Back from AHA, report on Task Force on Disability and Paul Longmore Tribute

Posted on January 9, 2011. Filed under: disability studies, History |

I’m back from the annual meeting American Historical Association and am going to split my reporting into several parts.  I’ll start with the main reason I attended, which was to represent the Disability History Association at the Open Forum on Disability and Tribute to the work of Paul Longmore on Friday afternoon.  When I first arrived at the session, the room had a bunch of press people taking pictures of the Task force on disability members and frantically moving around equipment.  I thought, wow, this must mean that disability history has arrived.  Awesome!

Wrong:  the press were left over from the previous roundtable on Beverly Gage’s book, The Day Wallstreet Exploded, and the frenzy was to get the sound equipment and cables out of the way so that Michael Rembis could navigate his wheelchair to the table at the front of the room.  Hopefully the pictures the press folks took will appear somewhere along with a report on the Task force, and not just be presented to them as souvenirs!

Seriously, what better way to illustrate Michael’s personal accounts of how degrading, exhausting, and humiliating it is to continually have to ask for accommodations  so that he can do what others take for granted.  For example, Michael couldn’t reach any of the public computers set up in the Hynes convention center because they were on tables too high for him to reach.  I didn’t ask him what he thought about the conference venue — presumable having the various session locations connected by the Prudential center shopping mall was better than trying to navigate the snowy streets of Boston.

The overall results of the Task force’s survey indicate a major disconnect between what chairs/administrators report (i.e. most cases involving disability are resolved satisfactorily), and reports from persons with disabilities, who state that its up to them to make requests and continually badger their HR departments and other powers that be to get those requests honored.  Those who are adjuncts or untenured are reluctant to ask or if they do fear making too many waves by persisting in getting these requests fulfilled.  Michael summed this up by persuasively observing that the notion of “reasonable accommodation” perpetuates the stigmatized, medicalized, individualized model of disability that those of us in disability history have been fighting to eliminate.  Right on!  I’ll wait until the full report comes out before I comment on this further.

Other issues that were discussed included a mentorship program matching graduate students/junior faculty with senior faculty with disabilities; ongoing efforts to get AHA to validate disability history as a legitimate field of study; and how to recruits panels and papers on disability history for the next AHA meeting in 2012.  I made a plug for folks to join DHA (somewhat awkwardly because I didn’t have the forethought to bring promotional materials with me.)

The tribute to the late Paul Longmore was incredibly moving — I will try to get a PDF of the testimonials that were read.  He will be sorely missed.

Speaking of stigma– it disgusts me  how quickly even liberal bloggers are using ableist words like “nutcase” and “whacko” to describe the man who shot Congresswoman Giffords and others at a public event in Arizona yesterday.  [even more moderate terms like "these people" are demoralizing because they peg persons with mental illness as socially deviant "others" ]  According to vaughanbell at Mind Hacks.

I suspect we’re going to hear a great deal more about the issue in the coming weeks, and not all of it positive or well-informed.

This article looks at some of the relevant scientific evidence and some of the misconceptions that invariably arise when such tragic circumstances make headlines.

Shortly after Jared Lee Loughner had been identified as the alleged shooter of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, online sleuths turned up pages of rambling text and videos he had created. A wave of amateur diagnoses soon followed, most of which concluded that Loughner was not so much a political extremist as a man suffering from “paranoid schizophrenia.”

For many, the investigation will stop there. No need to explore personal motives, out-of-control grievances or distorted political anger. The mere mention of mental illness is explanation enough. This presumed link between psychiatric disorders and violence has become so entrenched in the public consciousness that the entire weight of the medical evidence is unable to shift it. Severe mental illness, on its own, is not an explanation for violence, but don’t expect to hear that from the media in the coming weeks.”

Here’s a Link to the longer  Slate article ‘Crazy Talk’.

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One Response to “Back from AHA, report on Task Force on Disability and Paul Longmore Tribute”

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The issues you mention here re. mental health are something I’ve been thinking about lately. Specifically the idea that someone with mental illness is denied all agency, and all their actions or choices are attributed to symptoms of a disease.


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    Heather Munro Prescott

    Heather Munro Prescott

    Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, CT.

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