Laura Hershey's Whenever Web Column

Review of Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract, by Marta Russell
(Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1997)

Reviewed by Laura Hershey

[This review originally appeared in New Mobility.]

In her book Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1997), Marta Russell does what few disability writers have ever managed to do: She examines disability issues in a broad social and economic context. Problems ranging from Social Security work disincentives, to job discrimination, to lack of attendant services, to assisted suicide, and more, are attributed by Russell to the United States' capitalist economy and corporate-dominated "democracy." Whereas most other authors call for access modifications and social mainstreaming, Russell demands much more. She wants a society restructured to promote human welfare, not the accumulation of wealth.

This book is particularly valuable to the disability-rights movement, because it challenges us to dig beneath the surface of what we often think of as disability-related problems. Russell urges us to understand that "our" issues are not ours alone. They arise from the power relations which undergird our society. The oppression of people with disabilities is not due simply to "insensitivity" or "ignorance." Rather, it is the inevitable consequence of an economic system which favors the rich, and of a political system which serves the rich. People with disabilities (along with single mothers, surplus workers, and other powerless groups) are marginalized and/or exploited in the market-based economy, while resources and benefits increasingly flow upward.

She sounds a persuasive alarm about the current trend toward "rollback" politics, in which the two major parties unite to dismantle hard-won social welfare programs such as Social Security Disability Income (SSDI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Medicare, and Medicaid. These cuts are creating widespread suffering in the form of poverty, homelessness, lack of access to health care, and institutionalization. The cuts do not, however, result in a lower deficit or a stronger national economy. Instead, the dollars saved are redirected into the pockets of the rich. Russell provides numerous examples of this, including enormous tax subsidies to some of the nation's largest corporations.

Russell delivers on the book title's promise to go "beyond ramps." In her discussion of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Russell reveals the cynical deal-making and public-relations spinning that resulted in the law's many compromises. The Bush Administration, in concert with Congressional Republicans and business groups, crafted a law full of gaping loopholes such as voluntary compliance, extended deadlines, and "undue hardship" exemptions. Perhaps most significant, the ADA left untouched one of the biggest violators of disabled people's rights -- the health insurance industry. Once again, economics prevailed over true justice.

Consequently, the disability community's economic elite garnered the most benefits from the passage of the ADA. Russell grants that changes have occurred as a result of the ADA -- but these changes have been mostly in what she terms the "ramp, restaurant, and recreation fronts." More fundamental and necessary changes in disabled people's lives -- such as the ability to earn a living -- have not, and cannot be expected to, arise from such limited legislation. Russell points out,

"For that class of disabled persons with money, life has improved. They can attend more concerts, use the restrooms in more restaurants, purchase great lifts for their accessible vans, get on airplanes and fly across the country with relative ease, and go to more movies."But what good is the freedom to sit in a United Artist theater if one cannot afford the price of a ticket?" (p. 111-112)

Russell concludes, "Unfortunately, the ADA has not been given the power to fully deliver on its revolutionary promise." (p. 112)

Instead, Russell calls for real revolution designed to bring about economic justice. In contrast to what she calls "free-market civil rights," she advocates affirmative action requirements to force employers to hire disabled people; and universal health coverage to free disabled people from dependence on poverty-based programs like Medicaid. These prescriptions are bound to create controversy, both inside and outside the disability community. But as Russell argues, "It is the economic arena - beyond ramps - that is central to breaking out of the underclass that has kept us on the bottom socio-economic rungs of the capitalist pyramid." (p. 111)

This intelligent, extensively researched and persuasive book will no doubt stir arguments among disability advocates. Her approach is radical -- as in going to the root of the problem. It couldn't come at a more critical time, as different impoverished groups are pitted against each other for pieces of a shrinking entitlement pie.

Russell doesn't just want a piece of the pie; she wants a whole new recipe.

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