By Isabelle Docto
On the first day of a disability history course at Ryerson, students were told that the price of entry was an object that they thought had significance to the history of disability in Canada.
Thirteen disability studies students brought 13 objects that formed the Out from Under exhibit.
Seven years later, the installation has won a permanent spot at the newly-opened Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg.
Kathryn Church, director of the school of disability studies and a curator of the exhibit, said that this is just a starting point to informing the public on the history of disability.
“It’s not as if we knew the history ahead of time and we’re representing it,” she said. “What we’re doing is actually building it from the ground up, starting from these objects.”
The objects included in the exhibit are not only symbols of how disabled individuals were oppressed in history, but also of how their rights are moving forward.
Clint Curle, head of stakeholder relations at the CMHR, said that the installation of Out from Under was not complete at the time of the museum’s grand opening on Sept. 20, but is planned to be ready when the museum opens to the public on Sept. 27.
“When you look at the objects there, they really speak powerfully,” said Curle. “You really get a sense of the experiences of the person and you kind of see things through their eyes.”
Some of the items are intensely personal. Cindy Mitchell, one of the students who contributed to the exhibit, chose to add the death certificate of her daughter, who died due to an alleged deliberate overdose of the drug digoxin administered at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children in the early ’80s.
Mitchell was at the grand opening of the CMHR on Sept. 20 and said that even though the exhibit wasn’t complete, the opening was still uplifting.
“[It] did not dampen how inspired I was by what I saw and what is yet to come,” Mitchell said in an email.
Out from Under was originally installed at the Abilities Art Festival in Toronto. From there, the group was asked to exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2008 and were picked up to exhibit at the Cultural Olympiad at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Church, along with Catherine Frazee and Melanie Panitch, fellow school of disability studies professors, has been working with the museum for the last two years to integrate Out from Under.
But there were some bumps in the road. The CMHR gave them a small eight-by-eight foot space for their exhibit and initially told them to choose only five items to showcase.
They were also asked to change some of the language used, like trade in the word “asylum” for “mental health facility.” Despite the opposition, the group was adamant on staying true to the sometimes-dark history of disability rights.
“We wanted that word to be there because it’s the word that expresses the politics we want to bring to that story,” Church said.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will begin regular visiting hours on Sept. 27.