This is “Other Minorities, Women, Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Disabled”, section 5.2 from the book 21st Century American Government and Politics (v. 1.0).
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Policies protecting African Americans’ civil rights automatically extend to other racial and ethnic minorities. Most prominent of these groups are Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. They all have civil rights concerns of their own.
Latinos have displaced African Americans as the largest minority group in the United States. They are disproportionately foreign-born, young, and poor. They can keep in touch with issues and their community through a burgeoning Spanish-language media. Daily newspapers and national television networks, such as Univisión, provide a mix of news and advocacy.
Politicians court Latinos as a growing bloc of voters.Benjamin Márquez, LULAC: The Evolution of a Mexican American Political Organization (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993); David Rodríguez, Latino National Political Coalitions: Struggles and Challenges (New York: Routledge, 2002). As a result, Latinos have had some success in pursuing civil rights, such as the use of Spanish in voting and teaching. After Latino groups claimed that voting rights were at risk for citizens not literate in English, the Voting Rights Act was amended to require ballots to be available in a language other than English in election districts where that language was spoken by 5 percent or more of the electorate. And the Supreme Court has ruled that school districts violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when students are taught in a language that they do not understand.Lau v. Nichols, 414 US 56 (1974).
Latino success has not carried over to immigration.Rodolfo O. de la Garza et al., Latino Voices: Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban Perspectives on American Politics (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992). Illegal immigrants pose vexing questions in terms of civil rights. If caught, should they be jailed and expelled? Should they be eligible to become citizens?
In 2006, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) introduced legislation to change illegal immigration from a violation of civil law to a felony and to punish anyone who provided assistance to illegal immigrants, even church ministers. Hundreds of thousands rallied in cities across the country to voice their opposition. President George W. Bush pushed for a less punitive approach that would recognize illegal immigrants as “guest workers” but would still not allow them to become citizens.
Other politicians have proposed legislation. Mired in controversy, none of these proposals have become law. President Obama revisited one aspect of the subject in his 2011 State of the Union message:
Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet they live every day with the threat of deportation.…It makes no sense.
Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws, and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. I know that debate will be difficult and take time.“State of the Union 2011: President Obama’s Full Speech,” ABC News, accessed February 3, 2011, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/State_of_the_Union/state-of-the-union-2011-full-transcript/story?id=12759395&page=2
The National Council of La Raza
To learn more about Latino civil rights, visit the National Council of La Raza online at http://www.nclr.org.
Many landmark cases on racial discrimination going back to the nineteenth century stemmed from suits by Asian Americans. World War II brought more discrimination out of an unjustified, if not irrational, fear that some Japanese Americans might be loyal to Japan and thus commit acts of sabotage against the United States: the federal government imposed curfews on them. Then after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans (62 percent of them US citizens) were forcibly moved from their homes to distant, desolate relocation camps. Ruling toward the end of the war, the Supreme Court did not strike down the internment policy, but it did hold that classifying people by race is unconstitutional.Korematsu v. United States, 323 US 214 (1944).
Japanese Americans who had been interred in camps later pressed for redress. Congress eventually responded with the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, whereby the US government apologized to and compensated camp survivors.Leslie T. Hatamiya, Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and the Passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993); Mitchell T. Maki, Harry H. L. Kitano, and S. Megan Berthold, Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999).
To learn more about Japanese internment, visit http://www.archives.gov/research/alic/reference/military/japanese-internment.html.
Japanese Americans being shipped to internment camps during World War II.
Asian Americans have united against discrimination. During the Vietnam era, Asian American students opposing the war highlighted its impact on Asian populations. Instead of slogans such as “Bring the GIs home,” they chanted, “Stop killing our Asian brothers and sisters.”
These Asian American student groups—and the periodicals they spawned—provided the foundation for a unified Asian American identity and politics.Yen Le Espiritu, Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), chap. 2; Pei-Te Lien, The Making of Asian America Through Political Participation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), chap. 5.
A dazzling array of Asian American nationalities, religions, and cultures has emerged since 1965, after restrictions on immigration from Asia were removed. Yet vestiges of discrimination remain. For example, Asian Americans are paid less than their high education would warrant.Mia Tuan, Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites. The Asian Experience Today (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998). They point to mass-media stereotypes as contributing to such discrimination.
Native Americans represent many tribes with distinct languages, cultures, and traditions. Nowadays, they obtain protection against discrimination just as members of other racial and ethnic groups do. Specifically, the Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA) of 1968 guaranteed them many civil rights, including equal protection under the law and due process; freedom of speech, press, and assembly; and protection from unreasonable search and seizure, self-incrimination, and double jeopardy.
Native Americans’ civil rights issues today center on tribal autonomy and self-government on Indian reservations. Thus some of the provisions of the Bill of Rights, such as the separation of church and state, do not apply to tribes.Talton v. Mayes, 163 US 376 (1896). Reservations may also legally discriminate in favor of hiring Native Americans.
For much of history, Native Americans residing outside of reservations were in a legal limbo, being neither members of self-governing tribal nations nor US citizens. For example, in 1881, John Elk, a Native American living in Omaha, claimed that he was denied equal protection of the laws when he was prevented from voting. The Supreme Court ruled that since he was “born to an Indian nation,” Elk was not a citizen and could not claim a right to vote.Elk v. Wilkins, 112 US 94 (1884). Nowadays, Native Americans living on or outside reservations vote as any other citizens.
The Native American Civil Rights Movement
For more on the Native American Civil Rights movement, visit http://www.knowitall.org/roadtrip/cr-html/facts/timelines/na/index.cfm.
Women constitute a majority of the population and of the electorate, but they have never spoken with a unified voice for civil rights, nor have they received the same degree of protection as racial and ethnic minorities.
In the American republic’s first years, the right to vote was reserved for property owners, most of whom were male. The expansion of the franchise to “universal white manhood suffrage” served only to lock in women’s disenfranchisement.
Women’s activism arose in the campaign to abolish slavery. Women abolitionists argued that the case against slavery could not be made as long as women did not have political rights as well. In 1848, women and men active in the antislavery movement, meeting in Seneca Falls, New York, adopted a Declaration of Sentiments. Emulating the Declaration of Independence, it argued that “all men and women are created equal” and catalogued “repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.”Nancy Isenberg, Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Susan Zaeske, Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, and Women’s Political Identity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
The Seneca Falls Convention
To learn more about the Seneca Falls Convention, visit http://www.npg.si.edu/col/seneca/senfalls1.htm.
After the Civil War, women abolitionists hoped to be rewarded with the vote, but women were not included in the Fifteenth Amendment. In disgust, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two prominent and ardent abolitionists, launched an independent women’s movement.Louise Michele Neuman, White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). Anthony drafted a constitutional amendment to guarantee women’s right to vote: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”Jean H. Baker, ed., Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). Modeled on the Fifteenth Amendment, it was introduced in the Senate in 1878.
At first, the suffragists demurely petitioned and testified. By 1910, their patience was at an end. They campaigned against members of Congress and picketed the White House.
Women picketing in front of the White House embarrassed President Woodrow Wilson during World War I. They pointed out that his promise “to make the world safe for democracy” did not include extending the vote to women. Wilson changed his position to one of support for the Nineteenth Amendment.
They went to jail and engaged in hunger strikes. Such efforts, widely publicized in the news, eventually paid off in 1920 when the Nineteenth AmendmentAmendment to the Constitution added in 1920 that grants and protects women’s right to vote. was added to the Constitution.Lee Ann Banaszak, Why Movements Succeed or Fail: Opportunity, Culture, and the Struggle for Woman Suffrage (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996).
When the vote won, the women’s movement lost its central focus. Women were split by a proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)Failed attempt to amend the Constitution to mandate equal treatment of women and men. to the Constitution, mandating equal treatment of men and women under the law. It was proposed in 1923 by well-to-do Republican working professional women but was opposed by women Democrats in labor unions, who had won “specific bills for specific ills”—minimum wage and maximum hours laws for working women. Meanwhile, women constituted an increasing proportion of voters and made inroads in party activism and holding office.Cynthia Ellen Harrison, On Account of Sex: The Politics of Women’s Issues, 1945–1968 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
The Equal Rights Amendment
Learn more about the Equal Rights Amendment at http://www.now.org/issues/economic/eratext.html.
Then came an unexpected breakthrough: Conservative Southern House members, hoping to slow down passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, offered what they deemed frivolous amendments—one of which expanded the act to protect women. Northern and Southern male legislators joined in derision and laughter. The small contingent of congresswomen berated their colleagues and allied with Southern conservatives to pass the amendment.
Thus the Civil Rights Act ended up also barring discrimination in employment on the basis of sex. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), created to implement the act, decided that its resources were too limited to focus on anything but race.
In 1967, women activists reacted by forming the National Organization for Women (NOW), which became the basis for a revived women’s movement. NOW’s first president was Betty Friedan, a freelance writer for women’s magazines. Her 1963 best seller, The Feminine Mystique, showed that confining women to the domestic roles of wife and mother squelched opportunities for middle-class, educated women.On EEOC’s initial implementation, see Hugh Davis Graham, The Civil Rights Era: Origins and Development of National Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), chap. 8; on the founding of NOW, see Jo Freeman, The Politics of Women’s Liberation (New York: Longman, 1975). Women’s organizations adopted the slogan “the personal is political.” They pointed out that even when men and women in a couple worked outside the home equally, housework and child care fell more heavily on wives, creating a “second shift” limiting women’s opportunity for political activism.
By 1970, Democrats and Republicans alike backed the ERA and women’s rights. One House member, Bella Abzug (D-NY), later exulted, “We put sex discrimination provisions into everything. There was no opposition. Who’d be against equal rights for women?”Quoted in Christina Wolbrecht, The Politics of Women’s Rights: Parties, Positions, and Change (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 35
Such laws could be far reaching. Title IX of the Education Act Amendments of 1972, outlawing sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs, prompted little debate when it was enacted. Today it is controversial. Some charge that it pushes funds to women’s sports, endangering men’s sports. Defenders respond that all of women’s sports put together get less funding at universities than men’s sports, such as basketball or football.Joyce Gelb and Marian Lief Palley, Women and Public Policies: Reassessing Gender Politics, rev. ed. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998), chap.5.
NOW and other organizations focused on the ERA. It passed by huge bipartisan margins in the House in 1970 and the Senate in 1972; thirty of the thirty-eight states necessary to ratify approved it almost immediately. However, opposition to the ERA, led and generated by conservative women, arose among the general public, including women. While women working outside the home generally favored the ERA to fight job discrimination, housewives feared that the ERA would remove protection for them, such as the legal presumptions that women were more eligible than men for alimony after a divorce. The public’s support of the ERA declined because of fears that it might allow military conscription of women and gay marriage. The political consensus crumbled, and in 1980, the Republican platform opposed ERA for the first time. ERA died in 1982 when the ratification process expired.Jane S. Mansbridge, How We Lost the ERA (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).
Although women have made strides toward equality, they still fall behind on important measures. The United States is twenty-second among the thirty most developed nations in its proportion of women in Congress. The percentage of female state legislators and state elective officials is between 20 and 25 percent. The top twenty occupations of women are the same as they were fifty years ago: they work as secretaries, nurses, and grade school teachers and in other low-paid white-collar jobs.
In 1980, the EEOC defined sexual harassmentForm of discrimination on the basis of sex and gender that consists of unwelcome sexual advances or sexual conduct, verbal or physical, that interferes with a person’s performance or creates a hostile working environment. as unwelcome sexual advances or sexual conduct, verbal or physical, that interferes with a person’s performance or creates a hostile working environment. Such discrimination on the basis of sex is barred in the workplace by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in colleges and universities that receive federal funds by Title IX. In a series of decisions, the Supreme Court has ruled that employers are responsible for maintaining a harassment-free workplace. Some of the elements of a sexually hostile environment are lewd remarks and uninvited and offensive touching.Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 US 57 (1986); Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 US 17 (1993); Burlington Industries, Inc., v. Ellerth, 524 US 742 (1998); Farragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 US 775 (1998); Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 US 75 (1998).
Schools may be held legally liable if they have tolerated sexual harassment.Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 US 629 (1999). Therefore, they establish codes and definitions of what is and is not permissible. The College of William and Mary, for example, sees a power difference between students and teachers and prohibits any and all sexual contact between them. Others, like Williams College, seek to ensure that teachers opt out of any supervisory relationship with a student with whom they are sexually involved. The news often minimizes the impact of sexual harassment by shifting focus away from a public issue of systematic discrimination to the question of personal responsibility, turning the issue into a private “he said, she said” spat.Mary Douglas Vavrus, Postfeminist News: Political Women in Media Culture (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), chap. 2.
Gay people, lesbians and gay men, are at the forefront of controversial civil rights battles today. They have won civil rights in several areas but not in others.Gary Mucciaroni, Same Sex, Different Politics: Success and Failure in the Struggle over Gay Rights (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); and Paul Brewer, Value War: Public Opinion and the Politics of Gay Rights (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).
Gay people face unique obstacles in attaining civil rights. Unlike race or gender, sexual orientation may or may not be an “accident of birth” that merits constitutional protection. The gay rights movement is opposed by religious conservatives, who see homosexuality as a flawed behavior, not an innate characteristic. Moreover, gay people are not “born into” a visible community and identity into which they are socialized. A history of ostracism prompts many to conceal their identities. According to many surveys of gay people, they experience discrimination and violence, actual or threatened.
Election exit polls estimate that lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals make up 4 percent of the voting public. When candidates disagree on gay rights, gays vote by a three-to-one margin for the more progay of the two.Mark Hertzog, The Lavender Vote: Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals in American Electoral Politics (New York: New York University Press, 1996). Some progay policies are politically powerful. For instance, the public overwhelmingly condemns discrimination against gay people in the workplace.
The anti-Communist scare in the early 1950s spilled into worries about “sexual perverts” in government. Gay people faced harassment from city mayors and police departments pressured to “clean up” their cities of “vice.”
The first gay rights movement, the small, often secretive Mattachine Society, emerged to respond to these threats. Mattachine’s leaders argued that gay people, rather than adjust to society, should fight discrimination against them with collective identity and pride. Emulating the African American civil rights movement, they protested and confronted authorities.John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority, 1940–1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). On news coverage of the early movement, see Edward Alwood, Straight News: Gays, Lesbians, and the Media (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).
In June 1969, during a police raid at a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn, customers fought back. Street protests and violent outbursts followed over several days and catalyzed a mass movement. The Stonewall riots were overlooked by network television and at best got only derisive coverage in the back pages of most newspapers. But discussion of the riot and the grievances of gay people blossomed in alternative newspapers such as The Village Voice and emerging weeklies serving gay urban enclaves. By the mid-1970s, a national newsmagazine, The Advocate, had been founded.
Lesbian and gay activists picked up a cue from the African American civil rights movement by picketing in front of the White House in 1965—in demure outfits—to protest government discrimination. Drawing on this new openness, media discussion in both news and entertainment grew dramatically from the 1950s through the 1960s.
Source: New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barbara_Gittings_1965.jpg.
By the early 1980s, the gay movement boasted national organizations to gather information, lobby government officials, fund electoral campaigns, and bring test cases to courts.Craig A. Rimmerman, From Identity to Politics: The Lesbian and Gay Movements in the United States (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), chaps. 2 and 3. The anniversary of the Stonewall riots is marked by “gay pride” marches and celebrations in cities across the country.
The gay rights movement’s first political efforts were for laws to bar discrimination by sexual orientation in employment, the first of which were enacted in 1971.James W. Button, Barbara A. Rienzo, and Kenneth D. Wald, Private Lives, Public Conflicts: Battles Over Gay Rights in American Communities (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1997). President Bill Clinton issued an executive order in 1998 banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in federal government employment outside the military. By 2003, nondiscrimination laws had been enacted in 40 percent of American cities and towns.
The first legal victory for lesbian and gay rights occurred in 1965: a federal district court held that the federal government could not disqualify a job candidate simply for being gay.Scott v. Macy, 349 F. 2d 182 (1965). In 1996, the Supreme Court voided a 1992 Colorado ballot initiative that prevented the state from passing a law to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The justices said the amendment was so sweeping that it could be explained only by “animus toward the class” of gay people—a denial of equal protection.Romer v. Evans, 517 US 620 (1996) at 632.
In 2003, the Court rejected a Texas law banning same-sex sexual contact on the grounds that it denied equal protection of the law and the right to privacy. The decision overturned a 1986 ruling that had upheld a similar law in Georgia.Lawrence v. Texas, 539 US 558 (2003) overturning Bowers v. Hardwick 478 US 186 (1986).
In 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton endorsed lifting the ban on gay people serving openly in the military. In a postelection press conference, Clinton said he would sign an executive order to do so. The news media, seeing a dramatic and clear-cut story, kept after this issue, which became the top concern of Clinton’s first days in office. The military and key members of Congress launched a public relations campaign against Clinton’s stand, highlighted by a media event at which legislators toured cramped submarines and asked sailors on board how they felt about serving with gay people. Clinton ultimately supported a compromise that was closer to a surrender—a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that has had the effect of substantially increasing the number of discharges from the military for homosexuality.Craig A. Rimmerman, ed., Gay Rights, Military Wrongs: Political Perspectives on Lesbians and Gays in the Military (New York: Garland Publishing, 1996).
Over years of discussion and debate, argument, and acrimony, opposition to the policy increased and support declined. President Obama urged repeal, as did his secretary of defense and leaders of the military. In December 2010, Congress passed and the president signed legislation repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” As the president put it in his 2011 State of the Union message, “Our troops come from every corner of this country—they are black, white, Latino, Asian, and Native American. They are Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And yes, we know that some of them are gay. Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”“State of the Union 2011: President Obama’s Full Speech,” ABC News, , accessed February 3, 2011, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/State_of_the_Union/state-of-the-union-2011-full-transcript/story?id=12759395&page=4.
Same-sex couples brought suits in state courts on the grounds that preventing them from marrying was sex discrimination barred by their state constitutions. In 1996, Hawaii’s state supreme court agreed. Many members of Congress, concerned that officials might be forced by the Constitution’s “full faith and credit” clause to recognize same-sex marriages from Hawaii, quickly passed a Defense of Marriage Act, which President Clinton signed. It defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman and denies same-sex couples federal benefits for married people. Many states followed suit, and Hawaii’s court decision was nullified when the state’s voters amended the state constitution before it could take effect.
In 2000, the highest state court in Vermont ruled that the state may not discriminate against same-sex couples and allowed the legislature to create civil unionsAlternative to same-sex marriage, whereby a state does not allow same-sex couples to legally marry but allows them to apply for legal recognition of their relationship; this gives them the rights and privileges of marriage in that state.. These give same-sex couples “marriage lite” benefits such as inheritance rights. Going further, in 2003, Massachusetts’s highest state court allowed same-sex couples to legally wed. So did the California and Connecticut Supreme Courts in 2008.
Voters in thirty states, including California in 2008 (by 52 percent of the vote), passed amendments to their state constitutions banning same-sex marriage. President George W. Bush endorsed an amendment to the US Constitution restricting marriage and its benefits to opposite-sex couples. It received a majority of votes in the House, but not the two-thirds required.
In 2010, a federal judge in San Francisco struck down California’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage on the grounds that it discriminates against gay men and women. In 2011 New York allowed same-sex marriage. The legal battle is almost certain to be settled by the US Supreme Court.
People with disabilities have sought and gained civil rights protections. When society does not accommodate their differences, they view this as discrimination. They have clout because, by US Census estimates, over 19 percent of the population has some kind of disability.
Early in the twentieth century, federal policy began seeking the integration of people with disabilities into society, starting with returning veterans of World War I. According to these policies, disabilities were viewed as medical problems; rehabilitation was stressed.
By the 1960s, Congress began shifting toward civil rights by enacting a law requiring new federal construction to be designed to allow entrance for people with disabilities. In 1972, Congress voted, without debate, that work and school programs receiving federal funds could not deny benefits to or discriminate against someone “solely by reason of his handicap.”Richard K. Scotch, From Good Will to Civil Rights: Transforming Federal Disability Policy, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), chap. 3. Civil servants in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare built on this language to create a principle of reasonable accommodationFederal policy mandating employers and schools to find ways to make it possible for people with disabilities to have equal access to employment and education.. In the workplace, this means that facilities must be made accessible (e.g., by means of wheelchair ramps), responsibilities restructured, or policies altered so that someone with disabilities can do a job. At schools, it entails extra time for tests and assignments for those with learning disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed Congress by a large margin and was signed into law in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush. The act moves away from the “medical model” by defining disability as including a physical or mental impairment that limits a “major life activity.” It gives the disabled a right of access to public building. It prohibits discrimination in employment against those who, given reasonable opportunity, could perform the essential functions of a job.
However, the courts interpreted the law and its definition of disability narrowly; for example, to exclude people with conditions that could be mitigated (e.g., by a hearing aid or artificial limb), controlled by medication, or were in remission.
In response, on September 29, 2008, President Bush signed legislation overturning the Supreme Court’s decisions. It expanded the definition of disability to cover more physical and mental impairments and made it easier for workers to prove discrimination.
Disability activists fight to be respected and accepted as they are. They advocate for what they can do when society does not discriminate against them and adapts to their needs. This effort is frustrated by the typical media frame presenting disabilities as terrible medical burdens to conquer. The mass media tend to present disabled people either as pitiable, helpless victims requiring a cure or as what activists call “supercrips”: those courageously trying to “overcome” their handicapsCharles A. Riley II, Disability and the Media: Prescriptions for Change (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2005). (Note 5.27 "Comparing Content").
In 1995, the actor Christopher Reeve suffered a devastating fall in a horseback-riding accident, which paralyzed him from the neck down and forced him to use a ventilator to breathe. Reeve—best known for playing the role of Superman in a series of movies—would not be deterred. He became a film director and found award-winning acting roles, such as a television remake of the classic Rear Window, in which the principal character has a broken leg.
Above all, Reeve resolved he would walk again. He began to campaign for a cure for spinal injuries, sponsoring television specials and raising money through a newly formed foundation. He gave countless speeches, including one to the Democratic National Convention in 2000. Reeve’s efforts won praise in the media, which monitored his landmarks, such as breathing without a ventilator. A Time magazine headline in September 2002 was typical: “Against All the Odds: Christopher Reeve, in a visit with TIME, tells how he is regaining control of his body, one finger at a time.”
Actor Christopher Reeve was adored by the news media—and politicians—for his committed fight to regain the use of his body after a horseback-riding accident.
The media attention lavished on Reeve until his death in 2004 irked many people with disabilities. They saw the massive publicity he received as undermining their struggle for civil rights and equal treatment. In magazines aimed at serving people with disabilities, such as Ability Magazine and Ragged Edge, writers blasted Reeve for presenting himself as, in their words, “incomplete” or “decayed.” Chet Cooper, editor of Ability Magazine, confronted Reeve in a 1998 interview. Cooper began, “Promoting civil rights for people with disabilities would involve encouraging people to accept and respect people with disabilities just as they are…Their concept is ‘I don’t need to walk to be a whole human being. I am able to lead a fully functional life, independent of walking.’” Reeve answered, “We were not born to be living in wheelchairs. We were meant to be walking upright with all of our body systems fully functional and I’d like to have that back.”Christopher Reeve and Fred Fay, “The Road I Have Taken: Christopher Reeve and the Cure,” interview by Chet Cooper, Ability Magazine, 1998, http://abilitymagazine.com/reeve_interview.
In this section, we addressed the civil rights challenges facing Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans, as well as women, lesbians and gays, and individuals with disabilities. Latinos have gained language but not immigration rights. After the horror of relocation inflicted on Japanese Americans, Asian Americans have obtained their rights, although vestiges of discrimination remain. Rights issues for Native Americans concern tribal autonomy and self-government. Women have gained less civil rights protection, in part because of policy disagreements among women and because of fear of undermining men’s and women’s traditional roles. Gay people have won protections against discrimination in states and localities and through the courts, but have been denied equality in marriage. People with disabilities have won civil rights protections through national legislative and executive action.