Facing facts: the minority group everyone can join

August 01, 1993|By Joseph Coates | Joseph Coates,Chicago Tribune

NO PITY: HOW THE DISABILITY RIGHTS MOVEMENT IS CHANGING AMERICA

Joseph P. Shapiro

Times Books

388 pages, $25 Asmartly groomed young woman sits in an airport lounge awaiting her flight, sipping occasionally from a plastic cup of coffee. Another woman walks quickly by and plunks a quarter into the cup, splashing coffee on the blouse of the seated woman. Seeing her mistake, and for the first time noticing the briefcase leaning against the battery-powered wheelchair of the seated woman, the "benefactor" hurries out of the presence of Marylou Breslin, executive director of the Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund.

What's going on here, or something along the same lines, happens countless times every day in America, which has undergone a rights revolution without the raising of consciousness that accompanied previous efforts on behalf of blacks, women and gays. The second woman had generously, and with the best of intentions, insulted Ms. Breslin by treating her according to one of the two prevailing stereotypes about disabled people.

First, there is the pitiable "Poster Child," an icon of what amounts to a secular religion whose main tenet is that if you drop enough coins in enough cups you won't become one of the lame and the halt. And if the walking woman had noticed the briefcase earlier, she might have responded to the second image, derisively dubbed "Supercrip" by disabled people who have had enough of it, and said something like, "People like you have always been an inspiration to me."

That line also serves as a caption on a cartoon famous in the disability movement. It shows two heads mounted on boards at a street corner; the first head is delivering the "inspiration" line to the second, identical to the first except for a patch over one eye.

The point, of course, is that pity oppresses, and so does the inspirational image; both say that being disabled (though the blunt "crippled" is the soul word of the new movement) is OK only if you are pitiable, polite, needy, grateful or a source of warm feelings inside those still walking around on their own. The dirty little secret behind those two responses, and of disability itself, is that the disabled are the one minority group that anyone not only can join but also will, if they are lucky: Disability catches up to everyone who lives long enough.

Like the rest of us, author Joseph Shapiro is belatedly discovering a movement so low-key that some of its beneficiaries still don't know about it, even as the backlash against the movement begins. He sees it as a grass-roots phenomenon that has "much to teach other social and civil rights movements . . . a mosaic movement for the 1990s. Diversity is its central characteristic -- no one leader or organization can claim to speak for all disabled people. . . . But today the black civil rights and feminist movements, in particular, are perceived as struggling with such diversity of thought and weakened by challenges to traditional thinking" as to "diminish our appreciation of the enormous change" they have accomplished.

The disability movement, by contrast, is divided by nature but still effective enough to have caused enormous changes before most Americans even saw the need for them. It is so representative as to have turned into practical reality the platitude that imperiling the rights of a minority threatens everyone else's. For example, the interests of the disabled overlap those of both the elderly and of women in favor of reproductive rights, because the central issues of all three groups are control over one's own body and independence in making all decisions about one's own life.

This causes conflict within and among all these movements when, for example, the question arises as to whether a woman is obliged to abort a fetus she knows, through new scientific tests, to be "defective" (almost half of all women with such knowledge do).

Medical ethicist Adrienne Asch, who is blind, "argues the importance of a woman's right to choice," Mr. Shapiro says. "But selective abortion on the basis of disability, she says, is wrong. 'Aborting because of our own lives says something very different than aborting because we don't like what we find out about the potential life we carry,' she says."

The first thing necessary to raise the consciousness of those in, and those who would be sensitive to, the disability movement is to throw away the magic cure that telethons and marches of DTC dimes or dollars implicitly promise. Most medical breakthroughs in any disease, such as the Salk vaccine for polio, are preventive rather than curative. The "afflicted" person must be free to decide that, even if a miracle cure did appear, he could reject it.

Would Cyndi Jones, who publishes and edits Mainstream, a movement magazine, "eagerly swallow a magic pill that would wipe away the lingering paralysis of her polio? She answers quickly: No. 'It's the same thing as asking a black person would he change the color of his skin.' "

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