They Need You! Disability, Visual Culture, and the Poster Child, 1945-1980

Celeste Tường Vy Sharpe

Advisor: Suzanne E. Smith, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Ellen Wiley Todd, Stephen Robertson

Merten Hall, #3300
November 30, 2016, 01:00 PM to 11:00 AM


They Need You! Disability, Visual Culture, and the Poster Child, 1945-1980 examines the tumultuous history of the national poster child—an official representative for both a disease and an organization—in post-World War II America. This dissertation argues that the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis/March of Dimes and Muscular Dystrophy Association’s poster child campaigns increased the visibility and understanding of physical disability in new ways by depicting disabled American children within their families and communities as full, if physically limited, citizens of the nation. The campaigns' emphasis on curing disability and illness centered on a rhetoric of disease eradication, which through repetition became a dominant logic for health charities in the United States. The focus on disease eradication in poster child imagery promoted a narrow view of disease and disability as conditions to be overcome, and precluded political avenues and policies beyond medical research into a cure. Moreover, these poster child campaigns contributed to broader shift toward viewing charitable donations as a consumable good through the establishment of annual rituals of philanthropy-as-civic participation. 

This project is presented through the digital publishing platform Scalar in an alternate structure for the elements required of a historical dissertation—historiography, artifacts, data, analysis, citations. In particular, the digital presentation allows me to foreground the visual materials of study, both within my analysis and as project elements on their own. This approach surfaces sources rarely seen, like those centered on the organizations’ employees, the parents of poster children, and most crucially the poster children themselves. The project is currently password protected, but access to the project is available by contacting Celeste Sharpe by email (