Disabled peoples’ lives and experiences are shaped by the expectations and barriers placed upon them by society, and also by changes in medicine, technology and biomedical science. Whilst some of these changes have been positive, biomedical perspectives have tended to see physical and mental impairments as largely negative, as deficiencies that are in need of intervention, fix or cure. These medical ways of seeing, and thinking about, difference have played a significant role in shaping the ways in which wider society also thinks about, responds to and treats disabled people – as victims, objects of pity and charity, as less than human, or as superheroes struggling to overcome the burden of their impairments.
Medical museums contain a wealth of collections that are relevant to the lives of disabled people; however many of these collections are under-researched or are understood through biomedical perspectives that do not represent the lives and experiences of disabled people through their own voices and stories, but rather through the voices of surgeons, doctors and other medical practitioners. In recent decades, disabled people, activists and researchers have fought and struggled to challenge these medical perspectives as part of a global disability rights movement, to challenge the view that physical and mental impairments are ‘deficiencies’ that need correction or cure to conform to ideas about what is ‘normal’ for the body and mind. Rather than disability being a result of impairment (body or mind), it is a product of barriers created by society (physical, sensory, attitudes) that prevent disabled people from playing a full and active contribution. It is society that disables people, not their impairment. This social model of disability is very different to the medical model, which sees the individual’s impairment as the ‘problem’ that needs intervention, fix or cure.
The eight medical museums involved in E&E were keen to explore the ways in which their collections could be used in new ways to reflect the lives and experiences of disabled people, to be re-framed by the social, rather than the medical, model of disability and to work in collaboration with disabled activists and artists that would help them to develop new, rights-based narratives and perspectives around their collections. There is still a lot of work to do in museums to interrogate their collections, to uncover the hidden stories of the lives and experiences of disabled people, now and in the past, and E&E makes an important, and timely, contribution.