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Disability studies scholar explains 'Why I Burned My Book'

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May 8, 2003

Photo of cover of Paul Longmore's bookOver the past 20 years, the disability rights movement has moved from the background to the forefront on the political scene in America. As an historian at San Francisco State University and one of America's leading experts on disability studies, Professor Paul K. Longmore has been on the frontlines both as an academic and as an activist.

In his new book "Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability" (Temple University Press), Longmore balances those roles in writing a detailed analysis of the issue of disability from historical, social and cultural points of view.

The book is a collection of 13 essays and speeches by Longmore on subjects ranging from the hidden history of disabled people to the transformation from disability rights to disability culture in America. Longmore tries to cast new light on the way society sees people with disabilities.

"For much of the modern era, disability has been looked at only through a medical model," explained Longmore. "This perspective explains the social and economic disadvantages people with disabilities experience stemming from medical conditions.

"The disability rights movement and disability studies are redefining the sources of those problems. They are examining the role of such factors as public policies, architectural design and cultural values," said the professor. "They are calling attention to the impact of prejudice and discrimination. They are asserting that disability is comparable to race, gender and class."

Longmore has studied disability issues for two decades while also becoming a scholar in American colonial history. He is the author of the book "The Invention of George Washington," and he co-edited the essay collection "The New Disability History: American Perspectives" with Lauri Umansky of Suffolk University.

The title of his new book comes from a symbolic act in front of the Social Security Administration's offices in Los Angeles in 1988. Longmore, who faced the loss of federally funded health insurance if he earned even modest royalties from his book on George Washington, lit a match to that book to protest "work disincentives." Through the efforts of disability rights activists and in response to Longmore's book burning protest, Congress later eliminated some of those restrictive work penalties.

Through his essays in the book, the scholar looks at the issue of disability from several perspectives. For example, Longmore tells the story of noted turn-of-the-century essayist Randolph Bourne and his life as a physically disabled intellectual. Longmore examines activism in the disability rights movement. He weighs in on stereotypical images of people with disabilities in movies and TV. Longmore writes about the ethics of assisted suicide. And he looks at the challenges ahead for society and people with disabilities.

Longmore hopes the book challenges common assumptions. "People with disabilities are not who or what we have been taught to assume they are. The experience of disability is not what we have been told. Much of the reigning social thought about disability is distorted. Most of the conventional wisdom about disabled people is wrong," Longmore writes. "All of us, disabled and nondisabled alike, will never truly understand disability experiences and identities unless we examine what we think we know. We all have a lot of relearning to do."

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Last modified May 8, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs