In 1922, if you were missing a limb or had a disability that people gawked at, you risked a $50 fine if you ventured onto the streets of Chicago. The intent of the ordinance that restricted such movement was evident in its wording: the city wanted to shield the public from those who were “in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object.” The ordinance–which the City Council didn’t repeal until 1974–is now on display at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, amid other documents, art, and artifacts that tell the at times shameful, at times inspiring history of disability in Chicago: from mid-19th-century institutionalization and relocation efforts to the early-20th-century eugenics initiatives to modern disability rights movements that demanded accessible public transportation and housing and paved the path for activist groups such as Not Dead Yet, which opposes legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide, and Jerry’s Orphans, which annually protests Jerry Lewis’s televised pity parties.

Curated by David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, who teach disability studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Chicago Disability History Exhibit is a massive undertaking that took two years to launch. “We had to scour out a history that had never been collected before and was buried,” says Mitchell. They met with people from disability organizations and independent-living centers, interviewed city officials and judges who helped shape the city’s laws and policies concerning the disabled, and pored over the archives at the Chicago Historical Society and the Harold Washington Library.

The exhibit opened in April, in conjunction with a monthlong city festival of disability arts and culture, and until last month everything had gone as planned. One room of the exhibit focuses on the mid-19th to mid-20th century, when disabled people were routinely institutionalized and, in some cases, killed. There’s a section on Harry Haiselden, a surgeon who presided over the deaths of several babies he deemed “defective” before getting expelled from the Chicago Medical Society for publicly promoting infanticide.

A second room focuses on the integration, art, and empowerment of people with disabilities in Chicago–when “people stopped hiding and being ashamed,” says Mitchell, and “in spite of their subjugation, they persisted and made significant contributions to the life of Chicago.” There are album covers from musicians such as Cripple Clarence Lofton, a pianist in the 1930s and ’40s who made falling to the ground part of his act; one of the canes FDR gave to benefactors as gifts; the registration form for the first Special Olympics, which was held in Chicago in 1968; and the adapted wheelchair Bob Lujano used for playing quad rugby in the documentary Murderball.

Not long after the exhibit opened something curious started happening: visitors began discreetly leaving their own art and memorabilia on the floor and on an information table. The curators found drawings by autistic children (left by their teacher) and photos of former poster children for muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy fund-raisers posing with celebrities like John Ritter.

But people didn’t only want to add to the exhibit, it turned out. Last month, while Mitchell and Snyder were on vacation in the Yucatan, their research assistant, Sharon Lamp, noticed an empty space on the wall where a shadow box containing five “better baby” medals used to be.

Better baby contests, in which a board of physicians would judge babies on their mental and physical health and development, were held in urban areas and at state fairs during the first part of the 20th century to recognize and reward healthy genetic specimens. Lamp had spent a year helping with the search for better baby medals–finally acquiring them through donations and eBay. The medals that had gone missing dated from 1916 to 1934 and had been awarded in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Wisconsin, New York, and Chicago. The contests equated certain physical standards with high social value. By implication, say Mitchell and Snyder, falling short of those standards meant you had lower social value. “One would presumably not show up at a better baby contest with a baby with disabilities,” says Mitchell. “You would have already lost.”

Lamp sent Mitchell and Snyder an e-mail about the missing medals, and when the couple returned a few days later they noticed other items were gone as well: among them, a 19th-century “charity card” with the Braille alphabet (sold on the street by blind people); a drugstore dime container, circa 1940 (used to raise funds for the March of Dimes polio eradication effort); and the pants of a “medical suit” on which performance artist Carrie Sandahl, who has a bone disorder, had written her surgical history in red marker, along with questions people have asked about her disability (“Are you contagious?” “Did people tease you as a kid?”).

“The medical suit is the most troubling loss,” says Mitchell. “It’s one of a kind.” With the exception of Sandahl’s suit, he says, “it’s the collection of items together that makes them significant as opposed to any item by itself. The exhibit contextualizes them.”

The police detective who arrived at the exhibit last week to take a report about the theft asked Mitchell and Snyder whether the stolen items had been kept in secure display cases. They hadn’t been. Just as the curators had settled on a lower than usual sight line to make the items on display accessible to people of short stature and people in wheelchairs, they’d kept the cases unlocked, so blind visitors could handle the contents.

Mitchell, Snyder, and Lamp wonder whether the theft was a random crime, a hate crime, or a crime committed by someone who felt so moved by the exhibit he or she felt compelled to take pieces of it home. If it’s the latter, they only hope the thief will also be moved enough by the items to bring them back.

Chicago Disability History Exhibit

When: Through 12/15

Where: National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, 1801 S. Indiana

Price: $10, $7 students

Info: 312-326-0270

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.