Joseph Shapiro, writing on NPR’s ‘Shots’ health blog, salutes the legacy of disability advocate, scholar and historian Paul K. Longmore, who died Monday at the age of 64. Longmore was a professor of history and director of the Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University. He lived with complications of polio contracted when he was a child.
Longmore emerged on the national stage in 1988, when he burned a copy of his first book in an act of protest against federal regulations that keep many people with disabilities from working and deprive them of public benefits if their incomes exceed certain levels. (Longmore reasoned that he would lose some $20,000 in the yearly federal benefits that made it possible for him to work if his book, The Invention of George Washington, made just $10,000.)
The story of the protest is featured in Longmore’s book, Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability History. Social Security changed its rules on royalties in the wake of Longmore’s protest, Shapiro writes, but left in place other work disincentives which contribute to widespread unemployment among people with disabilities.
Most of all, Longmore taught that people with disabilities, themselves, had changed the way the world defined what it means to have a disability. “Previously, disability was defined as a set of limitations in the abilities of people with disabilities to function in society because of some pathology in us,” Longmore said last month, at a San Francisco celebration of the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. “The disability rights movement redefined disability as a problem mainly out there in society-not just in our bodies and minds but in society.”
It wasn’t the person with a disability who needed to overcome that disability, Longmore said. It was society that needed repair – whether it meant putting curb cuts at the end of the block, so someone like Longmore could get around in his power wheelchair, or changing Social Security laws so he could publish books and not lose the assistance that assured his accomplishment and independence.