Politics of Empowerment investigates the nature of the social change taking on a couple of decades of the American disability policy as its subject-matter. That policy culminated in the passing of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark civil rights law, which aimed to protect people with disabilities. To paraphrase Hitchcock, the book starts with an earthquake and then the suspense only rises. The earthquake was the fact that in 2012, the "United States as a world leader in disability policy" failed to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). This omission would have been shocking in and of itself, but it was even more so because "the convention's language was (…) modelled after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the so-called emancipation proclamation for people with disabilities" (xiii). This paradoxical turn of events sets the premise of the book that the path towards empowerment of people with disabilities is bumpy, non-linear, and packed with dead ends. However, it is also filled with great victories and advancement. As Pettinicchio aptly observes, "policies are never settled" (163), nor can the struggle for them ever be finished. Hence, the suspense rises as he maps the cyclical and complex process of this social change.

This applaudable scholarship merges meticulous, historical, archival research with a sharp analysis of the evolution of the disability legislation and policies, while contextualizing it within the American economy, politics, and culture. Pettinicchio uses the social movements framework on par with a detective-like approach to seek answers to his guiding questions: "What changed? And who changed it?" (2). I would argue that this stress on—what I jokingly call—'whodunit', without losing sight of the larger forces at play, allows the book to pinpoint some important features that drive or block social change in regards to people with disabilities. After all, socio-cultural advancement is a phenomenon that is (wo)man-made. Specifically, Pettinicchio presents the bigger picture of the American disability policy reform by foregrounding concrete people's contributions to its development. He refers to them collectively as disability rights entrepreneurs, with leaders from governmental circles and broader political elites as well as those representing the advocacy and grass-root sector within this group. Pettinicchio evidences that advocacy efforts and activism of both 'insiders' and 'outsiders' of the American political epicentre were necessary to effectively tackle discriminatory laws, policies, and paradigms.

Being, as I am, engaged in disability advocacy 'from the outside'—yet in constant search of allies 'on the inside'—it was especially interesting for me to learn about the motives, strategies, and dilemmas of disability rights entrepreneurs who belonged to political circles and were accustomed to the 'House of Cards' type of environment. As Pettinicchio explains,

[d]isability rights began as an elite-driven movement. Disability rights entrepreneurs were not challenged by pressure groups or their constituents to pursue a particular policy trajectory. Instead, their activist spirit was shaped by their personal and professional biographies, filtered through the institutional and organizational context within which they worked. They were motivated to act by self-interest (e.g., professional and political ambitions), as well as values underpinning their other regarding interests to do the morally right thing (3-4).

Conversely, the 'full' yet slow paradigm shift that repositioned people with disabilities from patients to social-service clients, and then finally into citizens entitled to their civil rights, would not have happened without the 'nothing about us without us'. That wave took the form of well-versed and persistent interventions of people with disabilities and their organizations. Against this background, it seems justified to infer that instances of allyship should be cherished, but the on-going problem of the limited representation of minority group members in the epicentres of power should be critiqued and redressed.

On top of being an excellently researched, argued, and written socio-historical analysis, Politics of Empowerment enhances the ethos of disability studies, as it seems to call the readers to action by stressing in the closing section: "History Repeats Itself." The author uses the wealth of his knowledge to suggest which strategies could be relevant for dealing with the current and upcoming challenges regarding disability policy making, implementation, and monitoring. Despite being a study of American disability politics and policy-making, in my view, this book is a must-read for any disability studies scholar and/or activist interested in civil and economic rights of people with disabilities vis-à-vis neoliberal capitalist forces and discourses. The book should be read because the U.S. is such a rich case study with many 'lessons learnt.' Those lessons may come handy when engaging with the disability policies and laws of other countries, especially those with strong neoliberal tendencies, which at the same time adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

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Copyright (c) 2021 Magda Szarota

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ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)