A blog about universal and accessible design

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Remembering Paul Longmore

I was sad to hear yesterday of the passing of Paul Longmore, a leader in the field of Disability History. I have gotten to know Paul over the past three years as I work on my dissertation about disability rights and design. Reading others' remembrances of him online, and talking to fellow young scholars, I know I was just one of many who consider him a great teacher and mentor. Berkeley lawyer Lainey Fairgold wrote on her website that, reading and speaking with him, "I could actually feel my mind opening up to new ideas, new ways of perceiving the world." I have felt that many times as well.

Paul was one of the most generous scholars I have ever met, always willing to chat with me - sometimes for hours, as we sat in the sun outside of his San Francisco State office or in his apartment. As a non-disabled person with little experience in the disability community before I started my dissertation, I felt tentative about my project when we first spoke. He was immediately supportive, and over time was very forthcoming about his own life history and the ways it overlapped with the work I am doing on the everyday lives of people with disabilities in postwar America. I came to think of him as a friend as much as I did a professor - until I would return to his written work, and, like Lainey says, I could feel my mind expanding. His insights on practices of history writing - for example, in his essays on the League of the Physically Handicapped and on the reformer Randolph Bourne, both in the collection Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability - are seminal works for any historian of 20th century America.

Paul was an accomplished scholar in two fields: Early American History and Disability History. After he completed his MA and PhD at Occidental College and Claremont Graduate School, Paul taught at Stanford and USC before coming to San Francisco State University in 1992. He received tenure in SF State's History Department in 1998 and directed the Institute on Disability starting in 1996. He published The Invention of George Washington, based on his dissertation, and a collection of essays, Why I Burned My Book; at the time of his death he was nearing completion of a new work on telethons. He edited The New Disability History with Lauri Umansky, and has been the organizer of countless conferences, panels, journal issues, and professional groups (including H-Disability, as Penny Richards notes). A more complete bio is here.

I was often bowled over by how openly Paul discussed the difficulties he had faced in his career path. As he details in the title essay of Why I Burned My Book, throughout graduate school and his early career people told him frankly that he would never be hired as a person with a severe disability (though one professor did concede that he was "not bitter like many cripples"). The title of the essay comes from a protest Paul staged in 1988 after he was warned his book royalties would render him ineligible for the Social Security Income (SSI) payments that supported his medical and attendant care (at the time, totaling more than $20,000/year - history book royalties do not come close). He burned copies of The Invention of George Washington on a barbecue grill in front of the federal building in downtown Los Angeles, an action that was part of a years-long battle to change SSI policies that effectively discouraged people with disabilities from pursuing professional career paths. Despite his own battles, he never dismissed or belittled others' problems. He often asked me how I was doing, offering supportive words when the dissertation process got me down. We academics rarely discuss our feelings - Paul did, reminding me to seek support and see the long view of my project. I believe his mentoring and teaching were a part of his activism, changing the profession that had not always treated him fairly. Up until his death he was still planning more projects to encourage disability studies and disability history.

Paul sardonically wrote in Why I Burned My Book, "when I published [The Invention of George Washington], one reviewer remarked that it drew on a 'truly astounding amount of research.' Of course it did . Would a postpolio supercrip do anything less? How characteristically disabled of me to undertake so grandiose a project." Still, as he continues, "I don't want to reduce my work to 'overcoming.'" Neither do I. Paul's work is not only remarkable because he "overcame" odds in a society that did not - does not - imagine that people with disabilities can make a contribution. He will have a long legacy because he investigated topics that few historians had considered critically, if at all, and because he did it while maintaining a personal practice of support and generosity. One has only to skim a few of the personal remembrances popping up online (for example, on Not Dead Yet and Media Dis-n-Dat, as well as Paul's facebook page) to see how many scholars, writers, and activists were influenced by his presence, whether in one-time meetings or life-long friendships.

Thank you, Paul. I will miss you tremendously.

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