There were no tests on the syllabus. There was no homework, per se. In this unique course at Gann Academy in Waltham, the task was to create a museum-worthy exhibit on the history of people with disabilities in America.
“It was entirely student-driven,” said Yoni Kadden, chair of history department at Gann Academy, an independent Jewish high school. “They’re the ones who [found the stories], they’re the ones who came up with the ideas, they’re the ones who did the research, they’re the ones who put this together.”
The result is “Division, Unity, Hardship, and Progress: A Disability History of the United States,” on display at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham through early September.
The group of high school juniors had been steeped in this subject matter since November. The high school juniors in the class became curators, researchers, and investigators, seeking to include as many stories as possible in their exhibit, both the civil rights victories as well as the atrocities done in the name of science.
“The history of disability was to hide it. The approach was don’t talk about it,” said Sarah Levin, 17, of Brookline. “We’re breaking new ground here, which is difficult and challenging, but also is what we hope will be really amazing for our community to come here and experience this.”
Waltham city officials see this exhibit as a first step toward their goal of creating a permanent museum in Waltham about the local connections to the history of disability. The school is surrounded by reminders of a time when having a cognitive or developmental disability could mean life inside an institution.
“The whole corridor of north Waltham was devoted to the treatment of people in all their various stages,” said George Darcy, a Waltham city councillor for Ward 3.
Gann Academy was built on the former site of Murphy Army Hospital for veterans. Across the road from the school are the remains of the Metropolitan State Hospital for the mentally ill. And next door to the academy are the remains of the Walter E. Fernald State School, at one time the oldest publicly funded institution that served people with disabilities in the Western hemisphere.
“It’s not an easy history to tell,” said Ben Schwartz, 17, of Framingham. “Something I was doing for this project was trying to simply look up the definition of disability. I spent weeks on that because it’s just one word but there are so many different definitions of it.”
During the year, students toured parts of the old Fernald School, which opened in 1888. The facility had a long and harrowing history: Many of the children and adults in its care suffered abuse and neglect over the decades it operated. Horrific scientific experiments were performed on some residents, according to the City of Waltham’s history of the school by Marie E. Daly, a member of the Waltham Historical Commission.
Fernald’s last residents were discharged in 2014.
Inside the old Fernald School building, Alex Green, a Gann history teacher who taught the disability course with Kadden, found a daily lesson plan notebook of a teacher from 1899, along with colorful play blocks that students studied and included in the exhibit. Through a grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation, a disability rights advocacy foundation, students also purchased historical examples of assistive technology used by people with different disabilities.
“We see in museums all these different artifacts from other parts of history . . . but all these artifacts seem like they just got shoved in a basement,” Levin said. “They’re these amazing historical artifacts that are critical in telling this story.”
Among the items ordered online is a precursor of the modern-day hearing aid called the Mears ear phone, once marketed as a “cure for deafness.” There are old leg braces, a pamphlet from the 1939 New York World’s Fair about the abilities of people who are blind, and a back brace that the students researched to identify its origins and purpose.
“You have to be so curious and care so deeply in such a sustained way for months and months to do this kind of study,” said Green, who is also former chair of the Waltham Historical Commission and a fellow at Harvard Law School. “On the back brace, [the students] did research entirely by material analysis. They looked this thing up and down and found the parts of it that were missing and then found the original patents for it and were able to figure out what it was used for.”
The exhibit also includes oral histories, including one from a lawyer who helped rewrite portions of the Americans with Disabilities Act; another with a former trustee of the Fernald School; as well as several from Gann Academy students with learning and cognitive differences.
In the woods near Gann Academy is the MetFern cemetery, where 310 people from the Metropolitan State Hospital and the Fernald School were buried between 1947 and 1979. These were patients who could not afford to pay for a funeral. To this day, most markers bearonlya number and a letter — a “P” or a “C” — which indicated whether the person was a Catholic or a Protestant.
State officials and advocates began maintaining the cemetery in recent years and considering how to shed light on its history, which was the catalyst for the year-long Gann course. Last year, Green helped a student create a website about the cemetery’s history for her senior project. She advocated for a marker to be placed at the site that lists the names of those buried there.
These are histories that have been swept under the rug, said Gann student Gabe Rosen, 17, of Newton. They need to be told.
“You can’t back away from uncertainty,” Schwartz said. “You have to step forward into it.”Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.