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Issue 3


Read the other book review in this issue:
A History of Disability



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Looking back and moving forward

A review by Sally Rosenthal.

Sally Rosenthal reviews books frequently for Ragged Edge.

THE DISABILITY RIGHTS MOVEMENT: FROM CHARITY TO CONFRONTATION by Doris Zames Fleischer and Frieda Zames. Temple University Press, 2001. Softcover, 278 pp., $24.95.

Confession is good for the soul; I have to come clean and confess that I sold my soul for a pumpkin pie the same day I received a review copy of The Disability Rights Movement.

Read the review of A History of Disability.

Faced with too much to do and too little time, I did something I rarely do: I shopped at the grocery store next to my condominium complex. The one surrounded by chain barriers to keep grocery carts in front of the store and wheelchair users out of the store.

My wheelchair user husband and I call this our emergency store since it's too difficult to find personnel to let us in -- not to mention annoying -- to shop there regularly. But sometimes life gets hectic and a book reviewer's gotta do what she's gotta do to get food, even when she gets politically correct books like this one to review.

It has been a long time since a nonfiction book grabbed my attention as quickly and as thoroughly as a good detective novel. For the two days it took me to read The Disability Rights Movement, I was riveted.

Here at last is a book about our civil rights movement written by one of us: Frieda Zames, a polio survivor and activist, and her sister, Doris Zames Fleischer. Yes, there have been other books about the disability rights movement over the last decade, by both disabled and nondisabled writers, but The Disability Rights Movement stands out for its insiders' point of view and the sheer thoroughness of ground covered.

As a book reviewer, I have read a lot of material about the movement and its movers and shakers. Until The Disability Rights Movement, I had thought that No Pity by Joseph Shapiro was the movement book that no one could top -- an excellent narrative depicting various important movement issues in depth. But Zames's and Fleischer's book covers much more ground, both in subject matter and time. While its authors may not delve as deeply into topics as Shapiro did, they have managed to present a volume of remarkable scope.

It's hard to imagine anyone with even a good basic knowledge of the disability rights movement not opening this book and discovering something they had not known before.

Readers might believe that the disability rights movement was born out of the African-American civil rights struggle of the 1960s and the emerging women's and gay liberation movements of the 1970s. If asked to name the defining moments of disability rights action in the 20th Century, many of those same readers would point to the Section 504 sit-in and the ADAPT direct actions of the 1980s.

But Zames and Fleischer take us much further back -- to the early days of the 20th Century, to the little-known League of the Physically Handicapped, an almost-forgotten part of disability activism. Rescuing gems like this from obscurity and presenting them to readers is not only a valuable service to a culture and its people, it also makes for fascinating reading.

Long before leaders of Disabled In Action were even born, a small group of New Yorkers with disabilities fought for rights and were branded Communists for their efforts. Tracing the movement from these early roots through the struggles of the recent decades and the issues faced today, the authors provide the most complete account I have ever read.

They are equally thorough when addressing conflicts within segments of the movement. Of special interest to me were those parts of the book dealing with the philosophical differences between the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind. When I, as someone who became blind later in life, came across the story of how Jacobus tenBroeck founded the NFB, and how, over the years, it became increasingly militant in viewing blindness as a characteristic rather than a disability, I finally understood the ongoing ideological battle between it and the more moderate ACB.

The Disability Rights Movement is full of such pieces of information.

When looking at more current issues such as the psychiatric survivors' movement and Not Dead Yet, Fleischer and Zames give us a concise picture within an historical context, and explore the need for further action through interviews with key figures.

Whether writing of the disability rights movement -- the early one or the one of the last three decades -- or discussing such hot issues as physician-assisted suicide and ADA backlash, the authors turn what could have been a rather dry historical book into one that absolutely compels us to read on. They accomplish this not only through meticulous research, but also through their inclusion of information and opinions gleaned from interviews with movement leaders and other people whose lives have been directly affected.

The only criticism I have is that the authors give only a nod to disability artists and their contributions to the cause. Writers, filmmakers, actors and other artists have helped shape the movement and continue to propel it on today. In a work such as this, they deserve inclusion and credit.

Reading Zames's and Fleischer's volume made me proud of the heritage and struggle behind the disability rights movement. Without our movement and its activists, the world we live in would be a very different place. There would be no Americans with Disabilities Act. There would be mass institutionalization, social and personal isolation and architectural barriers. The world would be, in fact, much like the not-so-distant past.

The authors realize this fact, for The Disability Rights Movement is far more than just a history book. It's a cautionary tale of rights won and now in jeopardy. It's a tale of a people who have won some legal battles but still face mass discrimination each day.

Although the book has a final page, the disability rights movement does not, as the authors so clearly document. Their book is really the first few chapters of the movement, with the rest of the text being written as we go along. It is an excellent beginning -- even more important given the precarious position of the ADA and other key disability rights issues we are facing today.

Maybe I should drop off a few copies at the grocery store to enlighten the staff . If I could find someone to unlock the chain, that is.

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