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


Barnartt, Sharon & Scotch, Richard. Disability Protests: Contentious Politics 1970-1999. Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2001. 256 pages, $69.95,Cloth 1-56368-112-9.

Reviewed by Mitchell A. Kaplan, Beth Israel Medical Center, NY.

Barnartt and Scotch's book fills a major gap in the literature on social movements by giving readers an insightful understanding of the historical processes and events that shaped the organized struggle for civil rights and social equality by people with disabilities. The authors review the social history of disability in America from early colonial times to the present and vividly describe the way society's treatment of persons with impairments led to the formation of the disability community. They then discuss early attempts by persons with disabilities to organize themselves into a social action movement.

Through qualitative analysis of archival data and personal interviews with disability movement leaders, Scotch and Barnartt critically examine the multitude of examples of civil rights demonstrations and legislative victories brought about by the collective efforts of people with disabilities over the last three decades. They also discuss the way organized attempts to bring about social equality served to define the disability movement in this country as a sustainable social action movement, rather than just random acts of political protest. Using the concept of social action frames and extension, the authors describe the way disabled people were able to draw upon and incorporate the social experiences and civil disobedience strategies of other marginalized groups such as women and Blacks to raise public awareness of their inequitable position in society and to dramatize their need for social and political changes that would improve the quality of their lives.

The authors broaden their discussion of social movements by turning their attention to an analysis of cultural belief systems and social structural conditions that underlie the motivational forces that caused individuals with disabilities to seek collective action that would allow their demands for social equality to be recognized by society. Two types of motivational forces are discussed, cross disability and impairment-specific demands. Cross disability demands are those that encompass the needs of the entire disability community. Barnartt and Scotch argue that cross disability demands are concerned with issues related to basic civil rights and nondiscriminatory social access to public institutions and services that provide social benefits to a broad spectrum of persons with impairments.

In contrast, impairment-specific demands are those that are more narrowly focused on specific issues that impact individuals belonging to specific disability groups. Individuals with disabilities with these kinds of demands are usually concerned with rights to services and public accommodations that will primarily benefit members of their particular disability group. In addition to demands for basic services and specialized public accommodations, Barnartt and Scotch point out that those with impairment-specific demands were also concerned with issues that affect the way members of their group were perceived by the larger society. The authors contend that many of the disability activists they interviewed for their research felt very strongly that media images, such as those presented on fundraising telethons, had a negative effect upon public perceptions of impaired individuals and that collective action was needed in order to slant those images in a more positive direction.

Later chapters take the discussion a step further by focusing on the evolution of cross disability and impairment-specific political change within the disability community over time. Through critical analysis of significant legislative actions like the passage and implementation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, and galvanizing political protest events such as the Deaf President Now Protest at Gallaudet University in 1988, Barnartt and Scotch illustrate how early collective action by members of the deaf and disability community set the stage for later patterns of successful organized political activism. Using statistical data, the authors clearly show how these and similar events inspired the deaf and disability communities to solidify themselves into an empowered force that was dedicated to bringing about positive social changes and greater equality for all.

As the book closes, Barnartt and Scotch round out their discussion of social movements with an examination of social issues and technological advances that have the potential to predict future trends in contentious political activism within the disability community in the 21st century. The authors argue that increasing use of new technologies such as e-mail will have great potential to affect the way individuals with disabilities mobilize themselves for contentious political action. They point out that increased access to e-mail technology gives individuals with disabilities a broader range of communication possibilities that will enable them to make their demands heard. The authors also believe that increasing concerns around controversial social issues such as the debate over assisted suicide will spearhead increased levels of political protest activity in this community. Barnartt and Scotch note that the potential for increased contentious political action by individuals with disabilities is slowly becoming a global phenomenon with larger and larger percentages of protest activities occurring outside the United States.

In the professional opinion of this reviewer, Disability Protests: Contentious Politics 1970-1999 is an excellent book that makes a significant contribution to the social understanding of major issues that are important to the disability community. I would strongly recommend that the book be placed on the reading of list of university faculty who teach graduate level courses in Sociology, History and Disability Studies.