May/June, 1998

An audience for Amy

by R. C. Smith

Anyone who writes a book nowadays whose name is not John Grisham knows that it's up to the author to market the product. With a book like Amy, the problem was getting folks to understand what the book really says, and who the audience is.

The farther I got from my understanding editor at Temple University Press, the harder it was to get anyone's attention. A major bookseller locally had put the book in the "foreign language" section, since it dealt with "sign language." At bookstores where I signed copies, I often found my book about this deaf family's failed efforts to get their daughter an equal educational opportunity through our legal system shelved under subheadings like "Children" or "Foreign Language." Or, of course, "Medical." .

Nondisabled friends who were interested in disability nonetheless told me that Amy, who was deaf, was far too middle class and, worse, white, to be a good case to write about. Why hadn't I picked a tougher case, one in which the school board had done really bad things to a poor, minority kid with a disability? All I could say was "read the book and you'll see." But I didn't hold my breath waiting.

And my typical, totally unaware friends? Their eyes glazed over as I tried to answer their question about my latest project. "Oh, yeah, disabled kid, book about, uh-huh.".

My friends weren't the only ones who didn't "get it" about Amy Rowley. In the book, I'd criticized major American newspapers for completely misconstruing the Rowley case. The New York Times was chief among these, but the Washington Post, Time magazine, and other major publications and national TV also erroneously informed the public during the Supreme Court phase of this case that Amy's family wanted her school system to take responsibility for "raising her to her full academic potential."

Yet even a casual reading of the lower court documents would have made clear that what the family wanted, specifically and only, was for Amy to have the same opportunity to learn as the hearing kids in her classroom. Unchallenged evidence by an audiologist in the federal evidentiary court had been that, at best, Amy could understand only 59 percent of what was said in her classroom without an interpreter. And a sign language interpreter in her classes with hearing students was what the family wanted and all the family ever wanted. Never was there the least suggestion that the school be required to achieve certain results with Amy. But the media never seemed to bother to check the facts and determine this.

The media is not pleased to be charged with misrepresenting a case at law, particularly when the welfare of a child is involved. Since I'd criticized them in my book, I figured I could anticipate little help.

Nevertheless, I tried hard. But it has been a struggle to get the mainstream press to review A Case About Amy. Even despite my importuning of old newspaper colleagues who gladly would have read any book I had written - on another topic.

Most booksellers assumed the book was intended to be read pretty much exclusively by deaf people, since it was about deaf people. A well-intentioned friend who offered to help me with a book signing told me she didn't "know many of those people" whom she thought would make up the only conceivable audience for such a book.

Ironically, in the book itself, I predicted these very difficulties I've had selling this book to the general public - my intended audience.

In the year since A Case About Amy was published I have seen still more evidence that the prejudice against individuals with disabilities is the most pernicious one held in this country. Unkind words against homosexuals, African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities at least prompt rebuke from people who, though not members of these stigmatized groups, still recognize the prejudice. But prejudice against individuals with disabilities commonly goes undetected by a general public too unaware of its own feelings to recognize what has been said or written as prejudicial.

Recent coverage of professional golfer Casey Martin seems yet another case in which presumably intelligent people cannot discern the difference between a sore back and Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, a circulatory problem that has taken from this professional golfer the use of one leg. At the height of the controversy, newspapers around the country carried a column by a Los-Angeles-based writer who was appalled that Martin had won a case permitting "one sick guy to drive around the course in a cart."

If each person who purchases Amy will lend a copy to someone else out there with a "Hey, you're one of the few people I know who will understand this book," we may reduce the prejudice level in the general public a little bit. And every little bit counts.


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