Nadina LaSpina's memoir delivers a riveting account of growing up and living in a world designed to deny disabled bodies access to basic human dignity. The book is divided into four sections that cover a range of themes including the intersections of disability with love and loss, sexual abuse, activism, friendship, and joy. At a very young age, LaSpina contracted polio and lost most of the function in her legs. Each page recounts the struggle to be accepted by her family and society, the joy of finding oneself and falling in love, and the harsh battle against social structures that discriminate and harm disabled people. LaSpina's memoir offers the field of disability scholarship and activism an intimate exploration of both the battle against ableism and the undeniable joy of self-discovery and love.

Beginning with her childhood in the small town of Riposto, Sicily, LaSpina reflects on how her small-town community actively worked to instill in her a sense of guilt and shame, teaching her "to embrace her own destiny of suffering" (11). While the parents, children, teachers, and nuns that comprised her community drilled into her that she was different and therefore bad, her father incessantly clung to an "optimistic" belief in a cure for the polio, telling LaSpina repeatedly that she would eventually be cured. In the search for the cure, the family moved to New York in order for LaSpina to receive the most modern medical care for polio treatment. The first section of the book works through an intense personal struggle for Nadina to please her father and receive several surgeries with the hope that she would eventually be able to walk without braces. While in the hospital, she meets other disabled children for the first time: "I was ecstatic. In Sicily, I thought I was the only crippled girl in the world, and here I found myself surrounded by so many disabled girls and boys" (22). In this first section, the feelings of shame that LaSpina describes center around the feeling of helplessness as she completes surgery after surgery, trying to become what the world and her father most wish for her: cured. "Since I had no choice," she writes, "I got used to being dependent and being handled by nurses" (47). These childhood experiences deal most closely with an attempt to "overcome" disability, and during this time LaSpina begins to develop a strong resistance to the ableist perceptions of disabled people.

In the second section, "Fighting Back," LaSpina discusses her time as a graduate student and her budding work with activism. Joining the Disability in Action (DIA) activist group was a formative moment for LaSpina, and in her relationships with the members of the group, she is encouraged to pursue her dreams of becoming a teacher and graduate student at NYU. While working and taking classes at NYU, she continues to wrestle with her family's expectations for her to find a "cure" that will allow her to walk. In tandem with this, LaSpina continues the arduous work of meeting ableist social expectations from her academic institution (i.e., that she is able to stand while she teaches, write on the chalkboard, and walk long distances to and from the buildings where she teaches). During this time, LaSpina's closest friend, Audrey, commits suicide, and she is faced with devastating loss while also navigating the demands of graduate school and teaching. LaSpina recounts grieving the loss of Audrey, who was disabled and deeply affected by the discrimination she had experienced throughout her life. In connection to grieving this loss, LaSpina also becomes increasingly devoted to her activist work focused on fighting the structures that enabled violence and sexual abuse against disabled people while also denying them rights to health care and accessible working conditions.

Sections 3 and 4, the second half of the book, then move to focus on how LaSpina's work with activism informs all areas of her life, including her romantic relationships and career development. In section 3, "Love and Activism," LaSpina describes the work she begins to do in Italy, writing: "I met the most exciting disabled people at the camp, as I organized demonstrations, gave lectures, conducted workshops. I became especially close to the women" (179). These relationships and the work that LaSpina develops in Italy increasingly contribute to the activist work that she continues in the United States. During this time, LaSpina also has a few long-term and complex relationships with men who often fail to support her or respect her autonomy. Eventually, she meets and falls in love with Danny, a fellow activist in DIA. LaSpina's reflections on these relationships reveals layers of intimate violence disabled people experience at the hands of ableist partners. LaSpina's captivating writing style braids together complex threads of violence, subversive and overt ableist perceptions of disabled people, commitment to resistance, and a development of love and joy in secure relationships.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, LaSpina was working as a professor at Fordham University and was increasingly interested in developing disability scholarship within academic settings. She approached the chair of her department to advocate for teaching a course on disability studies, and she argued that "the field of disability studies was having trouble finding its place in the curriculum because it was assumed that disability belonged in applied fields such as rehab, social work, special ed" (280). After designing and submitting a course proposal, her course "Celebrating Differences: Disability Culture" was accepted to be taught in the fall of 2000. LaSpina's fight for a range of representation of disability studies in the academy was starting, and her activist work continued to inform these spaces. At the end of the memoir, LaSpina describes a visit to Riposto, writing: "The present for me then had been painful as well. I had lost my blood sister, Audrey. It took years for me to learn how to fight against the violence done to us. And many more years for the wounds to begin to heal" (312). The fight against ableism and the healing process spans the memoir and indicates the many ways in which this work extends into the present moment.

The entirety of the memoir covers four incredible seasons of LaSpina's life. From dealing with feelings of shame and guilt in response to the hatred and discrimination in her childhood to her fierce commitment to activism in her young adulthood, LaSpina works through incredible social and familial challenges as she fights for her selfhood. Similarly, her journey through pursuing her dreams of teaching at NYU, a highly inaccessible campus in the 1970s, to teaching a course on Disability Culture in 2000 are brilliantly woven together to give the reader an expansive view of LaSpina's narrative. It could be tempting to read LaSpina's story as an inspirational account of overcoming disability, and at times the text comes close to reading as a narrative of triumph. However, one of the brilliant moves that LaSpina makes throughout the memoir is to establish that her story is not about "overcoming" disability, nor is it about providing some sort of inspirational view of fighting discrimination. As Wendy Chrisman writes, "'overcoming' and 'inspirational' narratives of disability are ableist and antithetical to (or, at least, impede) the idea of viewing disability as a socially constructed site for analysis" (173). LaSpina's memoir offers a narrative of disability that does not shy away from celebrating both the experiences of joy and triumph as well as the myriad encounters with discrimination and abuse. Yet, she does not position her triumphs as narratives that resolve the ableist structures still inherent in social and cultural systems. In the end, this memoir points us to the work that is yet to be done in disability studies while providing an unrepentant narrative of building a life in an ableist world. LaSpina's work has important implications for every academic discipline, and really for every reader interested in an unapologetic devotion to building an accessible society.

Works Cited

  • Chrisman, Wendy L. "A Reflection on Inspiration: A Recuperative Call for Emotion in Disability Studies" Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, Vol. 5, Num. 2, 2011, pp. 173-184.
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