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A MATTER OF DIGNITY by Andrew Potok

A MATTER OF DIGNITY

Changing the World of the Disabled

By Andrew Potok

Pub Date: Feb. 4th, 2002
ISBN: 0-553-80215-1
Publisher: Bantam

Edifying portraits of activists, therapists, technicians, and others working to help the disabled participate more fully in mainstream American life.

Potok, a painter and writer who chronicled the early stages of his blindness due to retinitis pigmentosa in Ordinary Daylight (not reviewed), thinks of disability “politically, as another form of ethnicity.” With that concept in mind, he set about interviewing people (disabled or not) who devote themselves to the transformation of technology and public policy in ways that benefit the disabled. Potok's narrative begins in Morristown, New Jersey, with Pete Lang, a guide-dog trainer at the Seeing Eye, the oldest and largest such school in the country. For the author, “training with the first dog was a giant move, not only in shrugging off my natural fears about putting my life in the hands of a dog, but in being unequivocally identified from then on as a blind man.” While the text mildly emphasizes technology benefiting the blind (including a profile of Ted Hunter, developer of a computer program that translates text, icons, and graphics into speech), it also highlights prostheses makers, a bioethics professor, social policy activists, and a music therapist: Connie Tomaino of New York City’s Beth Abraham Hospital, one of a handful of researchers exploring the neurological links between music and memory. They have found, the author tells us, that Parkinson's patients unable to walk unassisted are sometimes able to walk to the beat of a metronome, and that stroke victims who have lost the ability to speak may still be able to sing (an activity controlled by a different part of the brain) and in this roundabout way rebuild the ability to talk. With all of the gains that have been made by and for the disabled, Potok is quick to point out, they still suffer formidable shortfalls in income, employment, and education opportunities.

No pity or paternalism here, just the interesting confluence of technology and activism.