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

One of our society's sorrier sins is that persons with disabilities are treated unfairly. Deaf, blind, misshapen, diseased or inflicted with any other physical or mental impairment, they are not expected to be full contributors to society. Instead, according to this ethos, they exist by the charity of the "normal" community and are expected to wait submissively for remission or miracle. The disabled, furthermore, have been thrust into a position of political powerlessness.

In spite of the apparent passivity with which a disability blankets a person, most disabled persons have the opportunity to benefit from programs and services society provides its members. Education, transportation, housing and employment enrich all our lives. Every individual deserves equal opportunity with everyone else to develop himself or herself to the fullest extent possible, regardless of how limited or great their natural capacities.

The spirit of the foregoing paragraph derives from the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, legislation intended to redress the deprivation of the civil rights of 43 million Americans.

Joseph P. Shapiro masterfully chronicles the struggle by disabled people to assert rights long ago taken away by professionals and institutions concerned about their welfare. He presents leading personalities of the disability rights movement and re-creates the background against which the act was framed.

The book is replete with dark portrayals of disregarded people subsisting in asylums and homes, kept alive solely to be hidden away to do nothing with their Eves.

But also - Shapiro's major focus - the disabled have taken on a new thinking that there need be no pity or tragedy in disability. The disabled are free to realize all their potential. It is society's myths, fears and stereotypes that create the problem.

The year 1962 was pivotal for all civil rights movements. James Meredith defied a 250-year denial of educational opportunities to blacks. No less revolutionary, Ed Roberts arrived at the University of California-Berkeley. Paralyzed by polio and dependent on an iron lung, he was determined to gain the education to which he was entitled. The disability rights movement began that day.

Roberts encountered barriers scarcely less daunting than Meredith's. Walkways were inaccessible to a person in a wheelchair. Stairs blocked his entry to every building on campus. Classrooms, laboratories, libraries and restaurants were all closed to him. No dormitory could contain his iron lung. Alarmed by the cost of making the campus accessible, the administration refused to make concessions.

Still, by 1967 Roberts had earned his master of arts in political science and was working toward his doctorate. He had moved the university administration and board of regents to recognize that he and other qualified disabled students should not be deprived of an education.

In these portrayals Shapiro attests to some of the most difficult ethical and emotional issues of our time. With nothing to look forward to except a life tied to a hospital bed, Larry McAfee argued that the court permit him to exercise his right to die. Others, like Timothy W. and "Jim,' resurrect their severely disabled bodies into worthy vessels full of the loving decency of human life.

With millions confronting hundreds of different disabilities, this civil rights movement lacked a core concern to unify it. Moreover, there was no Martin Luther King or Malcohm X to spearhead the movement. To enact the Americans With Disabilities Act, individuals with dissimilar disabilities joined in advocacy of the same piece of legislation. Newly aroused lobbyists, like Patrisha Wright, emerged to argue the rightness and timeliness of the bill.

President Bush signed the ADA into law in 1991. The administration promptly issued regulations to enforce it. The ADA would go into effect in 1992. There was little public outcry against the measure. Now, persons with disabilities could enjoy the same civil rights protections as women, blacks and other disadvantaged minorities.

Yet even more telling than its prohibition of discrimination, the ADA recognizes that the disabled face more sinister and subtle forces that bar participation in society. Shapiro asks that the ADA begin to address this exclusion - for example, the law mandates the removal of structural impediments to access and mobility.

I was repeatedly struck by this book's compassion and radical outlook. Many individuals are still denied accommodation by society and may never become active. The ADA represents a beginning by society. All individuals portrayed in the book, as well as the ADA itself, aim to alter society to permit all members to participate and thereby develop and contribute to the human community. Justice that holds forth equality will settle for no less.

No Pity demands and deserves the widest possible attention.
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Author:DeCoursey, Vincent W.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 15, 1993
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