Joanne Woiak is a lecturer in the Disability Studies Program at the University of Washington and her areas of specialization are history of biomedical sciences and eugenics.

From January through March 2011, the University of Washington hosted the traveling version of the Willard Suitcase Exhibit at Odegaard Undergraduate Library. The exhibit brings a patient-centered view of the history of psychiatry to a wide audience, through the stories told by the contents of suitcases that were abandoned in the attic of a New York state mental hospital that operated from 1870 until 1995 ( The UW Disability Studies Program ( was invited to co-sponsor the exhibit’s visit by members of the Seattle organization Live Inclusive, who are committed to enhancing community living opportunities for people with developmental disabilities ( Live Inclusive planned a series of eight weekly evening presentations featuring personal stories and policy discussions about community living options for individuals with disabilities. My colleague Sherrie Brown and I in Disability Studies saw this community-campus partnership as a promising opportunity to highlight issues around disability history, identity, and rights in the contexts of the university, the state, and beyond. Our program has a history of presenting timely and thoughtful annual public symposia, and so to complement the exhibit we decided to develop free public programming consisting of documentary film screenings and invited disability studies lectures from a variety of disciplinary and activist perspectives. The entire series of 22 events was a great success, with attendance of on average 40 people per event and as many as 80 present at the opening reception and several of the guest lectures. The UW librarians reported that the exhibit itself was one of the best attended and received that they have ever hosted.

The UW organizers put together a diverse set of events that we titled “Unspeakable: Disability History, Identity, and Rights.” Spearheaded by ASUW Student Disability Commission director Rosanna Sze, the student groups for disability, women’s, and GBLT issues sponsored the film showings as well as the visit by disability and queer writer and activist Eli Clare. The other invited speakers were sponsored by a broad coalition of UW departments, among them the Haring Center for Applied Research and Training in Education, Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity, Department of History, and Program on Values in Society. We advertised heavily across campus and to local disability organizations. Our DS students participated in the events for class credit and several helped out as volunteers, and we were pleased to see attendance by many students and faculty from programs such as Education, Social Work, Women Studies, Comparative History of Ideas, and Law, Societies, and Justice. There was also tremendous community interest in the exhibit and the programming. Live Inclusive invited disability service professionals from supported living and employment organizations, as well as leaders of government agencies and advocacy groups such as The Arc. The UW organizers contributed to these outreach efforts by publicizing the events to self-advocacy organizations, centers for independent living, and state-wide disability rights agencies. The exhibit also gave us the opportunity to make valuable connections with people in the psychiatric consumer-survivor movement, local professionals in the mental health field, and activists doing work on restoring and memorializing cemeteries at state hospitals.

The films we screened for “Unspeakable” included documentaries on the histories of institutionalization and sterilization, Willowbrook and Lynchburg Story, as well as the biography of activist Arthur Campbell, If I Can’t Do It. Richard Cohen’s just re-released documentary Hurry Tomorrow, filmed in an L.A. psychiatric ward in 1974, attracted the largest crowd and a lively discussion about how much things have and haven’t changed in psychiatric care from the time of the Willard Hospital patients to the 1970s to the current day. Live Inclusive sponsored a wonderful talk by Darby Penney, who is not only the researcher and curator for the Willard Suitcase Exhibit but also a long-time leader in the rights movement for people with psychiatric histories. The ASUW Student Disability Commission, Women’s Action Commission, and GBLT Commission jointly hosted two presentations by Eli Clare that drew large and enthusiastic crowds. It was great to see our local disability and queer communities joining together for these activities, exploring such issues as shame, intersectionality, and historical memory. Another highlight of the quarter was a collaborative performance response to the exhibit created by a UW undergraduate dance class that was taught by Dance faculty member Jurg Koch.

Our line-up of invited scholars included disability historians Geoff Reaume and Jeff Brune, professor of education Phil Ferguson, and philosopher Licia Carlson. York University’s Geoff Reaume gave an impassioned talk on “Memorializing Mad People’s History” that helped us to gain greater appreciation for the public history and archival work being done in Canadian disability studies and activism by current and former psychiatric patients. Phil Ferguson from Chapman University had a large audience for his presentation of his important research findings from the files of inmates, families, and professionals associated with Oregon’s Fairview Training School. Phil also led discussion about a couple of compelling films that document official portrayals and family memories of Fairview. Jennifer Stuber, a faculty member in UW’s School of Social Work, lectured on “Transforming the American Conversation about Mental Health.” Licia Carlson from Providence College was inspired by the Willard suitcase exhibit to write a fascinating paper analyzing some of those individuals’ stories from her disciplinary perspectives in feminist philosophy and disability ethics. And I gave the wrap-up presentation for the series, on my studies of archival materials from Washington state mental institutions dealing with eugenics and forced sterilization.

I am extremely grateful to these colleagues who came out to the Pacific Northwest during a cold, rainy winter to generously share their expertise and their support for this project. I especially want to thank Gallaudet University’s Jeff Brune for coming back to Seattle and spreading his enthusiasm for disability history. I was initially inspired to organize the “Unspeakable” series because of conversations with Jeff—whom I had not previously met despite both of us having been located at UW until just a few years ago. In early March, he led a well-attended and productive brownbag seminar that brought faculty and students of DS and History into conversation. Jeff also delivered a public talk about his research into the shifting identities of Black Like Me author John Howard Griffin, which helped us to think about disability history and identity formation outside of institutional settings. His arguments about the intersections between disability and other identity markers such as race and gender in Griffin’s life resonated with the personal narratives of the “lives left behind” told by the Willard exhibit.

The tremendous support that the DS Program received from our campus and community partners made it possible to maintain a high level of interest throughout this eight week series of activities. I think our efforts generated good critical dialogues on the complex issues surrounding institutionalization and power, and disability identities and social justice in the past and present. The exhibit was a powerful catalyst for interactions among academics, disability service professionals, agencies, families, self-advocates, and the public. Everyone who attended had the opportunity to gain some appreciation for disability studies and the social model perspective on the meanings of disability and disability rights. Given the complicated politics and current social climate in the state of Washington around issues of mental disability, as well as the ongoing policy discussions at UW regarding issues of accessibility, the exhibit and events were especially timely. Our “Unspeakable” series contributed to giving voice to diverse scholarly and community views on empowering people with disabilities.

From Disability Rights Washington

Reflections of the Willard Exhibit

By Michael Goodwill
Guest columnist

In August 2009 there was a gathering of folks committed to the conversation of opportunity, choice and inclusive communities.  It was a conversation around opportunity and life.  The conversation moved towards finding a single activity or effort that would connect community as a whole to the realities of living life unobstructed from barriers, walls, political will and the matter of money.

Community and outreach helped define our message; more conversations led to a focused effort to raise awareness and alternatives to living in an institution.  The state of Washington currently has five institutions in operation for people with developmental disabilities.

We decided to bring an exhibit over from New York that features individuals who lived in institutions.  The exhibit is entitled “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic.” It is a powerful reflection of people, people who had aspirations, accomplishments and community connections.  It also tells the story of isolation and loss and raises the questions,

“Why were these people committed to institutions?”

“Why did they stay for so long?”

The effort came to be called ‘Live Inclusive’ and we have since partnered with the Disability Studies Program at the University of Washington.  In addition to the Suitcase Exhibit we also added four local exhibits from organizations and efforts currently taking place in the State of Washington.  Alpha Supported Living Services, PROVAIL, Becoming Citizens and Self Advocates In Leadership (SAIL) all displayed exhibits that contributed to the conversation.   In addition, Live Inclusive and the University of Washington provided over 25 community events that included panels, forums, a 9-week lecture series and weekly films.

The response and energy around these exhibits was beyond what our group could have imagined.  The event was hugely successful.  A University of Washington representative stated that in the last 15 years there has not been an exhibit at Odegaard Library that has received more attention and more foot traffic from students and the community.

It became very clear that this endeavor has added a significant amount of value and active participation.   It is an effort that will lead to individual hopes and dreams, creating a platform where community has a voice in tearing down barriers and knocking down walls.

The range of the audience who visited the exhibits and attended the forums was diverse and helped strengthen the need to continue a conversation.  We had community members, self advocates, parents, students, organizations and many local and state officials who spent time with the exhibits.

For nine weeks a discussion continued about inclusive lives, opportunities and choice for everyone.  Live Inclusive has become a means to provide information and education to the state and a conduit that supports and sustains an effort in providing resource and energy around social justice.

The guest speakers, lectures, films and panels were just as diverse.  Darby Penny, the author and co-creator of the Suitcase Exhibit, spoke and offered intimate details of how this exhibit came to be, and the stories of the people the exhibit represented.  Speakers also included disability historians Geoff Reaume and Joanne Woiak, who provided conversations about social justice within the area of disability and where we were at and where we are at today.

The weekly panels provided an opportunity for the community to have an engaged conversation and ask questions from various leaders across the state of Washington.  Panels included Donald Clintsman, DSHS, Lee Valenta, Community Organizer, Stuart Torgerson, Snohomish County, Betsy Geib, a Parent Advocate, Mike Hatzenbeler, PROVAIL, Scott Livengood, Alpha Supported Living Services, Norm Davis, Andrea Kadlec, Emily Rogers, the Arc of Washington State, George Adams, Self Advocate, and Ed Holen from Developmental Disability Council of Washington State.  These panels provided an opportunity to discuss the great things that are happening in our state, what people are taking advantage of, how people are connected to services and resources, and how people are connected to their community.  It was an opportunity for the community to ask difficult questions, take ownership and create accountability as we move forward.

Bringing these lectures and exhibits to the community was not necessarily about an outcome.  This is about people. It’s about lives, it’s about choice. This is about civil rights.  Live Inclusive is a representation of this effort and this energy.  We are thankful to all of the people who made this event so successful. It has uncovered our community pillars and a drive that supports conversation and gatherings. It has brought people together that support making change that includes opportunity and choice.

It is a true reflection of how inclusive our communities are.


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