Writing Disability History for the National Park Service

Perri Meldon, M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

The Department of the Interior (DOI) is a monolithic building located in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington DC. Its neighbors include the World Bank, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and just down the road the White House and the Washington Monument. The building, constructed in the 1930s, is adorned with paintings from Native American artists and prints from Ansel Adams. It is home to, among other divisions, the Bureau of Land Reclamation, Bureau of American Indian Affairs, and the National Park Service (NPS). Tucked into a wing of the seventh floor is the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education (CROIE), where I had the honor of completing my Hyde Scholarship-sponsored internship in the summer of 2017.

View from the Rooftop of the Department of the Interior Building

The cafeteria of the Department of the Interior features paintings rendered by Native American artists in the 1930s

 

My supervisors were Barbara Little, an archaeologist and program manager of CROIE, and Paloma Bolasny, youth program coordinator and historian. I worked with a team of inspiring colleagues; they are the innovative minds behind the NPS Teaching with Historic Places program and the NPS LGBTQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered Queer) Heritage Theme Study. My assigned tasks with CROIE were two-fold. I was to assist Paloma with DC-area events for other National Council for Preservation Education (NCPE) interns. My internship, though with NPS CROIE, was through the National Council for Preservation Education. My second task was to develop the content for a disability history series on the Telling All Americans’ Stories website.

Beginning first with my work with Paloma, we coordinated a NCPE intern orientation at the Watergate complex in early June. This allowed interns the opportunity to learn about others’ projects, as well as the sites where they performed their internships. Interns in the DC area had the opportunity to work with NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), Fish and Wildlife Services, and several other divisions of the DOI. Later in the summer, Paloma and I organized visits to the Octagon Museum, Antietam Battlefield, and the Museum Resource Center. Additionally, I created a survey questionnaire for NCPE interns on their experience, which will be distributed as a pamphlet for interns and their supervisory sites across the United States.

Perri standing in the Octagon Museum, which is today protected by the American Institute of Architects. This excursion is one of the many Perri helped coordinate for DC-area NCPE interns.

 

My primary task for the summer was to create a new series for the NPS Telling All American Stories project. TAAS was created by the National Park Service Cultural Resources Office as a way to articulate diverse and inclusive history throughout the NPS. Many of these stories feature traditionally underrepresented communities who come from, reside near, or visit the National Parks. Some of these series include African American Heritage, LGBTQ Heritage, Indigenous Heritage, and American Latino Heritage. When Barbara called me in the spring for our phone interview, she asked about my prior experiences working and living with people with intellectual disabilities. She then told me how they would like to create a Disability History series for the TAAS. Would I be willing to pursue that? Absolutely.

 

A screenshot from the NPS Telling All Americans’ Stories Disability Histories series homepage.

 

The task proved much more challenging than I could possibly have imagined. Though I had written historical essays on disability studies in the past, I entered new territory with researching and writing for the NPS. I spent the first month intensively researching all sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, National Historic Landmarks, and units and programs of the National Park Service pertaining to disability. I found hospitals, schools, houses, religious buildings, and cemeteries. From there I categorized each location thematically and was able to see the beginnings of a narrative, though it certainly would not be linear or straightforward. These sites laid the framework for the seven articles I composed: Introduction, Early and Shifting Attitudes of Treatment, Educational Reform, Military and Disability, Presidents and Disability, the Disability Rights Movement, and the National Park Service and Accessibility.

 

Writing about disability history is complex and often encounters themes and subjects that are painful to confront. Attempting to present these histories in thought-provoking, respectful, and complicated ways is challenging already, but it became increasingly so as I adapted my writing from an academic style to one preferred by the National Park Service. My colleagues at the NPS recommended I write for an eighth-grade reading level, using Hemingwayapp.com to filter all my drafts. Each article underwent intensive scrutiny from subject matter experts in disability studies, as well as NPS staff across the country. It was an exhaustive and at times very frustrating process, but also one of the most valuable aspects of my internship. I was able to 1. build connections with scholars of disability studies across the country and NPS staff I admire and 2. learn how difficult it is to write about disability history that is simultaneously nuanced, accessible, and considerate of a multitude of perspectives.

 

Toward the end of my internship, I had extensive conversations with my supervisor and colleagues about how best to treat the more “difficult histories” embedded in American disability history. How do you discuss more complicated, painful, and potentially politically-fraught issues when it is a federally-supported publication How do you present these histories in a digestible way when your audience is, well, everyone? I wanted to write about psychiatric institutions for African Americans in the Reconstruction era,  how the cemetery for Native American at the “Canton Indian Insane Asylum” in South Dakota is today hidden by a golf course, how presentations of women as hysterical served as rhetoric to ban them from voting or receiving education, how immigrants with physical differences or certain racial backgrounds were turned away at Ellis Island and other entry stations, how patients with AIDS were eventually protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But these stories take time and patience to tell, as well as more space than is allotted to the TAAS website. I would also need more time to think through these histories before I feel better prepared to write about them. Ultimately, we decided not to explore these histories in-depth but to briefly recognize them: “the National Park Service recognizes the absence of certain parts of disability history from these articles. Some of these histories are more challenging and require more space than is available in each of these articles. The National Park Service wants to honor these histories, but does not want to do injustice by simply skimming the surface of their complexities. Still, these stories deserve brief mention.”

The bullet points above depict the histories that Perri and her colleagues with CROIE decided not to fully examine in the TAAS Disability History series. However, they are important histories that deserve recognition and perhaps a more in-depth study in the future.

 

These histories, as well as the questions they begged, follow me back to UMass this semester. Taking courses in memory studies and public history help me to tether apart the issues raised during my time with the National Park Service. I am deeply indebted to Charles Hyde and UMass for supporting me through this internship, and am grateful for the doors it has opened.

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2 comments
  1. Laura said:

    What an interesting and important topic! (Topic seems like too narrow of a word.) I hope to read more from you and the NPS about this in the future.

  2. Barbara Little said:

    Thank you for this thoughtful summary of your internship. You’ve made a great contribution through your work!

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