Reading Department.

Beyond books
Reviews by Mary Johnson

Mary Johnson is editor of Ragged Edge



Forgotten Crimes: The Holocaust and People with Disabilities. A report by Disability Rights Advocates, Inc. Oakland, CA.: Disability Rights Advocates (449 15th St., Suite 303, Oakland, CA 94612), 49 pages (paper). Available by mail for $5 for postage and handling or online at www.dralegal.org (Alternative formats were in process as Ragged Edge went to press.)

The Disability Rights Critique of Prenatal Genetic Testing: Reflections and Recommendations. Sept./Oct., 1999: Supplement to the Hastings Center Report, available for $5 (includes postage and handling) from The Hastings Center, Garrison, NY 10524.

A Celebration of Diversity: An Annotated Bibliography About Disability Culture, by Steven E. Brown, Ph.D. Las Cruces: Institute on Disability Culture (2260 Sunrise Pt. Rd., Las Cruces, NM 88011).Available by mail for $10 from the Institute; cost includes shipping and handling for U.S. orders.


There's a wealth of material being published on disability rights today -- most not in book form but in articles and monographs, and increasingly in electronic form on the Internet. Forgotten Crimes: The Holocaust and People with Disabilities is one of these published simultaneously on paper and on the DRA website at http://www.dralegal.org/disability_holocaust/.

The 48-page booklet is a digest of research conducted by DRA for a document submitted to the court in the Swiss Bank case reparations settlement -- "interviews with Holocaust survivors and historians, as well as an analysis of all of the information currently available on Nazi era atrocities committed against people with disabilities."

Some of the material will be new to all but the most dedicated followers of this grisly chapter of disability history. While DRA quotes Hugh Gallagher's work in By Trust Betrayed and his later autobiography Black Bird Fly Away, it quotes Holocaust research published more recently. There's also never-before-published information from DRA's own interviews with disabled Holocaust survivors who are its clients: "One survivor . . . described the case of a disabled boy at her school who . . . had a vasectomy performed on him with no anesthesia. Other survivors described their experiences of being strapped to operating tables and forced to watch their own sterilizations in a mirror."

So we read not only that people with disabilities were the Nazi's first victims and that many of the techniques used later to exterminate 6 million Jews were perfected on people with disabilities, such as the use of "showers" to gas victims, but we learn that "the system of stealing gold teeth and gold bridgework from the corpses of the murdered victims was first introduced in the euthanasia killing centers and then copied in the extermination camps." We learn from 1998 and 1999 news stories that brains of murdered disabled people were being used by German scientists into the 1960s.

And we learn that despite the atrocities inflicted on disabled people, there remains little acknowledgment of the sufferings of people with disabilities as a group at the hands of the Nazis. "The Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, when visited by Disability Rights Advocates staff, did not have, among its many expensive, high-tech displays, even a single exhibit dealing with people with disabilities. . . . People with disabilities have also received virtually no reparations; . . .

"One reparations Court declared that disabled victims were 'people below the level of ciphers.'" (See article, below).


Adrienne Asch, the Henry R. Luce professor of Bioethics at Wellesley College and a longtime disability scholar, brings her lazer-pointer analysis to the issue of prenatal testing in a Hastings Center special report published last fall. Along with bioethicist Eric Parens, with whom she is writing a book, Asch lays out in her usual clear fashion the essential problem: "that prenatal genetic testing followed by selective abortion is morally problematic and . . . driven by misinformation."

Selective abortion means that one aborts a fetus selectively, based on the particular traits one knows about that particular fetus. The term is commonly used to refer to aborting female fetuses in countries like China and India. One can imagine the day when, if a "gay gene" is isolated, abortion will be selected by those who did not want gay offspring (or by those who would want gay offspring). Yet today selective abortion is regularly practiced in the U.S. on fetuses determined to carry some disability or genetic defect. Asch gets at the heart of why such abortion is discriminatory: "with prenatal diagnosis, a single trait stands for the whole, the trait obliterates the whole. With both discrimination and prenatal diagnosis, nobody finds out about the rest. The tests send the message that there no need to find out about the rest."

Misinformation, say the authors, often drives the decision to abort. "There are many widely accepted beliefs about what life with disability is like for children and their families," they write. "They include assumptions that people with disabilities lead lives of relentless agony and frustrations and that most marriages break up under the strain . . ." In fact, write Asch and Parens, research shows that much of this has no basis in reality.

"Families that include disabled children fare on average no better or worse than families in general." Facts notwithstanding, people tend to focus on the "truncation or loss of some opportunity" rather than "on the nearly infinite range of remaining opportunities."

A two-year project which Aschand Parens were involved in showed them that "ignorance about the nature of disability is widespread and such ignorance is one of the primary sources of discrimination suffered by people with disabilities" -- certainly a primary reason for aborting "defective" fetuses.


Steve Brown's useful "Celebration of Diversity" compendium is itself diverse: lists of books, fiction and nonfiction; photography sources; poetry, books for children, articles in journals and popular magazine, newspapers, newsletters, monographs, videos, movies, radio, music, comics, websites -- it seems he's overlooked no form that can record information. Its theme of disability culture makes this bibliography unique among the many sources of disability material available, helped along by Brown's insightful annotations, which serve to form an overview of what's been written and said about disability culture. You'll take away from this document the knowledge that there's a lot of disability culture out there.

Swiss Bank Holocaust Cases have made no effort to notify disabled victims of Nazi Holocaust, says attorney.

"As we monitored the Swiss Bank cases, we became aware of a serious deficiency in the Court's notice procedures," said Sid Wolinsky, chief of litigation for Disability Rights Advocates, the firm which prepared the booklet, "Forgotten Crimes."

"Because this is a class action, notice must be given to all potential claimants," he explained. The Swiss Bank case notice is the most extensive ever done, with worldwide notice in multiple languages. The Court allocated over 20 million dollars just for notice.

"Yet nothing was done in braille, large type, or audio format; no TTY was used for any of the 800 numbers that a person calls for information -- and not a single notice was placed in any disability publication anywhere in the world; not a single disability organization was contacted to distribute the notice.

"These are particularly shocking because other Nazi targeted victims were specifically notified," he continued. "Thousands of Jewish organizations were contacted; paid notices were placed in hundreds of publications specific to Jewish populations. But no targeted notice was done for people with disabilities. Thousands of potential claimants who were victims of the disability Holocaust will never know about the settlement."

Wolinsky explained that his firm "immediately brought this to the Court's attention in the form of a conditional objection to the notice." Yet nothing happened; when Ragged Edge went to press, it had been four months since DRA had brought the matter to the attention of the Court. "Nothing has been done to rectify the situation," says Wolinsky.

"It is now too late to remedy this neglect of the interests of people with disabilities," he said. "Now we are waiting to see if the distribution to people with disabilities is adequate. If not, we will challenge the entire process by appeal."


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