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Disability Culture in the UCSB Archives

What does it mean to be normal? What makes a body beautiful? What does proper care look like, and who is deserving of it? The answers to these questions, transforming over time and place, reveal important beliefs and values about a culture. They shape that culture’s architecture, its laws, its social institutions, and its art. These beliefs about disability, their manifestation in a society, deeply impact the experience of living with a disability. Representations of disability in art, literature, drama, and film, for example, often use disability as a metaphor for loss, isolation, spiritual pain, moral failure, and treat disabled characters as objects of fear or pity. Consider Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Flannery O’Connor’s Hulga, the Helen Keller of The Miracle Worker. In so doing, they impact the way that people with disabilities are perceived and treated.

But people with disabilities are not just objects of culture, they are also agents within society. This exhibit examines documents from UCSB’s Special Collections that illuminate the emergence of a distinct disability culture that aimed to transform these values as part of the fight for disability rights in the United States. The story of disability rights is often left out of the broader history of American civil rights movements. Yet people with disabilities are an expanding segment of the American population, cutting across race, class, gender, and sexuality. And the history of disabled people’s struggles and creation has great relevance in American society today. This exhibit retells this history from the 1970s to the 1990s, with a focus on historical materials from organizations based in Santa Barbara and Southern California. In addition to discussing the history of disability at UCSB, organizations focused on in this exhibit include the Independent Living Resource Center (Isla Vista), Access Theatre (Santa Barbara), the Community Service Center for the Disabled (San Diego), and the Committee for the Rights of the Disabled (Los Angeles).