Evolving Attitudes about Disability

Winner of Gerber Foods Annual Photo Search

Gerber has been making baby food since 1927. A year after its founding, the company launched a contest to find an image of “the perfect baby” to represent its advertising campaign. The winning entry was a charcoal sketch of an adorable infant drawn by artist Dorothy Hope Smith. Forty years later, the identity of the Gerber Baby, was finally revealed. The baby was Ann Turner Cook, a neighbor of the artist, who later became an English teacher and mystery novelist. Her image has remained the company’s trademark for more than 90 years.

In 2010, Gerber originated another contest — the Gerber Baby Photo Search. Earlier this month, the company made history when it chose 18-month-old Lucas Warren, a baby with Down’s syndrome from Dalton, Georgia as its 2018 Gerber “Spokesbaby.” The choice of Lucas speaks volumes about the country’s evolving attitudes toward people with Down syndrome and other disabilities.

Down syndrome was formally recognized by British physician John Langdon Down in 1866. According to the National Association of Down Syndrome, little was understood about the syndrome until 1959, “when French Pediatrician/Geneticist Professor Jerome Lejeune discovered that individuals with Down syndrome have an extra chromosome—just one year before NADS was founded. Shortly thereafter, chromosome studies were developed to confirm the diagnosis of Down syndrome.” Prior to that, most babies born with Down syndrome, then referred to by the derogatory and obsolete term, mongoloid, were institutionalized.

By the 1970s, some parents were being advised to raise their babies with Down syndrome at home. NADS helped parents to do so through their services for families and children with down syndrome. Yet, several decades would pass before people outside the Down syndrome community would gain awareness of the abilities and talents of individuals with Down syndrome.

In recent years, the world has come to recognize that having Down syndrome need not be a barrier to accomplishing just about anything. Today, people with Down syndrome are well-known actors, musicians, athletes, fashion designers and politicians — and yes — Gerber babies!

In a Feb. 7, 2018 press release, Gerber President and CEO Bill Partyka said: “Lucas’ winning smile and joyful expression won our hearts this year, and we are all thrilled to name him our 2018 Spokesbaby… Every year, we choose the baby who best exemplifies Gerber’s longstanding heritage of recognizing that every baby is a Gerber baby, and this year, Lucas is the perfect fit.”

Upon learning that her son was grand prize winner, Lucas’ mother Cortney Warren said: ““This is such a proud moment for us as parents knowing that Lucas has a platform to spread joy, not only to those he interacts with every day, but to people all over the country…We hope this opportunity sheds light on the special needs community and educates people that with acceptance and support, individuals with special needs have the potential to change the world – just like our Lucas!”

Congratulations Lucas!


Wheeling Through Middle School

Like so many girls her age, Melissa Shang of Westborough, Massachusetts, loves American Girl dolls and the accompanying books that tell the dolls’ stories. The company’s BeForever line includes dolls and stories that teach children ages 8-13 about American history, with characters including Kaya, a Native American girl living in the mid-late 1700s, Felicity, whose story takes place at the beginning of the American Revolution, Josefina, a Mexican-American girl living in the early 1800s and Molly, who resides in Illinois during World War II. Beginning in the early 2000s, the company launched its Girl of the Year line, featuring contemporary heroines of different races, religions and ethnicities dealing with a variety of challenges.

Melissa enjoyed playing with the dolls and learning about their stories, but as a girl with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a type of muscular dystrophy, she longed for an American Girl doll who like her, had a disability. With the support of her older sister Eva, in 2014 Melissa initiated an online petition asking the creators of American Girl dolls to add a Girl of the Year doll with a disability. Though the petition went viral, was signed by more than 140,000 people and garnered significant media attention, the company has not committed to produce a doll with a disability.

So, the Shang sisters moved on to Plan B: They wrote a book about a character named Mia, who like Melissa, attends middle school, has hobbies and friends and uses a wheelchair. The sisters set up a Kickstarter campaign, quickly raising enough money to hire an editor and literary agent and eventually, they sent the book, “Mia Lee is Wheeling Through Middle School” out to publishers.

Yet, the responses Melissa received from publishers were disappointing and remarkably like one another. Publishers felt that Mia, the book’s protagonist, seemed “too happy” for a girl with a degenerative nerve disease who used a wheelchair.

Writing in an opinion piece for the New York Times published in June, 2017, Melissa explained, “Mia Lee, my sassy, YouTube-loving heroine, differed too much from the convention of what a disabled kid is supposed to be like…There are very few stories about kids in wheelchairs, and there are even fewer with a disabled person who is cheerful and happy.

“Disability is always seen as a misfortune,” wrote Melissa, “and disabled characters are simply opportunities to demonstrate the kindness of the able-bodied protagonists.”

Still determined to get her book out, Melissa used money from the Kickstarter campaign to self-publish it. In August 2016, her dream came true. Since then, “Mia Lee is Wheeling Through Middle School” has sold hundreds of copies. According to Amazon.com “Melissa has gone on to become a young disability advocate. She has given a TEDx talk, spoke at the United Nations, and introduced Malala Yousafzai at the National Constitutional Center.”

To learn more about Melissa Shang, visit her website at melissashang.com

Visit the Only Bricks and Mortar Museum that Celebrates Disability!

Photo of Museum of disABILITY History

Planning on being in or around the Buffalo, N.Y. area this summer? If so, you may want to spend a few hours at the Museum of disABILITY History. Founded in 1998, the museum was the brainchild of Dr. James Boles, president and CEO of People Inc., Western N.Y.’s leading nonprofit human services agency. Boles first recognized a need for a museum that collected and displayed archives and materials related to disability while teaching an Introduction to Disabilities class at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

“The museum started with a small traveling exhibition entitled, “The Birth of Newborn Screening,” says Museum of disABILITY History director, Douglas Farley. “From there, it grew by adding a new exhibit each year. After ten years, the museum had enough content to set up shop permanently. In 2010, the New York State Board of Regents granted a charter.” It remains the only bricks and mortar museum dedicated to preserving disability history, says Farley.

The museum’s permanent installation includes exhibitions on how the care of people with disabilities has evolved from early poorhouses and almshouses to state schools and institutions. Other permanent exhibitions include “Eugenics in America,” “Pop Culture,” “Sports and Disability,” “The Evolution of Adaptive Equipment,” and a display of  “The Invacar, a three-wheeled carriage powered by a motorcycle-type engine, that was manufactured in Britain from 1948–1977.”

On display through the end of 2016, visitors can view the museum’s newest temporary exhibition, “In Celebration of Down Syndrome.” The multimedia exhibition chronicles the medical history, myths and realities highlights the successes of people with Down syndrome and explores depictions of Down syndrome in popular culture.” Highlights of “In Celebration of Down Syndrome” include photography by Eva Snoijink, author of “Downs Upside: A Positive View of Down’s Syndrome,” and “Kelly’s Hollywood,” a documentary by a woman with Down Syndrome.

Also on temporary display, is “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic.” The exhibition includes contents from hundreds of suitcases, belonging to patients at the Willard Psychiatric Center, located in the Finger Lakes region of N.Y. When the facility closed in 1995, the forgotten suitcases were discovered. They “tell the stories of the lives that were left behind when patients entered the center, many of whom never left.”

In addition to its exhibition, the museum features a wide range of public programs including films, openings, readings and special events.

The building which houses the museum, originally a 1930s-era fire hall, includes a 5,000 square foot gallery, a small theater, a space for the museum’s archives, offices and meeting rooms. Farley says the museum’s main floor is fully accessible, and each of the museum’s three levels is accessible by elevator. Museum docents are part of a vocational program with People Inc.

For additional information about the Museum of disABILITY, and to take its virtual tour, visit museumofdisability.org. Also available on the museum’s site are free educational curricula about disability history for grades PreK – 12.