Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2004, Volume 24, No. 3
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Mary Johnson. Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve, & The Case Against Disability Rights. By. Louisville, Ky.: The Advocado Press, 2003. 296 pages. $16.95. Softcover 097211890X.

Reviewed by Beth Haller, Towson University.

Mary Johnson's book strips away the denial from the notion that the disability rights movement is significantly taking hold in America. Those of us who believe in disability rights may find her book hard to take but we should read it and ruminate on it anyway. She carefully delineates the perspective of the enemies of disability rights, and we need to understand these enemies if we are to move disability rights forward.

The book is made up of two halves. The first covers the case against disability rights – from the courts, the government, the media, and celebrities such as Clint Eastwood and Christopher Reeve. The second half explains the case for disability rights – from activists and others trying to make a change to a more accessible and equitable society.

The early chapters use the Clint Eastwood case, in which he fought against making his Mission Ranch hotel compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as a media-frenzied example of how many businesspeople will not comply with the law and blame lawyers for spurring disabled people into the suing. This case is used effectively and is particularly telling because when a well-known celebrity is involved, the news media pay attention. And this meant, according to Johnson, the media were buying into Eastwood's argument that the ADA and aggressive lawyers for disabled people are hurting American business. She teases out the rhetoric of the case in which Eastwood and businesspeople like him argue that they are not "against the handicapped" but are against the "special" requirements of the ADA and the lawyers who sue them over it. It's clear from Eastwood's statements that he never saw disability rights as a civil rights movement.

Johnson shows the Eastwood argument as the dominant worldview it probably is in America. She explains that the rhetoric of cases like Eastwood's establishes the three main themes against disability rights: that what the disability rights movement wants goes against common sense; that disabled people will receive the occasional "special" bathroom or bus, but they should not have the "normal" world changed for them; that they are hurting business and society in general, i.e. it would be best if society could "make them go away" (p. 24).

The other media-soaked person she uses to illustrate the case against disability rights is Christopher Reeve. Although a long-time activist for progressive causes before he became disabled, Reeve became all about cure, rather than access, when he became quadriplegic. In a particularly effective chapter called "The silence of the good people," Johnson bluntly states how the national reaction to Reeve's disability embodied strong anti-disability rights feelings. Statements about how "terrible it is to be paralyzed," that he "no longer felt like a human being," or that disabilities are "a temporary setback rather than a way of life" (pp. 128-129) were met with pretty much wholesale agreement within the media and the general public. Although Johnson uses media reports, not attitude studies, she makes a strong argument about how news stories about Reeve and his statements foster further negative feelings about disability in society.

The second half of the book gives some hope because it explains how important disability rights are. It makes several significant points especially about "customization" and universal design. The universal design argument is the same one everyone in the disability rights community knows – that making everything accessible benefits everyone, not just people with disabilities.

Johnson goes on to make a crucial point about the current trend toward customization as an expansion of consumer choice. She explains that if only society saw providing services to people with disabilities as providing individualized options, rather than "special" services, it would be on the disability rights track. Unfortunately, the positive trend toward diversity of products slams into the opposing trend toward uniformity of products in certain areas ( e.g. housing design). In the business world, accommodation of individual needs sells – that's why we have 72 coffee drinks. But few in society seem to understand the similarity to accommodating people with disabilities. If this statement from her book informed all of society, what a disability friendly world we would have: "The most successful products are often those that accommodate the widest variation of human difference" (p. 214).

My only minor criticism of the book is its repetition. Johnson uses a number of the same quotes and anecdotes in several chapters. This may have been intentional because she may be using some of the same examples in the cases for and against disability rights, but as a reader, it is still a bit jarring to suddenly read a quote that you know you read before a few chapters ago. But overall, Make Them Go Away illuminates the dark side of the disability rights struggle as it plays out in the news media and that is crucial for all of us to see, as we continue the fight to make society accommodate all people.