F&M Stories

Observing Disability Everywhere

At Franklin & Marshall's Phillips Museum of Art one recent morning, 22 students and their professor went downstairs to large tables spread with mostly black-and-white photographs.

"Each of you will work on a piece of art that we will look at here today," Marco Di Giulio, associate professor of Hebrew Language and Literature, tells them as they gather around to view.

Students examine photographs depicting or associated with disability — a 1950s child with polio, hospital rooms, assistive technology, mental ward, a priest giving last rites — and later they view works created by artists with disabilities displayed in an upstairs gallery.

Another photo from the museum's collection is an African-American nurse at work.

"This was right in the middle of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era," Lindsay Marino, the museum's director, explains. "It's really interesting to think through her day and her patients in this way."

Marino shows a large photograph and asks the students what they see.

"Freak show," one student says.

Marino nods. "That is what it is; this is in Florida in the 1980s. What does that mean as far as people depicted in this manner and imagery, in terms of history with barkers here out front?"

Weeks of work in the multi-disciplined "Narratives of Disability" course brought the students to this room and these photographs. They learned that disability is a "fundamental component of human diversity," Di Giulio says.

"It is a special event because the students will use the knowledge developed during the course to interpret these rare images we have on campus," he says. "Disability is everywhere once we begin to look for it."

The course, which is offered again in the fall 2024 semester, is cross-listed under Public Health, Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Science, Technology and Society programs.

Di Giulio says that at the end of the semester, the students will make presentations to the campus community of the works they chose "to share and help observers to appreciate the meaning of this art and the different modes of disability representation."

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