A review from Contemporary Sociology, Volume 14.4 (July 1985)

From Good Will to Civil Rights
By Richard K. Scotch. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984. 206 pp. $24.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Harlan Hahn, University of Southern California

As a major concern of an estimated 36 million disabled Americans, and as an issue with vast theoretical implications for sociology and numerous other disciplines that train students for careers entailing extensive work with this group, the study of disability policy seems destined to occupy a prominent position, comparable to similar research on segments of the population defined by race, ethnicity, gender, or age. This analysis, which traces the origins and development of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as the key extension of civil rights to citizens with disabilities, is almost certain to become a classic work in the literature that will eventually emerge in this field.

Unlike other minority groups, disabled persons have been affected by divisive medical categorization and stigmatization that previously prevented them from gaining their legal rights through cohesive political influence. Instead, this section was inserted in the 1973 law by congressional staffers almost as an afterthought, and developed in regulations—drafted by the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare—which were not signed until massive demonstrations by disabled activists finally forced their publication nearly four years later. In unraveling the mystery that surrounded these processes, through in-depth interviews with major participants, Scotch has made an extremely valuable contribution to an understanding of the legislative foundations of the growing disability-rights movements that emerged from this conflict.

Perhaps the principal limitations of Scotch's study are reflected by his lack of evidence about the extensive nonenforcement and non-compliance with the section 504 regulations that occurred after they had finally been promulgated and by his concluding interpretation of the arguments for disability rights as symbolic measures, which appears to detract from their substantive importance. The bias, segregation, and discrimination against disabled citizens has been just as invidious as the intolerance manifested toward other minorities. Clearly, Scotch is correct in pointing out that the protection of civil rights for disabled persons and other deprived groups has declined significantly during the Reagan administration, but such trends do not necessarily support his conclusion "that disability rights advocates will have to develop new symbolic bases for their objectives if they are to be attained" (166).

The insights arising from the development of section 504 have yielded a realization that the problems confronting disabled people are primarily the products of a disabling environment rather than of functional limitations. Thus, the simultaneous demand for equal rights and for adaptive services is not intrinsically inconsistent in an environment that not only imposes severe disadvantages on disabled citizens but that also is fundamentally shaped by public policy. Disabled Americans are seeking not special privileges but the same constitutional guarantees granted to other members of society. If their efforts are successful, the quest to gain legal rights for disabled individuals may eventually be recognized as the ultimate civil rights movement, and Scotch's analysis of the origins of section 504 may be acknowledged as a crucial volume in the history of this struggle. By contrast, the failure of American society to honor the promise of freedom and equality for disabled citizens could result not only in the continued neglect of this field of research but also in the perpetuation of ignorance about a major source of national shame.

From Good Will to Civil Rights could be placed in the category of "political sociology" or "social policy." Eventually, however, a new subspecialty on disability might be developed, with a status comparable to similar categories such as "aging," "gender," or "race and ethnic groups."