Vassar Miller is in her early sixties and has published eight volumes of poetry, one of which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. The University of Texas Press recently issued her newest book, "Despite This Flesh," a diversely, strikingly illuminating collection she has edited of short stories and poems about the physically handicapped.
In her introduction, Miller, born with cerebral palsy, tells of her stepmother taking her, as a child, to be enrolled in school. "They just looked at me and started talking about God!"
Much has changed since then. There are special education classes, and there is mainstreaming. Federal and state laws have been passed barring certain forms of discrimination against the handicapped. And yet, as Michael Landwehr, who is in a wheelchair, has noted: "I have been denied an apartment based on my disability. I was told I could not buy a ticket in the first-class section of an airline unless I also purchased a ticket for an attendant. I have been denied jobs and promotions on the basis of my disability. Every day I am denied access to public transportation."
In going to battle for their rights, the disabled start with an obstacle greater than whatever their physical limitation is. As Vassar Miller puts it, "What handicaps me far more than my physical condition . . . is the reaction society has to it. And, no less important, my reaction to society's reaction."
Lisa Blumberg lives in Hartford, Conn. Her disability is athetosis, a form of cerebral palsy. Her speech and her gait are affected. She is convinced, she tells me, that "if nondisabled adults spent more time talking to disabled adults, they would learn that anatomy is not destiny and never has been." Lisa Blumberg is a lawyer, a graduate of Harvard Law School, now specializing in state regulation of automobile and homeowners' insurance.
Not many of the nondisabled do get to know handicapped people, and that's why so far there is no large-scale, rising popular support for disability rights, or even an awareness of the pervasive discrimination against the disabled. The disabled are going to have to break into public consciousness by their own momentum.
One index of the low visibilty of disability rights groups is that during the tumultuous litigation concerning the right of the federal government to obtain the records of Baby Jane Doe so that it could determine whether she was being discriminated against as an infant with spina bifida, there was hardly any mention in the press of the fact that the government was strongly supported by an array of disability rights organizations. It was well publicized, however, that the American Civil Liberties Union was fervently on the side of the parents against Big Brother. The infant was no concern of the ACLU.
"We got into that fight," John Carlucci, a Boston quadriplegic told me, "because we knew that if society is not willing to assign a high value to a handicapped baby, then it will continue to have a low evaluation of the handicapped who are allowed into the world. If a Baby Doe doesn't have full rights, it's harder for us to get them."
"Listen to the double talk," Lisa Blumberg says. "For most people, food is food, but for disabled infants, food suddenly became 'medical treatment.' And 'severely handicapped' is a term that no one ever limits or defines." Certainly the press uses that term casually and carelessly.
John Carlucci is a practicing believer in nonviolent direct action as a way for the handicapped to rise in this society. "Our movement," he says, "has yet to produce a Mother Jones, a Martin Luther King, a Saul Alinsky. But these days, when I go to disability rights meetings I see leaders in the process of formation who may develop into a King or an Alinsky."
Indeed, most of the January/February issue of "The Disability Rag" -- the liveliest journal written by and about the handicapped (Box 145, Louisville, Ky. 40201) -- focuses on various nonviolent demonstrations by the disabled and their leaders around the country. They are moving with particular intensity against public transportation companies in order to make them truly public. And there are lawsuits against airlines on the basis that they are discriminating against, among others, the blind and the paralyzed.