Exploring Disability Concepts through Primary Sources on the Built Environment

This post is by Ellie Kaplan, a graduate student at the University of California Davis and a 2022 Library of Congress Junior Fellow.

Disability considerations are closely connected to the built environment, the human-made spaces where we live, work, play, and travel. Analyzing photographs featuring the built environment can strengthen students’ ability to connect both historical images and familiar locations in their own lives to disability issues.

For example, consider this photo of an intersection in St. Paul, Minnesota, from around 1905. Working initially as a whole group, display the photograph and invite students to observe and list any details that jump out at them. What do they notice? Record students’ observations in the “Observe” column of the Library of Congress Primary Source Analysis Tool. Then, invite students, in pairs or small groups, to repeat the same exercise by observing and writing down any details they notice in this 2010 photo of a street corner located in Washington, D.C.

Image of people walking around in steet area in downton St. Paul, MN

Seventh Street, St. Paul MN, 1905

Street corner in Washington, D.C. from 2010. Has a old dry cleaners and a church behind it

Buildings at the intersection of 14th and Q St., NW, Washington, D.C. Carol Highsmith, 2010

Next, challenge students to compare and contrast their observations from the two images. What is similar? What is different? Select additional prompts from the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Prints and Photographs to guide students’ analysis, such as:

  • What’s missing from these images?
  • What can you learn from examining these images?
  • What do you wonder about?

If necessary, focus students’  attention on the differences between the curbs, specifically the introduction of a curb cut in the 2010 photograph. Curb cuts are small built-in ramps typically found at intersections, which allow wheeled objects (like wheelchairs) to smoothly move from the elevated sidewalk to the street. The bumpy red paver in the middle of the curb cut alerts people with visual impairments that the sidewalk is ending.

To spark further investigation, consider discussion questions on disability topics that students might research with additional primary and secondary sources. For example, how might elements of the built environment, often so familiar as to go unnoticed, affect who can access and feel welcome in certain spaces?

Ask students to consider:

  • Who might have had difficulty navigating curbs similar to those shown in the early 1900s photo?
  • How might difficulties using public sidewalks affect other daily aspects of people’s lives (such as their ability to commute to a job or go shopping)?
  • For sidewalks that have curb cuts, what other obstacles might arise? (For instance, think about various weather conditions.)
  • How can an accessible environment help disabled people be more independent? Why is that important?

    Trail along the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway

    Blue Ridge Parkway, Between Shenandoah National Park & Great Smoky Mountains, Asheville, Buncombe County, NC

Teachers could easily expand this activity by using images that show other built environments, both historic and modern. For example, this image of a sidewalk at a National Park Service Visitor Center for the Blue Ridge Parkway demonstrates how the built environment can help to expand access to public parks and more.

After students have practiced their analysis skills using photographs, encourage them to observe, reflect, and question their surrounding daily environments. What elements do they notice that make a space more useable for a wider range of abilities? What obstacles do they find that might continue to limit where a disabled person can go or that make an experience more difficult for them? This activity can expand into a lesson on disability activism and the laws that have improved accessibility in the built environment since the mid-1900s, but the core idea is to inspire students to reconsider the familiar from a new perspective.

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