Thursday, July 2, 2015

‘Enabling Acts’ by Lennard J. Davis

Cover image, Enabling Acts by Lennard J. Davis. The title and author's name are in blue text against a white background at the top and bottom of the cover respectively. In the center of the cover is an illustration of the paper torn open to reveal another layer underneath. The book's subtitle is printed in this torn-paper box. It reads, 'The Hidden Story of How the Americans with Disabilities Act Gave the Largest US Minority Its Rights.'
Twenty-five years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Enabling Acts by Lennard J. Davis (Beacon Press, 2015) offers both a detailed history and comprehensive assessment of the ADA.

Davis positions his book outside “the popular story” (16) in which “activism led to dramatic legislative results.” Instead, Davis credits the energies of three groups in creating “the complex thing we call politics” (17): elected officials or “high-profile politicians,” staffers who write legislation and organize hearings and activists “who provide the momentum when the other two groups encounter a slowdown.”

Davis further cautions that “We like to keep people’s roles separate, but in reality, all lives intersect, and so one person’s activism involving being arrested or chained to a bus could be another person’s act of writing a letter or placing a strategic phone call.”

According to Davis, “Trying to find a moment when the ADA began is like trying to find the source of the Nile or the Amazon. So many tributaries flow into the making of the ADA that you cannot say if any single stream is the true source. But you can say that at some point, like a mighty river, the movement toward the ADA surged powerfully and in a sense became inevitable” (7-8).

Davis identifies a “squib,” an insertion of brief language into the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as “the first brick in the groundwork laid for the ADA” (11). From those brief words, Davis traces the paths of the “tributaries” to the landmark signing of the ADA by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. It’s a complex story, rendered more complex by politics.

As the ADA’s 25th anniversary draws near, Davis analyzes the the legislation’s impact during the 25 years after its signing. How did objectors’ warnings about the bill’s costs actually play out? Where has the ADA been most successful and what barriers to full accessibility still need to be addressed?

Enabling Acts gave me new appreciation for this landmark bill, especially for the way it helped shape how disability is discussed and thought of in society. Under the “social” model of disability, an “impairment” is “simply a fact about a body” (229). A “disability” is “produced socially by the imposition of barriers and the lack of accommodation.” The solution is to remove the barriers.

Enabling Acts is an essential read for disability advocates and allies. It comprehensively documents a pivotal accomplishment in the pursuit of greater equality, and identifies issues for discussion and action during the next 25 years and beyond.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinion expressed is my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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