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Pride Against Prejudice: Transforming Attitudes to Disability; Feminism and Disability

Pride Against Prejudice: Transforming Attitudes to Disability by Jenny Morris [New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, PA, 1993, $12.95].

Feminism and Disability by Barbara Hillyer [University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1993, $27.95].

These two exceptional books should be read by anyone whose self-improvement curriculum includes becoming more expert at compassion. Author Jenny Morris (feminist Ph.D., trade-union and labor organizer, and divorced mother of an infant) climbed onto a railway ledge one summer evening in order to rescue a stranded child, and ended up, instead, at age 33, a paraplegic for life. Even as she lay in the hospital after the accident, however, her feminist perspective gave her grit. When the doctor told her gloomily that she was “tragically” and permanently paralyzed, she writes: “Only one person could say it was a tragedy and that was me—and I wasn’t prepared to say that. I was so offended that this doctor seemed to be writing off my life.”

Feminism helps Morris understand that what disables a person as much as (or more than) physical or intellectual restrictions are the social attitudes which create restrictions of their own. “To put it very simply,” she writes, “it is not the inability to walk which disables someone, but the steps into the building.” (As a disabled person myself, I find such fighting words more empowering than tomes of psychological self-help texts wittering on about coping skills.)

Feminists understand the potential for oppression that underlies so-called offers of “help.” Morris quotes Pam Evans (another wheelchair user): “Sometimes help isn’t quite what it seems: it demands a return. It’s a way for those offering it to make themselves feel ‘good.’ We are being used to this end. We have to indulge their illusion that they are giving, when in fact they are only taking.” Like any minority people, the disabled have some bitter knowledge about what happens when one refuses to extend to the majority culture “the gift of our gratitude.”

In a horrifying chapter on Nazi Germany, Morris mentions that the compulsory sterilization laws of the Third Reich (which sterilized half a million “defectives”) could not be classified as war crimes because similar laws had only recently been upheld in the U.S. She notes that until May of 1943, Nazi “mercy killing” of disabled minors excluded Jewish children—”on the grounds that they did not deserve the ‘merciful act.'” Similarly, Germany’s adult euthanasia program of disabled people did not, in its early enactment, include Jews, because it was an honor to be offered such an extermination service, and, Morris quotes, “the government did not want to grant this philanthropic act to the Jews.”

The second book, Barbara Hillyer’s Feminism and Disability, is a tour de force for its bibliography alone, as well as for its chapters on “Passing,” “Mother-Blaming,” “Grief,” and “Productivity and Pace.” Hillyer, a women’s studies professor at the University of Oklahoma, is the divorced and lesbian mother of an adopted, physically and mentally disabled grown daughter. She has, in other words, been around.

Arguing cogently from the point of view of a caregiver, Hillyer notes: “One reason for the great difficulty most of us have in working out ways of changing dependent-caregiver relationships is our logical reliance on the concept of equality—that people should be treated the same—an ideal that is especially difficult to attain when one person can walk or see or hear or reason and the other cannot.” She invokes Carol Gilligan in pointing out that justice is the “highest value in masculine morality, but women’s morality places a higher value on an ethic of care, whose premise is that no one should be hurt.”

Disabled people,” she continues, “force us to face the problem of reciprocity, the investment in a relationship by both participants. Reciprocity involves the difficulty of recognizing each other’s needs, relying on the other, asking and receiving help, delegating responsibility, giving and receiving empathy, and respecting boundaries.” She concludes that. “The reciprocity worked out between a woman with disabilities and a caring woman can serve as a model for the rest of us—but only if we attend thoughtfully to what they have learned and believe them when they tell us about it.”

In a chapter called “Notes Toward a New Theory,” Hillyer comments that people who are abled often “impose mourning on disabled people as a defense of their own values.” For example, “if a woman cannot use her legs but refuses to mourn for the loss, we may be forced to ask questions about why we place such a high value on walking around. If a woman with a chronic illness adapts her pace to her illness and does not grieve over the loss of a conventionally rapid pace, we may have to question the high value we place on rushing.”

Both of these books reaffirm (some of us, at times, forget) how loving, inclusive and brainy feminist ideology is. Though we may think of ourselves as all-weather feminists, some of us, certainly, do not really fasten that agenda on to a consideration of disability. And that, indeed, is the authors’ underlying point: Feminist values need always to stretch our reflexes, not just our theories.

Jenny Moms and Barbara Hillyer, each challenged singularly, remind one of Adrienne Rich’s stout desideratum: “I refuse to become a seeker for cures./ Everything that has ever/ helped me has come through what already/ lay stored in me. Old things, diffuse, unnamed, lie strong/ across my heart./ This is from where/ my strength comes, even when I miss my strength/ even when it turns on me/ like a violent master.”