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No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement.

People with disabilities who have managed to get out of nursing homes or other stifling institutions can rattle off the date, maybe even the minute, of their release as if it were their birthday. That small reality capsulizes more than anything the essence of the disability-rights movement, and it does not escape the discerning eye of Joe Shapiro, a correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, in his book No Pity.

One chapter opens with the story of Jeff Gunderson, a man with cerebral palsy who lived a decade in nursing homes and celebrates the date of his liberation at age twenty-seven. Once in his own apartment, one of the aides he hires for physical assistance turns out to be a psychotic who sometimes thinks Jeff is a tree and therefore dresses him in green and fertilizes him by pouring chocolate milk on his head. Jeff sometimes fears for his life in this man's hands but tolerates it because it's better than going back to the nursing home.

Jeff now has an aide who is sane and hard-working and treats him well. But Jeff's is the classic conflict for hundreds of thousands of disabled Americans - a choice between surrender to the institutional model of extortion under cover of benevolent care-giving or the often-solitary struggle for survival in an indifferent mainstream. To understand the righteous stubbornness that rejects such fatalism is to understand the primary power of a movement that has not only accelerated but made its most astounding gains in a climate of profound political hostility toward civil rights. Shapiro makes an extremely complex topic quite understandable.

Shapiro, who has no disability, astutely spells out the subhuman/superhuman dichotomy that is the basis of disability bigotry. It sees someone with a disability in the telethon context of either a pitiable victim whose only hope is to be cured or as a courageous trooper for whom even the most mundane accomplishment is newsworthy. Both stereotypes are rooted in pity and rationalize dehumanization.

No Pity shows how no one who lives very long with a disability can escape this trap. I laughed aloud at the story of a Washington lobbyist in a wheelchair who had coffee splashed all over her business suit when a passerby tossed change into her styrofoam coffee cup, assuming she was begging. The same thing happened to me once, sitting in my motorized wheelchair on a corner with a cup of tea, waiting for a traffic light to change.

No Pity is most worthwhile for someone with an emerging disability consciousness. For the person experiencing life with a disability close to home and looking for the historical and political context to make sense of it, this book could be a life-changing experience. But it's also valuable for anyone who gets fired up by tales of righteous anger in action, especially when the good guys often win.
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Author:Ervin, Mike
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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