The Disabling Museum, Part 2: Disability & Hidden Disability

Disability in the United States

 According to US government statistics, 26 percent of all Americans are officially classified as having a disability. What’s not captured in that figure, however, is that two in three Americans are overweight, and one in three is obese. From a purely clinical perspective, this is likely to lead to difficulties in walking, standing, and moving, especially in confined spaces.


Also, vast but unknown numbers of Americans have chronic back pain, which is of course a disability.


Hidden Disabilities

Many disabilities cannot readily be seen. These are hidden disabilities.

Here is a brief list, generated after about a 15 minute Google search, of potentially disabling diseases and conditions — most of which you would not notice in a museum visitor:


Sometimes, a disability is hidden even to the person who has it — for example, early hearing or vision loss. There are thousands more of these potentially disabling yet hidden diseases and conditions.





Kathleen’s story

Kathleen Dunleavey wrote this email in response to Steve’s essay in the September/October 2008 issue of Museum magazine:

“I am partly like the average museum visitor you describe in your column… I am strong, thin, childless and have good vision without any obvious sign of disability (unless being 56 years old with silver hair counts as a disability).  Yet, like you, I have wondered, for 2 personal reasons, why the hell there are no benches in many Museum galleries.  The first reason, I have a lung disorder which causes me to tire after 30 minutes or so of walking and the second reason, I long to be able to gaze at an object with the serenity of stillness that sitting gives.”


This active, vibrant woman has travelled internationally on a container ship. But she also has a disability — although you wouldn’t know it to look at her. By her lights, museums do not meet her needs.


Our friend Viva is another good example of why you want to look at individual needs, not at group disabilities. 

Slide 31

To meet her, you would not know she is in chronic pain. And she has another non-obvious health issue:  Gluten intolerance.


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2 Responses to “The Disabling Museum, Part 2: Disability & Hidden Disability”

  1. hiddendisabilities Says:

    I can relate as I have Fibromyalgia,
    Arthritis, Chronic Fatigue and the list goes on…

    I have pain daily and, Yet I still workout and eat well and the public just doesn’t get it. To add to the list of Q’s is I have a cocker spaniel service dog, so people look at me in a crazy fog.

    • stevetokar Says:

      Thanks for your comment. It’s a slow process, but I believe that eventually museums will get the idea that “ability” and “disability” lie along a continuum – that anyone who walks in the door might have a disability that isn’t necessarily obvious and that doesn’t fit into a preconceived notion of what disability is.

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