Biography 28.3 (2005) 447-451
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Helen, born with spina bifida, practices law. Virginia, who is blind, designs museum exhibits. Robin, who has MS, continues an academic career in African-American history. Barbara, born with clubfoot and contracted knees, is a biochemist, involved in science education and disability advocacy. Behind [End Page 447] such apparently straightforward facts about these women's lives lie complicated stories of frustration, adaptation, and remarkable inventiveness. None of them is a simple survival-and-success tale of the kind we like to see on the newsstands. In some of their stories, the frustrations dominate. One disabled woman concludes her interview for this collection with the observation, "Even McDonalds won't hire you if you go there in a wheelchair. . . . I just really think that if you have a visible disability, you're not going to get a job. Even now with the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]—who enforces it?" (143). Another speaks of a boss who was "breathtakingly sexist." Another, of a manager who feared she would damage the hospital's image if she were to greet people in her wheelchair.
The eighteen women whose lives and strategies of survival are recorded in Mary Grimley Mason's remarkable biographical collection, Working Against the Odds, represent a wide range of physical disabilities and an even wider range of attitudes. Though the theme that unites their stories is coping with disability, and though certain predictable struggles with self-perception, public unawareness, and discriminatory practices recur throughout, the diversity of their accounts is more striking than their consistencies. Any categorical claim one might make about life with disabilities demands qualification. Even the term "struggle" isn't always the most appropriate to describe the learning trajectory of the newly disabled, or the emergent awareness of difference common to those with congenital pathologies. Periods of depression and discouragement are often interspersed with unexpected exhilarations over new avenues of work, new sources of support, or simply new frames of reference. One woman who suffered a spinal cord injury in a biking accident claims, after several years of wheelchair confinement with partial paralysis, that her injury actually made her a stronger, more focused person: "I describe it to people as if the radio dial was turned to static and all of a sudden it tuned in. Suddenly it became very clear as to what was important and what wasn't important, and so as crazy and as zany as it sounds, I am pretty thankful for my injury" (160). Lest such a claim sound glib, she does concede how much a supportive spouse and adequate means of support have enabled her to achieve such remarkable acceptance. And she spends a good part of her time working with the National Spinal Cord Injury Association to help advocate for those suffering similar injuries.
Such positive assessments are hard won. The women whose stories are collected in this volume have learned to cope with difficulties many of us can barely imagine, often against considerable psychological, social, and legal odds. Mason organizes them into three sections whose titles foreground the most common of those difficulties: "The Way We See Ourselves," "The Way [End Page 448] the World Sees Us," and "The Way We Work." She introduces the first with Thomas Couser's observation that disability narratives may "illuminate the ways in which the body mediates identity and personality" (15). Stages of adaptation vary, but disabilities, both congenital and those that come later in life, don't resolve into simple narratives of accommodation to particular deficits or before-and-after tales of sudden change. Rather they require long-term strategies of ongoing adjustment as medical complications arise, as support communities change, as the demands of work shift, as confidence grows or wanes.
Elaine, born with osteogenesis imperfecta, details the process of living alone for the first time at twenty-two as a scary and joyful adventure of taking on...