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Disabilities scholar wins $50,000 award

March 14, 2005

Photo of Paul LongmoreHistory Professor Paul Longmore has made history of his own several times throughout his accomplished career as a disability rights activist and leader in the academic field of disability studies. He made history again March 9, when he became the first professor to win the Henry B. Betts Award from the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD).

Longmore has not only helped change public perception of people with disabilities, but he has also helped establish the analysis of disability as a field in academic research and teaching, much as women studies and ethnic studies were shaped in prior decades. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a feature on Longmore March 9.

"As a historian, prolific author and disability activist, Paul Longmore has been a pioneer in the growing field of disability studies, instilling in the disability movement a stronger sense of our community's history and cultural identity," says Andrew Imparato, AAPD president and CEO. "Paul's clear message is helping to deepen America's understanding of the disability experience and inspiring a new generation of disability leaders."

The Henry B. Betts Award, created in 1989, is named in honor of the rehabilitation medicine pioneer and advocate for people with physical disabilities. Past winners include: Ralf Hotchkiss, director of Whirlwind Wheelchair International at SFSU; Timothy Nugent, a rehabilitation pioneer and founder of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association; Hugh Gregory Gallagher, a disability rights activist, author and historian; and Susan M. Daniels, former deputy commissioner for disability and income security programs at the Social Security Administration.

The award carries a $50,000 prize, which Longmore plans to use while on leave from SFSU next year to work on two books: one about the cultural significance of telethons in the United States; the other about nationalism and the coming of the American Revolution. He finds it overwhelming to hear his name in the same sentence as former Betts Award recipients.

"I'm a historian, teacher and writer, and I don't see myself in the public role that these people have played," he says.

Gene Chelberg, director of the SFSU Disability Programs and Resource Center, might disagree. He nominated Longmore for the award and has been inspired by him since the early 1990s, when Chelberg was a college student.

"I can think of no one that I admire and respect more than Paul. His ideas, work and advocacy have shaped the development of countless young people with disabilities," Chelberg says. "Paul has given the disability community the intellectual power it needs to push for justice on such wide ranging issues as work disincentives, in-home personal assistance and media images."

Longmore, who joined SFSU in 1992, has studied disability issues for two decades while also becoming a scholar in American colonial history. He is director of the SFSU Institute on Disability and served as co-director of the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on Disability Studies, a first-of-its-kind event held at SFSU in 2000. Later that year he helped convene the first major academic symposium on disabilities and sexuality.

He speaks out frequently against disability discrimination, depictions of disability in film and television, physician-assisted suicide, and changes in the Americans with Disabilities Act that have removed coverage for 70 percent of the disabled population.

"There has been much progress in increasing accessibility in society," he says. "But rights are under assault."

In 1988, Longmore lit a match to his book on George Washington in front of the Social Security Administration's offices in Los Angeles as a protest to policies that penalized disabled professionals for earning money through education, fellowships and grants. The Longmore Amendment was established soon after, allowing disabled authors to count publishing royalties as earned income. He recounted the protest in the title essay of his 2003 book "Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability."

-- Matt Itelson
Photo: Christopher J. Rozales


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Last modified March 14, 2005 by University Communications