Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2005, Volume 25, No. 3
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Mason, Mary Grimley. Working Against Odds: Stories of Disabled Women's Work Lives. Northeastern University Press, 2004. 183 pages, $20, 1555536301.

Reviewed by Carrie Griffin Basas, Esq.

Mary Grimley Mason's Working Against Odds: Stories of Disabled Women's Work Lives weaves together 18 voices in a broadly sweeping narrative about the experiences of working women with disabilities. Mason originally interviewed 30 women for the project and drew from a smaller set of interviews to cover such topics as self-perception, identity, society's views of disability, and approaches to work. Her focus is not only on the workplace and barriers to it; rather, through the direct words of her participants, she tells stories of how work relates to esteem, care giving, attitude, wellness and family. This book is also a personal journey, in parts, as Mason reflects on her own experience of living and working as a woman with disability.

Mason has chosen a critical topic for writing and reflection. Presenting readers with the largely unedited voices of women with disabilities is refreshing and illuminating. In writing this book, Mason has created a resource for both individuals in the Disability Studies field, as well as newcomers to Disability Studies. These stories need to be told and this effort could be an important springboard for future work. Mason's writing is accessible and engaging, offering the possibility for connection to almost any reader.

Against Odds has some shortcomings. At times, it seems stilted in its characterization of disability. The beginning of each chapter follows a similar course–the woman is described, her disability is noted and Mason gives the reader a location for the conversation. Mason uses the language of "impairments" to talk about disability, yet she reminds the reader about the oppressive qualities of the medical model.

Perhaps, Mason's use of "impairments" is an example of how most language about disability is stilted. Using language about disability as difference may have eroded ground for commonality and community. The language of "challenges" is laughable. Ultimately, the language of impairment is consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act definition of disability, but it leaves the reader feeling as if she has simply forgotten to get something fixed.

Mason treads awkwardly when she describes the appearances of the women in the book. At the beginning of each sketch, she tends to describe the attractiveness of the particular woman. The beauty of women with disabilities must be recognized and become part of the mainstream conscience, but it is clumsy to describe any study participant as attractive or beautiful. As a reader with a physical disability, I wondered if Mason hoped to persuade readers for whom disability is a new area of awareness, that limited ways of seeing beauty must be reconsidered.

While Against Odds celebrates poly-vocality, it misses several critical voices. The major weakness of the project is its focus on Boston-area women with physical disabilities. Some of the women have multiple kinds of disabilities and add balance to the book, but Mason clearly acknowledges in her introduction that she has concentrated on physical and sensory disabilities. The book could have been strengthened by including the stories of women with non-apparent disabilities, such as learning disabilities and HIV/AIDS.

The focus on the Boston area limits the book. Would voices from other parts of the country, even the world, give the reader a better sense of the barriers to work? Would a rural versus urban comparison be useful? Where are the voices of women from other urban areas where transportation, health care, and the economy are more limited? Mason's focus is qualitative and she does a sensitive job of incorporating the voices of the women interviewed. However, she misses the opportunity for a deeper analysis of women's different living conditions and professional ambitions, and the constraints posed by other factors–such as age, race, geography, networks, education, community, and income.

The voices of younger women with disabilities are absent. Mason's youngest participant is 27. The stories of women new to the workplace or application process should have been included. These are the kinds of perspectives that enrich understandings about current discrimination, barriers and strategies. The voices of women in their late teens and early to mid-20s are often fresh and raw, capturing current experiences of marginality.

I missed the voices of other women in this project, as well. While several African-American women with disabilities were included in the project, women from other racial and ethnic backgrounds would have added dimension. The minority women included in the project are among the most resonating voices. One woman gives the reader a provocative insight into multiple discrimination. She identifies her disability as a larger source of discrimination than her minority racial background.

Social diversity is important, too. The voices of queer women are missing from this project. Participants' stories of work-relationship balance focus on heterosexual dating and marriage. To understand the experience of working women with disabilities, we need to appreciate the full range of barriers and divisions within society. Sexual orientation, like race, is an area that goes beyond the double-discrimination effect of gender and disability to add other layers of discrimination and identity.

The importance of identity and community is murky in this book. Many women with disabilities find jobs and increase esteem and confidence by having a sense that they belong to a network, whether professional, social or disability-focused. However, in this project, Mason has organized the book in a way that makes each woman's voice stand alone. Mason takes a few opportunities to connect stories, but the reader never gets a full sense of whether and how these Boston-area women are interconnected. Would their lives be enriched by knowing one another and sharing ideas for social change?

The reader is left to decide what she might take from the stories. In so many ways, this format is powerful and open. Mason's book is not dogmatic; it invites an exploration of these issues from personal and policy perspectives. From the women's voices emerges one question–"Where do we go from here?"

Copyright (c) 2005 Carrie Griffin Basas

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