Gallaudet University placed its chief diversity officer on leave Wednesday, citing her decision to sign a petition endorsing a Maryland voter initiative designed to overturn the state's gay marriage law, the Associated Press reported. Angela McCaskill's signature on the petition was first reported in July, but on Wednesday, T. Alan Hurwitz, president of the Washington, D.C., university that specializes in educating the deaf, announced that he had placed McCaskill on paid administrative leave. "It recently came to my attention that Dr. McCaskill has participated in a legislative initiative that some feel is inappropriate for an individual serving as Chief Diversity Officer; however, other individuals feel differently," Hurwitz wrote. "I will use the extended time while she is on administrative leave to determine the appropriate next steps taking into consideration the duties of this position at the university."
If elected, Mitt Romney would honor the work permits granted to undocumented young people under an executive order President Obama signed in June, the Republican candidate said in an interview with The Denver Post. The executive order, a short-term alternative to the DREAM Act that President Obama and others favor, halts the deportation of youth whose parents came to the United States illegally and have met certain other criteria, and gives them the right to apply for a two-year work permit. Some young people have begun to take advantage of the opportunity, but others express concern that the policy could be reversed under a Romney administration, causing trouble for them or their families.
But in the interview with the Denver newspaper, Romney said: "The people who have received the special visa that the president has put in place, which is a two-year visa, should expect that the visa would continue to be valid. I'm not going to take something that they've purchased. Before those visas have expired we will have the full immigration reform plan that I've proposed."
The University of Mississippi has held a series of events in recent weeks to mark the 50th anniversary of its desegregation. But as The New York Times noted, some have questioned whether the emphasis is on the wrong time period. Much discussion has noted the progress of the last 50 years to the point where the president of the student body is a black woman. But Charles W. Eagles, a history professor and the author of The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss, has prompted campus discussion with a talk in which he said that the university was celebrating its progress and not talking about the realities that came before integration. "The doors were open for 50 years yes, but they’d been closed for a century,” he said. “We don’t want to talk about that do we?"
There's a mean streak at the heart of a certain kind of American optimism -- a rugged, go-it-alone, dog-eat-dog strain of individualism that is callous at best, shading into the sociopathic. It values independence, or says it does, but only by regarding dependency as a totally abject condition. The reality that illness or old age threw even the hardiest pioneer into reliance on others hardly factors into this worldview; the notion that civilization implies interdependence is, for it, almost literally unthinkable.
As I say, this outlook can manifest itself as optimism (the future is one of unbounded possibility, etc.) not always distinct from wishful thinking or denial. And it’s just as likely to pour out in resentment that is keen, if not particularly consistent. “I am a victim,” the logic goes, “of all those people out there playing victim.” Absent a frontier, the frontier spirit starts wallowing in self-pity.
The absence of pity of any sort from Kim E. Nielsen’s new book A Disability History of the United States, published by Beacon Press, is hardly the most provocative thing about it. Nielsen, a professor of disability studies at the University of Toledo, indicates that it is the first book “to create a wide-ranging chronological American history narrative told through the lives of people with disabilities.” By displacing the able-bodied, self-subsisting individual citizen as the basic unit (and implied beneficiary) of the American experience, she compels the reader to reconsider how we understand personal dignity, public life, and the common good.
Take the “ugly laws,” for instance. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, major American cities made it illegal for (in the words of the San Francisco ordinance from 1867) “any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object” to appear in “streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places.”
The laws were unequally enforced, with poor and indigent people with handicaps being the main targets. For one thing, the impact of the Civil War plus the incredible frequency of industrial accidents meant there were more unsightly beggars than ever. But while deformed and damaged bodies were being cleared from the streets, there was a pronounced public appetite for the exhibits at “freak” shows.
Now, the two phenomena in question have been studied in some depth over the years. A monograph on the ugly laws appeared not that long ago -- and while there have been more detailed studies of the world of “human oddities” than the late Leslie Fiedler’s cultural history Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (1978), I doubt many have been nearly as thought-provoking. Nielsen’s historical narrative is presumably meant for undergraduates and the general public, so it’s natural to lose nuance in the treatment of either topic. But the breadth of the survey also means there is a gain in perspective.
No direct link exists between the policing of disabled bodies and their exploitation as entertainment, yet there is a connection even so. “In contestations over who was fit to be present in the civic world and who was not,” Nielsen says, “people with disabilities often found themselves increasingly regulated. Those not considered fit for public life were variably shut away, gawked at, [or] exoticized.”
It was a far cry from the norm of a century earlier. “The general lack of discussion and institutional acknowledgement of physical disabilities” in 17th- and 18th-century America “suggests that they simply were not noteworthy among communities of European colonists in the period before the Revolution,” Nielsen writes. “Indeed, it suggests that such bodily variations were relatively routine and expected – and accommodations were made, or simply didn’t have to be made, to integrate individuals into community labor patterns.”
Over time, in other words, disability became abnormal. Or at least it quit seeming “normal” in the way that it once did: a hard fact of life, to be sure, but just in the nature of things. Consider the way severely wounded veterans of the Revolutionary War reintegrated into the life of the new Republic. Citing recent historical work, Nielsen indicates that they “labored, married, had children, and had households typical in size and structures, at rates nearly identical to their nondisabled counterparts." They “worked at the same types of jobs, in roughly the same proportions” as well, and as a group they experienced poverty at the same rates as others of their background. The wounded returning from later wars had a much harder time of it.
Not all handicaps are created equal, of course. Nor is it self-evident that they should be lumped together (war wounds and birth defects, blindness and retardation, mental illness and dwarfism) under the common heading of “disability.” Nielsen sketches the changing ways political and medical authorities responded to the afflicted -- by trying to help them, or hide them, or both. In any case, the trend was to define them not by what they could do, but by their handicap. At the same time, attitudes towards the disabled were becoming tangled together with other prejudices. If certain people weren’t allowed to vote or otherwise exercise much power, it was only because their race, gender, or foreign origin left them physically or mentally unfit for it. Stigma and inequality fed off one another.
The very idea of being profoundly, inescapably limited in some way makes for anxiety when the cultural norm is the expectation “to create successful and powerful selves” that are ready to “stand on our own two feet” and “speak for ourselves.” Nielsen points out that the last two figures of speech are part of the problem. There are people who literally can’t “stand on their own two feet” or “speak for themselves.” While my exposure to the kinds of disability activists Nielsen writes about in the final pages of her history has been limited, they do seem to have an ironic and sarcastic (rather than po-facedly indignant) response to such "able-ist" imagery -- regarding it less as an insult than as evidence that the speaker is a bit thick. Which is usually true. The "unchallenged," as we might be called euphemistically, tend to be somewhat lacking in imagination and insight about their struggle for greater equality and autonomy.
And yet they have won some battles – by demanding help. By demanding a redistribution of resources on the basis of their intrinsic right, as human beings, to the dignity they could not enjoy otherwise. Someone in a wheelchair can zip around the neighborhood just fine, getting to her job at the pharmacy on time, provided the curbs are made accessible. And no, the person in the wheelchair is not responsible for paying for that, any more than her customers are responsible for mixing their own medications. Interdependence is not a failure of independence; it is the condition for enjoying the sort of independence that means anything at all.
WitsOn (for Women in Technology Sharing Online) will start October 1 as a six-week effort to encourage female undergraduates pursing science and technology degrees. The program will match students who sign up with a mentor for six weeks of online discussions, with the aim of encouraging these students to then find in-person mentors. The program is organized by Harvey Mudd College and Piazza (a social learning platform). While a number of colleges and universities have signed on as institutional participants (meaning they will publicize the effort) students at any college can join.
The Obama administration's program to give young immigrants who lack legal documentation to stay in the United States a waiver of deportation has attracted more than 72,000 applicants, The New York Times reported. There has been debate over whether those eligible -- a group that includes many college students -- would risk submitting their names and various pieces of information to the government, and the early results suggest that many are willing to do so.