John Leo

The view of deaf people as "a linguistic and cultural minority with a rich and unique heritage" (Lane's words) has made great headway in academic circles and the media. Deaf people have many institutions that parallel mainstream ones, from deaf basketball leagues to a Miss Deaf America contest.

Disability in general is increasingly seen as a culture worthy of study and respect. Disabilities studies are sweeping through the academic world, and universities are starting to compete for disabled professors. Some of the study programs look like an attempt to establish a political beachhead on the campuses, as was done by the creation of women's studies and black studies. A new online Disability History Museum (one that "taps hot issues," says a Boston Globe editorial) celebrates the achievements of disabled Americans. The museum will provide a disabilities curriculum for children in grades 5-12. Exactly why the nation's students, currently caught up in the back-to-basics movement, should study disability for eight years is obscure.

Though obesity is rarely thought of as a disability, the size-acceptance movement uses the same logic as the disabilities movement. Dieting, or trying to reduce a child's weight, is positioned as an illegitimate attack on the differently sized. Words such as "overweight" and "fit" are often put in quotation marks to isolate them as terms used by intolerant outsiders who want to impose their own standards and the idea that stoutness is a problem.

Disability activism, alas, has given itself over to identity politics. As the late critic Christopher Lasch wrote, the politics of group identity is therapeutic in origin and functions like a group of dogmatic religions "in which rival minorities take shelter behind a set of beliefs impervious to rational discussion." Like rational discussion about cochlear implants, for example.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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