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by Paul K. Longmore
Temple University Press, 2003
Review by Gerda Wever-Rabehl, Ph.D. on Feb 8th 2005

Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability

There is a poem by T. S. Eliot on the use of memory, and this use, says Eliot, is liberation -- not only from the future as well as the past. Reading the impressive collection of essays by Paul Longmore reminded me of this poem. Because it seems to me that Longmore's eloquent insistence on remembrance is one of its chief merits. Longmore commemorates the eugenic movement for instance, and observes eugenic influences in contemporary debates such as that on assisted suicide. He remembers the elimination of thousands of disabled people in the Third Reich. He remembers Randolph Bourne and the struggles and victories of the early members of the League of the Physically Disabled. And these commemorative tales are not isolated stories -- they are part and parcel of a comprehensive critique of our collective pathologizing tendencies when it comes to disability.   Longmore elucidates that the supremacy of medical perspectives tends to limit our view on disability to the idea that a disability is a mere individual and private 'limitation.' Longmore deliberates the impact of this persuasive yet limited perception of disability on the identity formation of individuals with a disability. Furthermore, he draws implications of such perceptions for the study of disability. These implications are, in Longmore's view, largely negative, as the social construction of disability, strongly influenced by the medical paradigm of pathology as a 'personal misfortune', defies systematic socio-historical and political analyses of disability. Yet in his remembrance of small and great moments in the overall rather tragic history of people with disability, Longmore turns the narrow medical focus on disabled individuals into a historical and political collective thing. 

Herein lies the strength of Longmore's work -- in remembering the ongoing marginalization of millions, Longmore challenges and disrupts dominant ideologies of 'normality' and disability. Furthermore, he offers an alternative in writing the study of disability as social history. In the words of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, this remembrance is not related to "thought in general" but rather to an effort to imagine the particular. And Longmore enables us to vividly imagine the particulars of lives lived at the margins. In that sense, his acts of commemoration are potentially liberating for us all -- indeed, his forceful remembrance of marginalized lives and voices illuminates how the exclusion of the voices of people with disabilities from our collective agreement on how we remember the past affects us all. In exploring the social constructedness of these particulars, these personal histories, biographical as well as autobiographical, the text invites us to explore ways in which we, as humans, can transcend the violence of self/other binaries.

Longmore invites inquiry into the more comprehensive question of how to transcend the violence present in the mutual exclusivity of the binaries of self and other when he asks pertinent and penetrating questions such as: What is community? What is equality? What constitutes a minority group? How do we understand concepts such as autonomy, citizenship and progress? In contemplating these questions, disability studies have an enormous philosophical and political contribution to make. Yet the potential of 'liberation,' to stick with Eliot's metaphor, does not become entirely fulfilled. Longmore's activist mannerisms get in the way of in-depth contemplation. Self-addressed 'supercrip', he perceives a splendid book review, written by an able-bodied person, as an insult. He asks: "Would a postpolio superscrip do anything less? How characteristically disabled of me to undertake so grandiose a project" (p. 232.) This aggravating and antagonistic rhetoric inundates the text from the angry (indeed, 'inflammatory') title onward and undermines Longmore's argument, as it is the very same dichotomizing and exclusive 'insider / outsider' rhetoric as Longmore is attempting to disrupt.

Notwithstanding this reservation, Longmore's text is a worthy read for its intellectual sensibility. The historical sections on Randolph Bourne, the League of the Physically Disabled and the sections on Protests and Forecasts are written with great passion and compassion, and are as a consequence marvelous to read. Longmore is the voice of the silenced and the message of these voices is addressed to us all, forcing us to re-think our collective imperatives on how we ought to remember the past. In giving voice to the silenced, he forcefully disrupts prevailing ideologies of normalcy and disability and makes a start at contemplating ways in which we, as human beings, able and disabled-bodied alike, can transcend the violence of self/other, insider/outsider binaries.


© 2005 Gerda Wever-Rabehl


Gerda Wever-Rabehl holds a Ph.D from Simon Fraser University, and has published extensively in the areas of social science, philosophy and philosophy of  education.