A review from Argumentation and Advocacy, Winter 2002

The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation
By Doris Zames Fleischer and Frieda Zames. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001; pp. xxix + 278. $79.50; paper $24.95.

Reviewed by James L. Cherney, Westminster College

On 21 February 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its controversial verdict in the case Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Patricia Garrett. In this 5-4 decision, the court significantly limited the coverage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, finding that the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution provides state governments and their agencies immunity against lawsuits for violating the ADA. While public reaction to the case was virtually nonexistent, disability activists across the country loudly criticized the decision as a tremendous blow against disability rights. Responding directly to the court's decision, students across the country formed the National Disabled Students Union, which staged a nationwide demonstration to protest. Especially in the context of this most recent chapter of the Disability Rights Movement, Fleischer and Zames's history appears particularly timely.

Fleischer and Zames deliver on their basic promise to provide a comprehensive history of the struggle to establish and protect the rights of people with disabilities in the United States. They do a very nice job cataloguing and describing the various organizations associated with the movement, and carefully describe the occasionally contentious relationship of these groups. Unlike No Pity, Joseph Shapiro's 1993 history that established the convention of locating the origins of the movement in the 1960s, Fleischer and Zames trace earlier roots of the Disability Rights Movement by examining such organizations as the League of the Physically Handicapped, which was active in the 1930s. This early history of the Disability Rights Movement represents the attention to detail evident through the entire work. Fleischer and Zames do not substantially alter the traditional story of the movement in any way, but contribute to it by illuminating the dark corners overlooked and occasionally forgotten in the conventional narrative. To provide this detail, Fleischer and Zames conducted extensive personal interviews and gathered a number of activists' inside stories, allowing them to paint an exceptionally clear picture of how the movement has been shaped by the advocates' views.

The result is a satisfying history of the movement written from the current rhetorical stance of the Disability Rights Movement. Zames has been active in the movement for over twenty-five years in the New York area, and her activist perspective infuses the text. Most prominently, Fleischer and Zames describe disability as a civil rights issue, rather than a biological reality or medical concern. By extension, they note the rhetorical similarity of the movement with the civil rights movements, and describe the Disability Rights Movement as an oppressed class struggling to escape the shackles of its oppressors. The early chapters narrate the touchstones of the movement, celebrate its important legislative and judicial victories, and criticize its opposition and related losses. This is a story of legal battles and protests over access and the availability of social services, two of the most critical issues for the early movements. The later chapters examine in depth topics generally located at the center of the movement's concerns today: employment and health care, physician assisted suicide and euthanasia, technology, education, and cultural identity. The only thing surprising about the text's pro-disability rights orientation is that it operates subcutaneously. While even those not particularly familiar with the movement will recognize its influence, Fleischer and Zames do not explicitly identify their work as politically motivated history or disability rights rhetoric.

This relatively harmless oversight appears to reflect what I see as the most significant drawback of the work, namely its lack of contribution to—or even application of—contemporary theories of rhetoric, social movements, or history. Except for brief tantalizing comments found throughout the text, the work never develops a consciously theoretical voice. Chapter seven, for example, begins with the claim that "people with disabilities have an obstacle embedded in the language that defines them" (110). Fleischer and Zames offer the intriguing analysis that the Disability Rights Movement struggles against the different contexts that shape the meaning of the word "disability." In the Workers' Compensation program it refers to the damages one collects because of an injury, in the Social Security Disability Insurance program it refers to a condition "that links ill health and unemployment," and in civil rights legislation it refers to discrimination. But Fleischer and Zames do not extend this analysis or develop it beyond noting that "Disability advocates believe the Supreme Court misinterpreted the application of the Americans with Disabilities Act in three 1999 employment cases, treating them as if they pertained to benefits—the first two definitions—rather than, more appropriately, relating the claims to the third definition—discrimination" (110). The reader is left to consider the full implications of this potentially rich line of analysis on her own, as Fleischer and Zames go no further in their examination of the linguistic obstacles faced by the movement. This lukewarm interest in language may also explain why the text eschews the contemporary label "ableism" for "disability discrimination." Instead of joining the ranks of Disability Studies scholars who write "ableism" to cultivate awareness of the problem, Fleischer and Zames briefly note the word's existence and then set it aside, treating it as an inconsequential curiosity along with the much less used term "handicapism" (xv).

The history of the Disability Rights Movement could be an excellent case study of a movement generally conscious of practicing identity politics. As the final chapter suggests, the identity of people with disabilities, and the presence of a "disability culture," are important issues for the movement. I think the work would contribute significantly to the study of identity politics, rhetoric, and social movements if the concluding thoughts of the last chapter were used instead as the foundation of the history. An exploration of how the Disability Rights Movement contested assumptions about disability, stigma, pride, and meaning would engage and develop theories linking rhetoric and movements. Those interested in such areas will still profit from the text, as the careful reader will find numerous intriguing points of contact between them that merit further investigation.

Various readers should be warned about a few idiosyncrasies in the text that might disturb, bother, or offend. Scholars of Deaf culture, like myself, might object to Fleischer and Zames' examination of Deaf cultural politics for presenting some rather weak and ill-informed claims as cogent arguments (28). Communication theorists might be bothered by the quick and uncritical acceptance of Steven Pinker's theories of the relationship between language and the brain (16). Those unfamiliar with many of the groups associated with the Disability Rights Movement might find their comprehensive documentation confusing or even mind numbing, and should make frequent use of the list of acronyms appearing in the beginning of the book (xxvii-xxix). Finally, many might find odd the repeated debunking of Philip K. Howard's the Death of Common Sense, as this gives at least nominal credibility to his arguments while suggesting Fleischer and Zames need to build ethos by tearing down straw person positions. None of these appear to fatally flaw the text, but they do detract from its overall strength and could conceivably distract readers from discovering its real worth.

Fleischer and Zames's text deserves the label "comprehensive history," and it is a significant contribution to the literature of Disability Studies. It is very readable, and would make a good textbook for a course on Americans with Disabilities or contemporary social movements. While its utility for rhetoricians and movement theorists would be greatly enhanced by a theoretical discussion, the movement as described may generate interesting theses about the relationship of language, perception, and power. The Disability Rights Movement has—and continues to be—an ingoing struggle of an oppressed group to identify, expose, and confront the social and institutional discrimination it faces. Anyone interested in such a story will find much to admire in this book.