The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation

Doris Zames Fleischer and Frieda Zames, The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001)

It is commonplace at the turn of the 21st century for leftists to interrogate the intersection between race, gender, sexual orientation and class from a variety of perspectives.  While there may be little agreement between socialists and postmodernists, environmentalists and anarchists, the vast majority of progressive scholars and activists have at least a passing acquaintance with many of the debates that have thrust what some term “identity politics” to the center.  In the case of disability politics, however, the paucity of left analysis on the topic is truly shocking, notwithstanding that people with disabilities are among the most impoverished and oppressed groups in American society. Fleischer and Zames’ concise and elegant overview of the current state of the disability rights movement accordingly fills a huge void in the literature and hopefully will provoke greater examination of the issues at stake.

Dividing the book into twelve chapters, the authors, who are sisters based in the New York City area, survey a wide range of topics including, to name only a very few: the representation of President Roosevelt’s disability, polio, and his extensive efforts to hide the level of his disability while in office; the politics of blind and deaf activism; and the impact of various legislative reforms, including the controversial Americans with Disabilities Act, on people with disabilities.  At the center of this account is the social-political paradigm of disablement which asserts that it is the structural and attitudinal barriers in society rather than the medical impairments of individuals with disabilities that are the fundamental cause for the marginalization of people with disabilities.  Covering such a large number of issues in a relatively short space is a daunting task, and the authors are to be praised for a generally superb performance, based on solid and informed research.  Important grassroots struggles almost completely unknown to leftists vividly spring to life and are likely to leave a lasting impression on readers. The 1977 occupation by hundreds of disability rights activists of federal government offices of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare across the United States, to protest the failure of the new Carter Administration to issue regulations on disability accommodations pursuant to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, is a particularly important chapter of disability rights history that has largely remained unknown.   In San Francisco, the protest lasted some twenty-five days, the longest sit-in at a federal building, and resulted in a complete victory by the protestors.  More importantly, the consciousness of those involved was transformed as the protestors overcome the arbitrary diagnostic categories that defined their disabilities to unite around political goals and pursue what might be regarded as disability liberation politics from below.  Crucial linkages of solidarity were also forged beyond the disability community as the local branch of the Black Panthers provided food to the protestors and trade unions offered their support.  As this volume is likely destined to become the standard history of the disability rights movement, the inclusion of this material is particularly satisfying.

This text nevertheless is by no means without flaws.  For all its eloquence, the history presented remains fundamentally a liberal one.  While this does not detract from the urgency of the material nor the left’s need to better educate itself as to the current issues of the disability community, it sometimes does preclude a more radical analysis, including a more balanced assessment of the relatively limited success (I would argue) of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Readers of Socialism and Democracy might be especially puzzled by the chapter on healthcare.  While it painstakingly documents the difficulties that people with disabilities face under managed care, where market-driven HMOs do not hesitate to deny coverage for a variety of assistive devices that people with disabilities require to live and work independently, there is no mention at all of the various campaigns for a universal healthcare plan that would cover all Americans, regardless of disability or employment status.  Given the high unemployment rates faced by people with disabilities, one would think that universal healthcare would be an obvious solution and that, at the very least, the fiasco/betrayal of the early Clinton Administration on this issue would warrant some discussion.  Unfortunately, one gets the sense that on this issue, as well as others, the authors have paid far too much attention to current Congressional policy initiatives and therefore exclude those not in vogue.  Similarly, while the detailed account of litigation by disability advocacy organizations is enlightening and interesting, one occasionally is left with the impression that the authors might have better spent their time analyzing political issues than repeating rulings from various courts. Other weaknesses are more idiosyncratic than fatal but include a perhaps inevitable focus on political events and struggles in the immediate New York City area and a strong bias in favor of deaf and hard-of-hearing activists who work with other disability rights activists, as opposed to those who have rather compellingly argued that Deafness is a distinct culture that warrants treatment as a linguistic minority rather than a disability.

These criticisms should not detract from the significant accomplishment that the authors have achieved. At a time when left journals and magazines almost completely ignore disability politics and major left conferences still do not comply with basic wheelchair accessibility legislation, this text is clearly one that progressives should seek out and study.

Review by Ravi Malhotra
Graduate Student
Harvard Law School

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