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OSU Disability Archives: Disability in the Archives: An Introduction

The OSU DisArchives are a community-created archival project seeking to preserve and share the stories of disabled people with connections to the OSU and Corvallis communities.

Selected Readings on Disability in the Archives

Notes on dates: 1983 pre-ADA, 1993 recently after ADA, 2017 post-ADA

There are articles below about:

  • Collection Development and Description of Archival Collections
  • Exhibit Curation
  • Serving Patrons

Articles about Collection Development and Description of Archival Collections

"Overcoming Another Obstacle: Archiving a Community's Disabled History" by Diane F. Britton, Barbara Floyd, and Patricia Murphy. Radical History Review 94 (2006), pp. 212-227.

This article discusses the creation of the Disability Studies Program at the University of Toledo in Ohio, as well as the establishment of a disability history archival collection in the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections in the early 2000s. This archival collection contains materials on disabled people's histories in the northeast region of Ohio. The authors discuss some of the motivations of the scholar-activists who started the collection and the Disability Studies Program, including the recognition that disabled histories have often been systematically excluded or included only in problematic ways (e.g. through the medical model of disability). The authors point out that "because all history starts with the written record, what records archivists choose to collect shapes our historical knowledge in significant ways" (p. 218), and thus archivists and historians have tremendous power to shape the historical representation of disabled people. This issue is more timely than ever, given that records continue to be lost (such as those of institutions, group homes, and state agencies) and disability history is lost with them. Acquisition of materials themselves is also a problem, given that donations often require years of cultivating relationships with potential donors. The authors conclude that all historians (not only those with disabilities) should care about and work to preserve the histories of disabled people.

"Crippling the Archives: Negotiating Notions of Disability in Appraisal and Arrangement and Description" by Sara White The American Archivist, Apr 2012, Vol. 75, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2012), pp. 109-124.

Have archivists adequately documented people with disabilities? This essay examines how disability studies provide archivists with a framework with which to understand and document disability. After defining the medical and social models of disability, this article analyzes the development of the social model emphasizing the significance of social relationships and identity construction, and recognizes its weakness. As an alternative to the social model, this paper introduces the theory of complex embodiment and demonstrates how embodiment corresponds with archival theory, especially recent literature challenging the definition of provenance. The author concludes that embodiment can be applied to archival practice during appraisal and arrangement and description.

"Archival Assemblages: Applying disability studies’ political/relational model to archival description" by Gracen Brilmyer. Arch Sci, No. 18 (2018), pp. 95-118.

This paper critically explores power structures embedded in archival description and re-conceptualizes archives and archival material as assemblages of politicized decisions specifically by utilizing Alison Kafer’s political/relational model of disability as a framework. Kafer’s model draws upon previous models of disability to open up contestation and politicization of disability as a category. This approach acknowledges that concepts of disability always already intersect with notions of race, class, age, gender, and sexuality. This article argues that cross-informing archival studies and feminist disability studies illuminates the long history that records creation and description processes have in documenting, surveilling, and controlling disabled and other non-normative bodies and minds. Furthermore, a political/relational approach makes possible the illumination of archival assemblages: the multiple perspectives, power structures, and cultural influences—all of which are temporally, spatially, and materially contingent—that inform the creation and archival handling of records. Through close readings of multiple records’ descriptions, both inside and outside of disability, this paper focuses on the complexity of language and its politics within disability communities. A political/relational approach first promotes moving away from the replication and reliance on self-evident properties of a record and second advocates for addressing—not redressing—contestable terms, both of which illuminate the archival assemblages which produced it. By embracing the contestation of disability, and therefore the corresponding ways in which it is represented in archives, archivists and archives users are able to perceive and challenge the ways in which norms and deviance are understood, perpetuated, and constructed in public narratives via archives. Existing at the intersection of disability studies, feminist discourse, and archival studies, this paper builds theory around archival description and radicalizes traditional approaches to understanding normativized constructs within archives as it encourages reflexivity and shifts power relations.

"Nineteenth-Century Depictions of Disabilities and Modern Metadata: A Consideration of Material in the P. T. Barnum Digital Collection" by Meghan R. Rinn, Barnum Museum. Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies: Vol. 5, Article 1 (2018).

The Library of Congress subject headings have been examined in the past for their classification of subjects relating to race, gender, and sexuality. Overlooked is subject headings that relate to disabilities. In the course of creating records for the archival and object material that form the P.T. Barnum Digital Collection, the project discovered the imperfections of the Library of Congress subject headings, and the need to develop standards and protocols for the material. This resulted in a balance of language that respects the preferences of living communities and their best practices, and the existing language in the Library of Congress, while also engaging with the complex nuances of disability theory. The issues encountered raise questions regarding classification, contemporary language, and the best way forward for archival institutions.

Article About Exhibit Curation 

“Digital Representation of Disability History: Developing a Virtual Exhibition" by Arjun Sabharwal. Archival Issues, Vol. 34, No. 1 (2012), pp. 7–26.

Virtual exhibition can play an important role in archival practice due to the growing volume of digital content in repositories, the growing number and diversity of remote users, and the increased sophistication of technologies focusing on Web accessibility. The expanding digital environment affords archives with opportunities to leverage technology to their advantage by integrating archival description and outreach practices. Through virtual exhibitions following guidelines of the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C-WAI), archives can reach out to users with disabilities who can use assistive equipment for research purposes. With a focus on a disability history virtual exhibition at the University of Toledo's Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, this article presents a conceptual framework for developing virtual exhibits comprised of three dimensions: thematic, structural, and semantic. The study presents an experimental methodology involving historical representation, information architecture, and Web accessibility. An overarching theme—the supernarrative—serves as a unifying component, holding the content and narrative together. The relationship between historical representation and the supernarrative manifests itself differently through these dimensions, but supports the position that with the help of planning, sound information architecture, and accurate descriptions, virtual exhibits can be equally effective in presenting history to users of all abilities. Virtual exhibitions should involve archivists, historians, and technologists in collaboration to achieve the best results. The article also presents elements of the W3C-WAI guidelines as relevant to the unique needs of this project.

Articles About Serving Patrons 

"Archives: Accessibility for the Disabled" by Brenda Kepley. The American Archivist, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Winter 1983), pp. 42-51

Archivist Brenda Kepley here offers an overview of the lack of accessibility for disabled people in the archives, despite the principles of accessibility to which archivists dedicate themselves. She gives concrete examples of how inaccessibility shows up for different disabled people (e.g. Deaf people, people with mobility issues) and offers some suggestions for addressing them. She asserts that there is a balance to be achieved between the archivist’s “responsibility to accommodate disabled individuals who seek access to our materials” and the resources of the archive (e.g. preserving staff’s time; protecting documents).

"The Archival Setting and People with Disabilities: A Legal Analysis" by Ronald Gilardi. The American Archivist, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Fall 1993), pp. 704-713

Legal rules and regulations, with increasing regularity, determine how we operate our institutions. The Americans with Disabilities Act illustrates this point well. It has affected archives in several ways, and will continue to do so. The act influences archival employment practices and will assuredly influence the nature and quality of service made available to patrons with disabilities. This article explores, in general terms, the relevance of the Americans with Disabilities Act to the archival setting.

"Creating a More Accessible Environment for Our Users with Disabilities: Responding to an Office for Civil Rights Complaint" by Donna McCrea. Archival Issues 1, No. 38 (2017)

In 2012, a University of Montana student advocacy organization filed a complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights stating that unequal access to the university’s electronic and information technologies (EIT) resulted in discrimination against students with disabilities. This article shares ways in which the University of Montana, including its archives and special collections, responded to the resulting mandate that “employees must create, obtain, and maintain all EIT in a manner that ensures it is accessible to individuals with disabilities.” The author argues that a professional and ethical commitment to diversity, access, and use compels archivists and colleagues in the cultural heritage community to increase their awareness of accessibility issues as they relate to electronic and information technologies, and to act to eliminate barriers experienced by their users with disabilities.

Resources on Accessibility in the Archives

W3C: The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) hosts the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which develops standards and support materials to help web users and developers understand and implement accessibility. Find resources for content writers, designers, developers, trainers, managers, testers, policy makers, and more in multiple languages. This group occasionally offers a free introductory course on web accessibility.

The A11y Project offers several resources, including recommended readings and an accessibility checklist for media and online content.

"Digital Accessibility in the Archives" from the blog Archivists on the Issues contains resources on improving the accessibility of websites, finding aids, social media, digital collections, and more.

"Making Archives Accessible for People with Disabilities" by Frank H. Serene contains information on improving physical access for archival researchers, visitors, and employees.

"Making Archival and Special Collections More Accessible" (2015) from Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) Research contains assessments of and recommendations for improving accessibility in archives and special collections.

"Guidelines for Accessible Archives for People with Disabilities" (2019) from the Society of American Archivists Accessibility and Disability Section, which contains information on physical, digital, and workplace accessibility in archival settings, including specific recommendations on reading rooms.

"Making Archives and Special Collections Accessible" by Lydia Tang, Blake Relle, Erin Wolfe, and Fernanda Perrone contains recommendations for improving digital and physical access of archives and exhibits.

"Reimagining Access" Inclusive Technology Design for Archives and Special Collections: Accessibility in Archives & Libraries

The February 2021 Symposium "Reimagining Access: Inclusive Technology Design for Archives and Special Collections" ~ a project brings together archive and library professionals, designers and design disability advocates and partners from SAA’s Accessibility and Disability Section, The Braille Institute, and Pasadena ADA.