Disability-Rights Pioneer Honored During Occidental's "(Dis)Ability Awareness Week"

On Monday, Occidental College paid tribute to the late disability-rights pioneer and scholar Paul K. Longmore '68 'M'71 at a reception in the Clapp Library, kicking off the College's first-ever "(Dis)Ability Awareness Week," Oct. 3-7.

 

Before an audience of students, faculty and staff, about a half-dozen friends of Longmore spoke at length about his courage, intelligence, wicked sense of humor, and tireless work toward raising the profile of disabled Americans. He was a leading disability activist and award-winning scholar who helped enact federal policies that improved the lives of millions of Americans living with disability. He died August 9, 2010, of natural causes. He was 64.

"He was for me the embodiment of the public intellectual," said Phil Ferguson, an education professor at Chapman University. "He made information accessible to a wider audience."

A childhood bout of polio paralyzed Longmore's hands, so he wrote his first book, "The Invention of George Washington," by pecking a keyboard with a pen held in his mouth. It took him 10 years to write, and in 1988, he burned the book in front of the Federal Building in Los Angeles to protest Social Security policies that penalized disabled professionals for earning money through education, fellowships, and grants.

The action brought the national spotlight to disability issues. As a result, policymakers lifted some of the most restrictive penalties-including one that prevented Longmore from earning book royalties-in a change that became known as the Longmore Amendment.

A history professor at San Francisco State University, Longmore also established the analysis of disability as a field in academic research, and helped bring the discipline to other college campuses. In 1996, he helped start San Francisco State's Institute for Disability Studies, and served as its director.

"I learned from Paul that it was OK to be really open about one's disability, that you can blend that with rigorous scholarship," said Cathy Kudlick, a UC Davis history professor and expert in the history of medicine and disability issues. "He encouraged me to keep going."

The Longmore reception, sponsored by the history department and dean's office, was among the first in a series of events during "(Dis)Ability Awareness Week." Other events include a noon lecture by Kudlick today in Johnson Hall 200. As October's First Tuesday speaker, she will present her talk, "Blind People March for Dr. Martin Luther King."

On Wednesday, October 5, Oxy's Center for Gender Equity will present a 7 p.m. talk in Johnson Hall 101 by Eva Sweeney '08, a documentary filmmaker born with cerebral palsy. On Thursday, October 6, students, faculty and staff will take part in "A Day Without Stairs." Instead of walking up and down stairs, participants will follow wheelchair routes to their destinations.

In addition, at 5 p.m., Roger Boesche, Arthur G. Coons Distinguished Professor of the History of Ideas, media-services manager Michael Kerwin, and other staff members and students will discuss their experiences with mobility and access issues on campus. That event will take place at the Morrison Lounge in the Johnson Student Center. The week's events wind up on Friday, October 7, at 12:30 p.m. with a discussion on learning and mental disability that will take place in the Clapp Library's Braun Room. The events are free and open to the public.

A 35-member-strong taskforce of students, faculty, and staff organized the events to heighten awareness of access and ability, celebrate the work of people with disabilities, and provide space for members of the Oxy community to discuss their experiences with their impairments as well as with environments and attitudes that discriminate against the disabled, said Kristi Upson-Saia, assistant professor of religious studies and taskforce leader.

"On this campus, there are certain topics always on the table, like race and sexuality. But there are also under-represented constituencies," she said. "This is a week to argue that we should also be talking about and be sensitive to issues of access and ability."