Today: Paul Longmore, a scholar and disabled rights leader who refused to let seemingly overwhelming adversity defeat him as he made the world a better place.
To understand what Paul helped accomplish we need to recall what it was like to be disabled 25 years ago. Seldom did a disabled person have access to public restrooms for they weren’t wheel chair friendly, nor were the stalls easy to use, nor for the men were the urinals.
Many offices and busses were off limits because they had no ramps to accommodate those who couldn’t climb stairs. Neither did many schools or shopping centers. Even to cross the street was a major task for there were no handicap access lowered sidewalks, just tall curbs.
As for the job market, assuming they could get into the facilities, disabled people were commonly discriminated against. And this is where our story begins.
Paul Longmore was born a healthy child in New Jersey in 1946 to Ken and Evelyn Longmore and the family moved to the West Coast as his father pursued his career as a Baptist Minister.
Then tragedy struck.
In 1953 when Paul was just 7 years old he got polio and for the next 14 months was hospitalized, fighting for his life. He survived but for the rest of his life he would stay in a wheel chair, his arms and hands paralyzed and his spine twisted severely to the point he would never walk again.
Just to breathe would require Paul to use a respirator for up to 18 hours a day.
But Paul’s mind was sharp. In elementary school he attended special education classes, but he and his parents were determined he attend junior high school with regular students, his physical impediments and the limitations of the facility aside.
After careful consideration, the school accepted Paul but his teacher cautioned him: “You have to succeed. If you don’t, they won’t let others in. You’re a pioneer.”
“And I’ve never forgotten that,” Paul said in a Stanford University news release in 1991, where he taught. “Every school and every job, I’ve always been the first with a major disability.”
Paul got his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in History from Occidental College and earned his Doctorate from Claremont Graduate University, both prestigious schools in the Los Angeles area.
But afterward no-one would hire him.
That is no-one would hire him at first. But Paul refused to give-up and was hired by the University of Southern California to teach history.
In 1990, as Paul’s remarkable teaching skills and popularity with students preceded him, Stanford University hired him. In 1993, he became a history professor at San Francisco State University, where he would teach for the rest of his career.
How did he overcome his severe physical limitations to conduct his classes? By doing what many able bodied professors do to make better use of their time, he hired a teacher’s aide.
Paul was an expert in U.S. colonial history and before the age of computers and before he had a teacher’s aide, he wrote his first book, “The Invention of George Washington.”
It was an incredible feat for to do this he had to press each key on a typewriter keyboard using a pen he gripped in his mouth.
It took him 10 years to write that book and then he ran into discrimination from the Social Security Administration, which discouraged disabled people from publishing with restrictive work rules and by deducting their royalties.
In response in 1988 Paul took a manuscript of his book, went to the Los Angeles Federal Building and with help lit the manuscript ablaze, a peaceful and colorful protest for all to see.
After that publicity and a major effort made by Paul and others, the Social Security Administration revised its work and royalty rules in what is now known as the Longmore Amendment.
From then on, Paul became a disabled rights activist and despite the extreme hardship that travel caused him, he spoke at college campuses and in other public forums across the U.S. in support of changes in restrictive practices and for laws to help the disabled.
The crowning touch came with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It made discrimination based upon disabilities illegal and required public facilities to accommodate physical limitations.
Since then that law has been amended various times, most recently in 2008, and activists such as Paul have been very much a part of the process.
“When I was growing up, I was the only visible disabled person I saw,” Paul explained to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. “Now you see disabled people all around… People with disabilities ought to be able to participate in society, and we did that. We changed American values.”*
Paul had boundless energy and a huge heart, but on August 9th, 2010 he passed away of natural causes in his San Francisco home. He is survived by his sister. He is also survived by millions of disabled people around the world that have benefited directly or indirectly by his actions.
Success Tip of the Week:
Have fears of other people’s perceptions stopped you from pursuing your dream? If so, follow Paul’s example and make this the week you set those fears aside and take the next step to make your dream a reality.
*This quote was taken from a Los Angeles Times obit, “Paul K. Longmore dies at 64; leading disability scholar and activist.” http://articles.latimes.com/2010/aug/15/local/la-me-paul-longmore-20100816
In the next KazanToday:
A poor immigrant stuns the world with his honesty.