Observations From Below: Did You Know?

USA, Washington State, Bellevue, Interlake High School
USA, Washington State, Bellevue, Interlake High School

As a young journalist and a recovering perfectionist, I love watching CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes. Not only do the 60 Minutes journalists have a reputation for being some of the best interviewers, often they have stories that capture my attention. Learning from the best is said to be a great way hone your skills.

May 17th's show was a shining example of this. They ran a story called "A Monumental Project," on the renewed effort to build an African American History Museum in Washington, D.C., which everyone can benefit from. Congress agreed that the museum should be built, way back in 1929, but it was never funded until recently. This story fascinates me, especially the arguments that Lonnie Bunch and his cohort make regarding the importance of finding balance within our telling of American history.

What particularly strikes me, as a historian of and with disabilities, is how easy it would be to make the same arguments about disability history, with just the change of a few words.
When I covered the NC Youth Leadership Forum, I spoke with Rene Cummins, executive director of the Alliance of Disability Advocates, Center of Independent Living. She discussed having the same frustrations with history textbooks that I have. Disability history is represented even less than other important minority histories. I did not learn anything about disability studies from my high school textbooks. We are not alone.

My current assistant, Kim, has a master's degree in Special Education and 25 years of experience in the field of disabilities and she had an epiphany that she was never taught any disability history, whatsoever. How the bleep does that happen? For Christmas, I presented her with a complete library of disability history books, so now she is up to speed.

The omission of disability history in school curriculums is deplorable and even more striking, when you research how the powers that be, decide what does and does not get written into textbooks. I looked into how that happens and discovered three things. First, because of their sizes, California and Texas, are the two states that have the most power and it has been said that they balance each other politically. (California tends to have a liberal base and then... there's Texas.) Second, there are only three major textbook publishers, Pearson Education Inc., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill, that dominate the market. Third, with the rise of ebooks, the publishers have taken to telling different history based on their buyers. Don't like what you read in one? No problem, they'll change it for you. Publishers have been sanitizing history for years. That's how you become an $8 billion dollar industry. Yup, that's with a b.

The ironic thing about California and Texas not insisting upon the inclusion of disabilities is those states, in particular, played major roles in the Disability Rights Movement. California was the birthplace of the entire movement. San Francisco was the site of one of the most monumental events in disability history. Activists occupied the Health Education and Welfare federal building in 1977 for 25 days, in hopes of making the federal government enforce Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, making this the longest peaceful occupations in U.S. history.

Texas is home to several historic figures in the Disability Rights Movement, according to a map on University of California at Berkley's database of oral histories. One being, Lex Frieden, who is touted as one of the architects of the American's with Disabilities Act.

Sometimes in advocacy, I feel like the Greek King, Sisyphus, who was doomed to push the same rock, up the same hill, every day for an eternity. I try to teach more and more people about the same important events in U.S. history and there are always more people to teach. It is very discouraging, especially since I was in the background of a conference, where a law was drafted which requires disability history to be taught in NC schools. This law, NC753v4, passed in 2007, 8 years ago. Maybe that isn't that long to wait, given the African American Museum took over 70 years. I have been in 4 different high schools in the past year and not one teacher or administrator was even aware that such a law exists. You can find a link to the law under this column.

I disagree with how Americans approach minority history. We seem to focus only on one minority at a time. We should value all contributions, of all different minorities. The thing about education is that it can change society over time. We can't expect students to learn things that they aren't taught in school.

We could start by enforcing the laws that are already on the books. My readers can start by learning about all the history your schools never taught you.

That's how I roll.....the same rock....up the same hill....

Related Links:
http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/collections/drilm/
http://www.dishist.org/links.htm
http://www.ncleg.net/sessions/2007/bills/senate/pdf/s753v4.pdf