Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2005, Volume 25, No. 1
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Smith, J. David. In Search of Better Angels: Stories of Disability in the Human Family. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc., 2003. 146 pages, $27.95, Paper 0-7619-3841-9.

Reviewed by Darla Schumm, Hollins University

J. David Smith, in his book In Search of Better Angels: Stories of Disability in the Human Family, borrows the symbol of "better angels" from Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address. Lincoln addresses a nation that is divided by disagreement and anger and asks them to look to the better angels of their character to promote "peace and solidarity." Smith echoes Lincoln's request, challenging the better angels of his own society to create "...a more inclusive and welcoming society for children and adults with disabilities," and to aid in "...understanding and celebrating human diversity" (p.ix). Smith uses stories to express why it is imperative that we achieve and realize these goals.

The book is divided into three parts. In part one, "My Own Journey," Smith recounts stories about people and experiences he encountered as a child, public school teacher, counselor, and Peace Corps volunteer. Smith reflects upon how his childhood friend nicknamed Tiny—who was considered a slow learner—taught him invaluable lessons about "fish and squirrels" and "schools and values." He shares how Nan, a young woman who used a wheelchair whom he worked with at Camp Easter Seal, demonstrated a zest for life and an ambition matched by few other people. Through his experiences with Tiny, Nan, and others, Smith realizes that he can make a significant difference in people's lives, and that he very much enjoys making that difference.

Part two—"Disability, Science, and Pseudoscience"—is by far the most important and compelling section of the book. The story of Carrie Buck, a young woman who was sterilized without consent because she was thought to be mentally deficient, frames Smith's discussion about the past, present, and future dangers of the science of eugenics. Smith notes that due to advances made through the human genome project, ethical considerations about eugenics and disability are more and more pressing. Smith poses many important ethical questions in this section such as: "Will parents who may carry the genes for disabilities have the right of reproduction taken from them either explicitly or through coercion? Are disabilities always diseases to be prevented or are they human conditions worthy of being valued?" (pg. 65). Smith demonstrates how the abuse of individuals with disabilities is problematically justified in the name of science and social necessity and why it is crucial to proceed with great care when we describe and discuss those who are different from us.

In the final part of the book, "Disability in Historical and Literary Perspectives," Smith highlights examples from history and literature that demonstrate how we can find hope in the most unlikely places for changing social attitudes and structures with regard to disability. For example, Smith tells the story of Charles Darwin's youngest child. Darwin, known in part for his theory of the survival of the fittest, fathered a child with severe mental disabilities. Smith recounts the love, care, and compassion Darwin showed to his child who certainly never would have passed the Darwinian test of the survival of the fittest.

While I found In Search of Better Angels a refreshing and poignant approach to addressing some of the most challenging and difficult ethical issues of our time, there is one aspect of the book that troubled me. In communicating his deep conviction that people with disabilities have much to contribute and teach him (as well as society more generally), Smith comes dangerously close to valorizing, or making heroes out of those of us with physical or mental disabilities. Several times he expresses his gratitude for the lessons his friends with disabilities have taught him. To be sure, we all learn valuable lessons from our friends, disabled or not. But, there is a fine line that must be walked between acknowledging the contributions those of us with disabilities make to our world, and placing on us an often unwelcome burden and responsibility to be a constant inspiration. With this one concern in mind, I recommend the book as a good educational tool for those seeking to become more familiar with disability issues and disability studies. It is an accessible and informative read.