History museum

People’s History Museum opens new ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ exhibit chronicling disability activism

It includes protest materials and items, banners and t-shirts that have been collected from disability activists and disability-led campaign groups over the years.

Community curators Anis Akhtar, Hannah Ross, Ruth Malkin and Alison Wilde helped bring their own experiences, relationships and extensive research to the project.

Anise Aktar

Speaking to I LOVE MCR, Anis said, “This is our story and a story that has never been told in this focused way before. Many young people will not be aware of some of the marches and campaigns that have taken place.

“I want people to come celebrate, and build a picture of the history of the Disability Movement and leave with an understanding of past, present and future disability activism.

“Some of the past problems are still happening today, but unless you understand the history, progress will never be made.”

The exhibit features Anis’ flag, which was designed after they felt excluded from the intersex community.

Today’s opening coincides with the first day of Disability History Month in the UK (16 November to 16 December).

The exhibit chronicles the start of the journey, as early as 1620, when patients at Bedlam Hospital presented a petition to the House of Lords demanding better conditions.

Years later, the first formal disability organization, the British Deaf and Dumb Association, was founded in 1980.

During the exhibition you realize how deeply rooted some of the depictions of people with disabilities are in historical culture, for example the character of Tiny Tim in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (1843).

The 19th century saw a change in culture – where people with disabilities were cared for – and charities were set up to meet their needs, but this often reinforced negative stereotypes that people with disabilities were objects of pity.

A century later, activists were turning the tables at a televised “Telethon” charity fundraiser, to which the movement responded with the protest slogan “Piss on Pity”.

In addition to t-shirts, there are works of art such as the “Help the Normals” collection (Dolly Sen, 2012) that overturns and challenges assumptions about who we should pity.

At the same time, the exhibition presents the efforts of people with disabilities to be represented in the media. This happened as recently as 2021 in SIA’s film MUSIC, when a non-disabled actor was cast as a non-verbal autistic person and the outrage that followed.

And even where people with disabilities are portrayed in the media, like CBeebies’ Cerrie Burnell, the exhibit shows how the media has sensationalized alleged complaints to OFCOM about her “scary kids” with her disability.

Ruth Malkin, one of the exhibit’s community curators, said: “Nothing About Us Without Us has been one of the most positive and positive working experiences of my life (and I’m kinda getting into it) .

“It has been really empowering to work with amazing people with disabilities to tell the story of our community.

“People coming to the expo will get a sense of the incredible past and present of people with disabilities who have tirelessly campaigned and raised awareness to improve the lives of all people with disabilities, now and in the future.

“They will get a sense of how far we have come as a society since the days when people with disabilities had no choice but to enter a workhouse and beg to stay alive.

“They will laugh at satirical cartoons, mourn the appalling stories of disability discrimination and share in the triumph of battles fought and won by disability rights activists since the 19th century.

“I hope they leave informed of the historic struggles of people with disabilities and D/Deaf, and empowered to join a cause that continues today.

“To remove disabling barriers for everyone in the UK and beyond.”

The exhibit mixes activism and protest, banners, photography, art, visual media and features video testimonials from people with disabilities in the North West documenting their experiences and the challenges they face on a daily basis.

It is a vital exhibit, which everyone should visit to understand the history of people with disabilities and how we can create an inclusive future without repeating the mistakes of the past.

The exhibit is available in large print, British Sign Language, Braille and has audio transcriptions. There is also a quiet space at the museum that visitors can use when needed.

The People’s History Museum hours of operation are 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily except Tuesdays.

Suggested donation £5.

For more information, visit their website by clicking here.