June 05, 2006
'Astute Observations and Thoughtful Ideas'
William J. Peace writes,
In 1971 Simi Linton, 23 years old and married, was in a car accident. Her husband and close friend were killed and Linton was paralyzed.
In 1978 Robert Murphy, professor of anthropology at Columbia University, walked for the last time in his life at Margaret Mead's funeral. He had a spinal cord tumor that would eventually render him a quadriplegic.
In 1978 after a long struggle with a rare neurological problem I lost the ability to walk and have been a paraplegic for 28 years.
If Linton, Murphy and I had not become disabled I doubt we would have ever met. Murphy was a middle-aged and highly respected professor, Linton was a college student circa 1971, and I was about to graduate from high school in 1978. By the time Murphy published his book The Body Silent in 1987 all three of us had spent a great deal of time thinking about the social implications of physical disability. In fact I think there is an unacknowledged bond between us because we have spent a significant part of our personal and academic careers pondering the reasons why the social life of disabled people is so different from those who ambulate on two feet.
This metamorphosis from average citizen to disabled person to academic to political activist is the subject of Simi Linton's touching memoir My Body Politic.
My Body Politic is deeply moving and exceptionally well-written. Linton's previous work, Claiming Disability, established her reputation as an important disability rights scholar. My Body Politic is a much different book, reminding me of Murphy's Body Silent in that Linton sought to understand the place of disabled people in American society via her own experiences. Thus she is both an informant and ethnographer even though she is not an anthropologist.
Throughout My Body Politic Linton weaves the story of her life within a broader framework that is engrossing intellectually and personally. While she may not have bared her soul as Murphy did, My Body Politic makes it clear that once she embraced disability studies, her aim was to revolutionize the way Americans perceived disability.
Like other disability studies scholars, Linton forcefully rejected the notion that the disabled body is in any way pathological. Throughout her career she has used her own body as prism to consider not only her place in society but all disabled and nondisabled people. What separates Linton's book from other texts in disability studies is that she does not get mired in intellectual terminology or jargon -- nor does she rely on any single theoretical perspective.
My Body Politic draws from critical theory, Foucault, and post-modernist theory in a way that will not put readers to sleep or send them searching for an intellectual guide. Linton is clearly on the cutting edge of disability theory and aware of the debates within the field, yet is able to remain grounded in reality and the day-to-day life of what it is like to be a disabled person. As utilized by Linton, disability studies is not an arcane academic endeavor but a liberating philosophy.
Linton's book is littered with astute observations and thoughtful ideas. Each of the seventeen chapters will touch readers in a different way. Chronologically arranged, each has a theme or theoretical point. One of my favorites included a discussion of Rufus. Rufus is not a pet but Linton's "cherry red, full-steam ahead, motorized wheelchair." After using a push chair for over 30 years, she began to experience what she calls "a wheelchair kind of limp": Her shoulders had propelled and supported her for much of her life and they had had enough. Her ability to get around was slowing down and Rufus came to her rescue. The switch to a motorized wheelchair caused Linton to spin off (pun intended) into a retrospective look at her mobility and resurrected an odd sense of loss. This in turn led to a discussion of independence and how the bus system in New York City has mirrored changes in American society.
Linton writes that her use of Rufus led her to relearn "firsthand what I had written about in more abstract ways all along: that changes to the communications, social, and built environment are necessary ingredients for equality and social justice. It is not simply shiny new technology that will improve people's lives." Comparing her life before and after Rufus, she concludes that Rufus did not make her any more independent; that, in fact, it made her lack of independence more noticeable. This led her to write that "Rufus didn't liberate me, any more than the birth control pill or the washing machine liberated women. These are useful tools, but the tools only work for us when broader, more systemic change occurs".
While Linton's My Body Politic is an important contribution it is not without its flaws. Although the text is attractive and easy to read, there is no index. And some chapters simply rang hollow for me. For instance, her chapter "Citizens in Good Standing" is a laudatory discussion of the Society for Disability Studies. To be blunt, I have never been impressed with the SDS. To me it seems elitist, reserved for the precious few disabled people who have jobs in academia. Perhaps Linton and I were exposed to the SDS at different times, for she was energized by her experience while I was turned off. This divide may in part be due to Linton's ability to go to California in 1992 after seeing a sign about the SDS even though she didn't know what disability studies was.
This kind of independence -- personal, professional and financial -- is probably responsible for the thing that bothered me the most about Linton's book: it was not until the final chapter, "Our Body Politics," that she even brings up the issue of rampant unemployment. Maybe I'm not being fair, since unemployment, it seems, was never an issue in Linton's life -- but that does not change the fact that too many disabled people are either institutionalized or unemployed for her to give the issue short shrift.
I admire Linton's resolve and passion, and envy her writing skills. I hope her work reaches a wide audience.. My Body Politic is an outstanding contribution to the understanding and changing status of disabled people in American culture. There is much to be learned in My Body Politic, a memoir that must be placed on the library shelf of every person who has an interest in the life of disabled people.
Posted on June 05, 2006