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Scholar uncovers hidden history of people with disabilities

STANFORD -- While civil rights for Americans with disabilities became a visible issue in the early 1970s, marches and even sit-ins by disabled people actually began during the Depression, according to Paul Longmore, visiting professor of history at Stanford University.

"There was a little-known group in New York City during the mid-1930s called the League for the Physically Handicapped," said Longmore, who is teaching a course at Stanford this quarter titled "The History of Human Differences: The Disability Minorities in America."

The league's 300 people -- most disabled by polio, a few by cerebral palsy -- all had been turned down for Works Progress Administration (WPA) jobs.

"What really happened," Longmore said, "was that the Home Relief Bureau of New York City, which was supposed to forward their job requests to the WPA, was stamping all their applications 'PH' for physically handicapped. That was a signal to the WPA not to give these people jobs."

To protest the discrimination, members of the league sat in at the Home Relief Bureau for nine days; went to Washington, D.C., in an unsuccessful attempt to gain an audience with President Franklin D. Roosevelt; and went to the WPA headquarters and held a weekend sit-in there.

"After doing this repeatedly over the next several years, eventually they did generate a couple thousand jobs nationwide," said Longmore, who has interviewed a number of the surviving members, now in their 70s.

"One woman said, 'When we got on that picket line we felt embarrassed to be seen because of our handicaps. The protest transformed our view of ourselves.' "

Long history

The league is just one piece in the American history of disability that stretches back to precolonial days, said Longmore, a specialist on early America who had polio himself as a child.

"This may be one of the last of the minority groups to be recognized as having a history," he said. "Very little has been written about it, in large part because the overwhelming majority of people with disabilities are still segregated in our society and are therefore socially invisible.

"If you don't see them, it's easy to assume that they don't have an existence, or that their existence is historically insignificant."

Before the 18th century, people with certain kinds of disabilities -- epilepsy or Down's syndrome, for example -- were intensely stigmatized and put in insane asylums.

People with other kinds of disabilities, however, apparently were more integrated into general society than they are today.

"My guess is that in the past there was a higher percentage of people with mild to moderate disabilities, simply because medicine had not advanced to the point of being able to deal with things like dislocated hips and shoulders," Longmore said.

"We know of many people with disabilities who were in socially prominent positions -- people who were missing an eye, for example. But there's still an enormous amount of research to be done."

As time went on, society increasingly began to treat disabled people as sick individuals who needed care -- a process Longmore calls the "medicalization" of disability.

"By the late 19th century, the 'incurability' of disabled people came to be viewed by medical and charity professionals as dangerous deviance," he said. "More and more, they called for strict supervision over the lives of people with disabilities, including for some permanent incarceration."

The experience of deaf people in America is a well-documented example.

"It is clear from the literature that hearing-impaired individuals were regarded as a kind of primitive, pre-lingual race," Longmore said.

"Oralists like Alexander Graham Bell fiercely promoted repression of sign language. He said it was dangerous and deviant to have a deaf minority in America."

Bell was part of the eugenics movement of the 19th century, which promoted immigration restriction and sterilization measures that would weed out "unfit" people from the race.

It is no coincidence, Longmore said, that this attitude coincided with the massive influx of Eastern and Southern European workers into the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, and with another phenomenon: the freak show.

"With freak shows, people with disabilities were often presented as savages from foreign countries," Longmore said. "At best, freak shows helped to justify a condescending attitude toward both. At worst, they asserted the superiority of non-disabled white people and served to justify the segregation of these minorities."

Silent screen villains

In the 20th century, stereotypes and misgivings about disabled people were carried on in motion pictures and television.

Longmore currently is working on a cultural history of the cinematic depiction of people with various kinds of disabilities. Pouring though film catalogs and television listings, he already has collected more than 3,000 examples of stories with disabled characters in them.

"Lon Chaney Sr. built his career playing disabled villains -- the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera," Longmore said. "Look at current horror films and it's the same. The most popular ones all have disfigured villains -- Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

Even more standard fare -- Dr. Strangelove or the James Bond movies, for example -- frequently have disabled villains in their plots, he said.

Another type of story, common on television, is what Longmore calls "the drama of adjustment," in which the main character -- blind, deaf or otherwise disabled -- is bitter, self-pitying and manipulative. The story typically climaxes in a confrontation scene, in which a non-disabled character, in effect, "grabs them by the shoulders and shakes them back to their senses."

"The message is that these people could live meaningful lives if they just didn't feel sorry for themselves -- the current ethos of rehabilitation," Longmore said. "In one way those stories represent progress, but they don't address issues of prejudice or discrimination."

In the real world, few people are aware of just how many Americans have disabilities, Longmore said.

"The estimates keep being raised as more serious demographic research is done," he said. "Current studies estimate that at least 43 million Americans have disabilities that have some significant impact on one or more major life activities."

The number keeps growing along with the aging population, he said. In addition, a greater proportion of Americans today are living with more significant disabilities.

"Twenty years ago, for example, children born with spina bifida wouldn't have been expected to survive beyond childhood," Longmore said. "Now, because of advances in treatment, they have normal life expectancy."

All of which points to a need for more research on disabled people and their place in society, particularly in the social sciences, Longmore said.

"Students interested in health care, public policy, law and even business need to have the opportunity to study this in the same way that they have the opportunity to study women's history or African American history or Asian history," Longmore said.

Personal history

Paul Longmore's own disability dates back to the age of 7, when one of the last polio epidemics before the Salk vaccine left him with a severe curvature of the spine and limited use of his arms.

"I was placed in a special ed class for a couple of grades, and then at the end of sixth grade, my parents wanted me to be integrated into the local junior high, but the school district didn't want me," he said.

Using all the influence she had, Longmore's special education teacher, "Miss Gustafson," convinced the district to allow the boy in. His three best friends were allowed to take classes with him, in order to help him along.

"One day, at the end of sixth grade," Longmore recalled, "Miss Gustafson called me up to her desk and she gave me a talk. She said, 'You have to succeed -- if you don't, they won't let others in. You're a pioneer.' And I've never forgotten that. Every school and every job, I've always been the first with a major disability in that place."

Longmore started college at the University of Santa Clara and later transferred to Occidental College, where he was one of only three disabled students on campus. He continued with graduate work at the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif.

"I had a very rough time financially," he said. "Throughout my undergraduate and graduate years, advisers kept telling me that no one would ever hire me." He was turned down repeatedly for a doctoral student fellowship, and the State Department of Rehabilitation wasn't much help either.

"They said, 'If you want computer training, we'll pay for that. But we don't help people get Ph.D.s,' " Longmore recalled. "I couldn't afford to take more than one course a semester."

Finally, after he had completed nearly seven years of graduate work, the state threatened to cut him off completely, saying he was taking too long to complete his degree. For Longmore, it was the last straw.

"I got a member of the state legislature to intervene, and then they bought me a dictaphone, and even hired a transcriptionist. That's when I really started to blossom as a scholar."

After receiving his doctorate in 1984, Longmore taught at the University of Southern California, and wrote a book on George Washington and numerous articles on early American history and the history of disability minorities.

He is currently at Stanford on a two-year Mellon fellowship, which he hopes will lead to a tenure-track position at a major university.

In addition to teaching courses in American history at Stanford, Longmore has been an active spokesman for the disabled community and a mentor for many of the 140 Stanford students with disabilities. He is a frequent participant in the Friday afternoon "rap sessions" sponsored by the Disabled Students of Stanford.

His history course on the disability minorities is a small seminar with about 13 students, about a third of whom are disabled. Longmore plans to offer the course in lecture format to a larger group of students next winter.



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