Book reviews

 Three movement books pass "the Coffee Critique"

reviews by Sally Rosenthal

Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment by James I. Charlton. University of California Press, 1998. Hardcover, 197 pages, $27.50

Awakening To Disability: Nothing About Us Without Us by Karen G. Stone. Volcano Press, 1997. Softcover, 271 pages, $14.95

The ABC-CLIO Companion To the Disability Rights Movement by Fred Pelka. ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1997. Hardcover, 422 pages, $60.00

(order these books online at end of review)

Before losing my vision, I worked as a college librarian; I catalogued, classified, read, and reviewed books. Younger and academically zealous, I researched and critiqued the volumes that came my way.

Now, older and more curious than zealous, I have developed my own personal criteria for judging the worth of a book - and it has nothing to do with anything I learned when studying for a master's degree in library science or during my professional career. My method, while not recognized in academic circles, is foolproof. The Coffee Critique, as it is known, is based on my various need for or lack of consumption of caffeine while reading a book. It never fails, trust me. And, fortunately, the three disability rights movement books examined in this review didn't fail the Coffee Critique, either. In fact, they all passed, for differing reasons, with flying colors.

While there have been other books chronicling the disability rights movement, particularly in America (such as Joseph Shapiro's No Pity), Nothing About Us Without Us by James I. Charlton is the first to look at the disability rights movement from a global perspective and to place it within the context of other liberation and human rights movements. If this sounds like heavy going, don't despair. Charlton's well-researched and important book is an engrossing and powerful examination of the movement. How engrossing? you ask. Suffice it to say that it passed the Coffee Critique with the highest mark possible on the scale; I found Nothing About Us Without Us so riveting that I read it in one sitting with nary a thought of caffeine.

Charlton, the Executive Vice President of Access Living in Chicago, approaches the disability rights movement like all liberationists approach their particular causes: he wants a new world order - one that replaces disability oppression with disability empowerment. It's no coincidence that the title of this book is the rallying cry of the movement. Charlton's contention is that only through the empowerment of people with disabilities worldwide can the tacit conspiracy and oppression be acknowledged and rejected in favor of a system not of merely token inclusion but of seamless, unquestioned power.

Charlton places the disability rights movement in a global context through both an historical overview and, more importantly, through the use of oral histories from activists he has met and interviewed worldwide. What emerges from all these travels and interviews, Charlton points out, is that disability oppression is the last great society-sanctioned oppression. An estimated 500 million disabled people throughout the world have been systematically oppressed not so much by cultural attitudes about disability as by oppression based in the political, socioeconomic realm.

Rejecting the past anthropological model as the root of disability discrimination, Charlton makes a valid case for his thesis. He weaves historical fact, personal experience and oral history into an argument that will be instantly recognized as true by people with disabilities. How his thesis will fare with the nondisabled population, however, is not so clear - even to the author himself, who admits that he does not expect to see the complete dissolution of disability oppression. But his hope that the empowerment that comes out of oppression will both strengthen people with disabilities and create a more equitable world is the real message of this book. This blend of pragmatism and optimism makes Nothing About Us Without Us a realistic, empowering book.

If James Charlton dreams of ushering in a new world order so as to rectify the exclusions and wrongs of the past, journalist and activist Karen G. Stone views inclusion of people with disabilities in a changed culture as coming about through a combination of empowerment and enlightenment. As people with disabilities become empowered, society will become enlightened. Charlton calls for a new world; Stone, in Awakening To Disability: Nothing About Us Without Us, calls for a new age.

Stone, a columnist for The Albuquerque Journal and The Miami Herald, covers the oppression of people with disabilities with as much fervor as does Charlton. Although their styles could not be more different, their message is essentially the same. Stone's book, like Charlton's, is derived from personal experience. Increasingly disabled from multiple sclerosis, Stone has firsthand knowledge both as a consumer and as an activist against the discrimination people with disabilities face on a daily basis. She doesn't shirk the big issues; she just approaches them from a purely personal viewpoint before placing them into a larger, cultural context. While Charlton's fist is raise in liberation, Stone's is an iron fist in a velvet glove.

Awakening To Disability is a deceptively simple book. At first glance, many activists might assume it's another self-help "feel good" book. Wrong. Although Stone undoubtedly falls into the "been there, done that" category of authors, Awakening To Disability, despite its intimate, personal tone, is definitely not a traditional inspirational crip book. Much of Stone's subject matter, whether it deals with adapting one's lifestyle when a disability occurs (or progresses) or delves into the cultural implications of physician-assisted suicide, is food for thought and meant to inspire the reader to action.

Stone covers a wide range of disability-related topics. Whether she is discussing the personal growth disability has afforded her or the horrors of nursing home institutionalization, she deftly does so by drawing the reader into the subject at hand through prose that is both conversational and crisp. Her readership is meant to be Everyman/ woman; in addition to those of us with disabilities, she also writes for a temporarily ablebodied audience. In her scheme of things, change is instigated and a new culture brought about by all the members of a community. While Charlton clearly admonishes us that the personal is political, Stone also reminds us that the reverse is often true; while activism propels people with disabilities into a political arena, disability is, first and foremost, a truly personal experience that both changes the individual and then empowers the individual to effect change.

So, where does Awakening To Disability fall on my caffeine scale? It was a "one cupper" which roughly means that, although interesting, it was not as engrossing or original as Nothing About Us Without Us.

I'd like to sit down and discuss some points with Stone over a cup of coffee, too. Unfortunately, the quality that makes her book so readable also serves as its downfall on occasion. Drawing upon her personal experience as a means to show readers that solutions can be achieved to difficult problems is not as universally comforting as she no doubt intended. Her solution to not being able to afford attendant care when her multiple sclerosis worsened? She communicated her need to a loving family who provided the needed funds. Faced with a need to adapt her former job to accommodate her disability, Stone reports that open, honest communication with supportive co-workers often facilitated her work performance. "All well and good," I would say to the author as I raised my coffee mug, "but what about some advice to readers without your level of familial or workplace cooperation?"

But let's not belabor the point. Awakening To Disability is a good blend of gentle, practical advice and call to action. I think, though, I could skip adding sugar to my coffee while reading parts of Stone's book.

Although Charlton and Stone point the way we (and society) need to go, Fred Pelka, in The ABC-CLIO Companion To the Disability Rights Movement, reminds readers of what has gone before them. This "doorstop" of a reference book covers the American disability rights movement, legislation, key (and lesser known) figures, and other related topics. Pelka obviously took this on as a labor of love and education, and his dedication is apparent in the final product: a first-rate reference book that should appeal to people disabled and not.

As a librarian, I like Pelka's book for its concise, readable entries, good cross-references, and thoroughness. As a person with a disability, I find it to be both a humbling and empowering experience to view the parts and the whole of the movement embodied in Pelka's book.

Although Pelka's book comes with the rather hefty pricetag of most reference books, it really is worth the cost for the individual reader. Although this book belongs in every library's general reference section, it also belongs to us. So, brew a whole pot of coffee and settle down to either browse alone or share entries with a friend.

Readers won't need the caffeine to keep them awake through Pelka's book, but the history it encompasses deserves more time and consideration than a quick cup of coffee.

Order these books online:
Nothing About Us Without Us by James Charlton
Awakening to Disability by Karen G. Stone
The ABC-CLIO Companion by Fred Pelka

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