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  • Disability and Aging: Learning from Both to Empower the Lives of Older Adults by Jeffrey S. Kahana and Eva Kahana
  • Johnathan Smilges (bio)
Jeffrey S. Kahana and Eva Kahana, Disability and Aging: Learning from Both to Empower the Lives of Older Adults. Boulder, CO, Lynne Rienner, 2017. Hardback ISBN: 978-1-62637-590-1. $68.00. 250 pp.

Disability studies has long acknowledged the relationship between disability and aging. Activists frequently use the phrase "temporarily nondisabled" to emphasize the inevitability of disability, to acknowledge that even those few folks who occupy able bodyminds throughout their youth and midlife will eventually age into disability. In Disability and Aging: Learning from Both to Empower the Lives of Older Adults, Jeffrey S. Kahana and Eva Kahana set out to explore this period of older adults' lives, when all of us, formerly disabled or not, encounter disability. As a historian and a gerontologist, respectively, Kahana and Kahana approach the relationship between disability and aging predominantly as social scientists writing to gerontologists. Their intention with the book is admirable: "to begin a dialogue between" disability studies and gerontology, given the relative absence of elders' perspectives from disability studies and of social/political models of disability from gerontology (4). Unfortunately, however, the project does not engage thoroughly enough with histories of disability activism or with disability studies scholarship to offer a meaningful discussion with disability scholars or a particularly useful representation of disability politics for gerontologists. Thus, despite a promising exigence, the project does not fulfill all that it sets out to accomplish.

The first chapter, "The World of Late-Life Disability," introduces readers to the disabled elder population. Coining the phrase "graying of disability," Kahana and Kahana argue that old and aging people experience disability uniquely from folks at other stages in their lives (3). Disability scholars working at the intersection of disability and aging, such as Amanda Grenier, Meredith Griffin, and Colleen McGrath, have reached similar conclusions ("Aging and Disability"), but Kahana and Kahana insist that no such work exists within disability studies (3). I had hoped that their oversight would be an unusual mistake, but as the second chapter, "Contextualizing Aging and Disability," reveals, the authors also overlook the range, value, and intent of disability activism. Kahana and Kahana repeatedly claim that disability identity poses a threat to elders' "long-held beliefs about autonomy and self-determination" because it "counter[s] the recognition of [End Page 377] the uniqueness of each individual" (32, 35). Despite that the purpose of disability identity is to empower disabled people—in part by interrogating nondisabled culture's obsession with "autonomy and self-determination" in favor of an interdependent model of subjectivity—the authors reduce it to "a hindrance" that interrupts elders' "continuity of self" (40). It is a disappointing mischaracterization that is likely to leave readers unfamiliar with disability studies and activism skeptical of their liberatory potential.

The third chapter, "Learning from Gerontology," marks the first of three autobiographical chapters dispersed throughout the project that center around Eva Kahana's career as a gerontologist, her life with her husband, Boaz, and her relationship with her aging mother, Sari. These chapters are the most compelling ones because they offer first-hand accounts of aging into disability, acknowledging that "a deeper level of knowing [disability] can be achieved only through lived experience" (59). While even these chapters do not adequately capture the purpose of disability activism—at one point suggesting that tipping service employees to make accommodations "is consistent with the goals of full inclusion"—Kahana and Kahana refrain from disparaging activists' efforts (110). In fact, while reflecting on the challenge "of overcoming structural barriers to family advocacy […] in institutional living," they express appreciation for "some of the more assertive advocacy strategies of the disability studies movement" (141).

Unfortunately, the authors' personal experiences with disability and disabled family members do not translate into a more robust engagement with disability studies material in subsequent chapters. Chapter 4, "A Life Course Perspective," "highlights the experiential aspects of disability and aging" by framing "disability as a contingent condition that has distinct meanings in early, middle, and later life—and for different cohorts" (73). Ostensibly, this approach falls in line with...


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