: A Legacy of Abuse and Exploitation”

10:30 a.m.   Deborah Spitalnik, Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities,
                   Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

                   “Institutions and Community: The New Jersey Context”

11:15 a.m.   James W. Conroy, Center for Outcomes Analysis and
                   the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance
                   “Historical Memory and the Disability Rights Revolution: Creating a Pennhurst
                   Museum and Interpretive Center”

11:45 a.m.    Conversation

12:15 p.m.    Lunch

Afternoon Workshops 1:30 p.m.

“Public Conversations, Advocacy, and Disability Rights:
The Role of History in Promoting Dialogue and Social Change”

Moderator: Janet Albert-Herman, leading ARC and disability rights activist and board officer of the Pennhurst Memorial & Preservation Alliance
Panel discussants:
Donna Bouclier, senior policy analyst, NJ Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities
Mark Friedman, adjunct professor at City University of New York and Rosalind-Franklin University of Medicine and Science
Thomas K. Gilhool, retired staff attorney from the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia; former secretary of education, Commonwealth of PA

Can knowing the past helps us understand the present and (ideally) shape a better future? How can history, and an understanding of history, enfranchise citizens with disabilities and their communities and help the public, museum educators, and advocates better address current policy issues?  The panel with provide three perspectives on the importance of understanding disability history in the context of public awareness. For example, information about institutionalization has often been presented without the background of the moral model of treatment. How does our understanding change when the segregation of people who were disabled is framed by awareness of the now-discredited theories of eugenics? What role did legal actions, and the rise of family- and self-advocacy, play in the sweeping advances in the past fifty years? The panel members will cast his history in its proper light as a human and civil rights movement. This discussion will clarify links between the past and the present and inspire participants to build awareness and advocacy in their own communities, including service systems and policies.

“Accessible Museums, Accessible Objects:
Interpreting the Material Culture of Disability for Contemporary Audiences”

Led by Nicole Belolan, University of Delaware and Rowan University

What was it like to be disabled in early America, and how can we incorporate this history into our interpretation of museums and historic sites in accessible ways? In this workshop, Nicole Belolan will outline how museums and historic sites can take low-cost steps toward making their venues more accessible for all audiences. She will also share what we can learn about the material experience of disability in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. How can we address the history of physical disability in early America in museum settings, including when it “overlaps” with other types of impairment, through well-known artifacts such as easy chairs and lesser-known objects such as adult cradles? Participants will also have a chance to examine and discuss some examples of historical material culture of disability.

3:00 p.m.     Discussion and Conclusion


Janet Albert-Herman is a leading ARC and disability rights activist in Pennsylvania and the nation and board officer of the Pennhurst Memorial & Preservation Alliance.

Ruthie-Marie Beckwith, PhD, is adjunct associate professor of disability studies at CUNY and is the executive director of TASH, a disability rights advocacy organization based in Washington, DC. Her most recent publication is the highly acclaimed Disability Servitude: From Peonage to Poverty (2016).

Nicole Belolan is a PhD candidate in American Civilization at the University of Delaware and Megan Giordano fellow in public history at Rowan University and curator at Red Bank Battlefield and Whitall House in National Park, NJ. She has a research interest in material culture and museum studies, with an emphasis on disability studies.

Donna Bouclier, MA, is a senior policy analyst of the New Jersey Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities. She has served as co-chair for the National Coalition on Self-Determination and the Philadelphia Intellectual Disabilities Public Awareness Committee. As a consultant for Disability Rights International, she has promoted the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and training activists.

James Conroy, PhD, is CEO of the Center for Outcomes Analysis and an international consultant on deinstitutionalization and disability rights. An author and activist, Conroy serves as co-president of the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance and he is co-editor (with Downey) of Between History and Hope: Pennhurst and the Struggle for Disability Rights (forthcoming).

Dennis B. Downey, PhD, is professor of history and director of the University Honors College at Millersville University (PA).  The author of six books and over forty articles, he is co-editor with James Conroy of Between History and Hope: Pennhurst and the Struggle for Disability Rights (forthcoming).

Mark Friedman, PhD, is an adjunct professor at Rosalind-Franklin University of Medicine and Science and at the City University of New York teaching courses in disability studies and the CEO of BlueFire Consulting. He was the founder and state coordinator of Speaking For Ourselves, an award winning, self-advocacy organization in Pennsylvania, director of the Middle Tennessee Advocacy Center, advocating for people with disabilities living in the community, and served as the vice-chairperson of the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council.

Thomas K. Gilhool, JD, is the original attorney for the PA Right to Education, Pennhurst, a renowned disability rights attorney, and former secretary of education of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Jean M. Searle is a nationally recognized self-advocate and activist employed by the Disability Rights Network (PA). Searle serves as president of Pennsylvania TASH and as co-president of the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance.

Deborah Spitalnik, PhD, is professor of pediatrics at Rutgers University’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and the executive director of the Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities. An advocate, author, and program officer in the field of medicine and developmental disabilities, Spitalnik has been instrumental in defining state and federal approaches to serving citizens with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Partners and Sponsors:

Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities

Rutgers University-Camden


New Jersey Council for the HumanitiesMillersville Universityrutgers-boggscenter-2013-2clr-stacked-xlargeUniversity of Delaware Center for Disability StudiesPennhurst Memorial and Preservation AlliancePennsylvania TASHPennsylvania History Coalition Honoring People with Disabilities

Western Pennsylvania Disability History and Action Consortium