Disabled history professor flourishes through activism
Acclaimed SF State teacher living history of disabled rights movement
December 13, 2007 7:41 PM
Paul Longmore is not particularly impressed by celebrities. Instead, he said, he is much more inspired by ordinary people, even though the celebrated history professor and activist is in many ways extraordinary himself.
As he sat in his SF State office in a motorized wheelchair surrounded by shelves of history books, Longmore pointed out that there was no place in their pages for people like him and the people that he fights for—with disabilities. “In those areas, people with disabilities are rendered invisible,” he said.
Two years after he contracted polio at age seven, Longmore first became fascinated with American history. As his intellectual mind expanded, the severity of the effects from polio grew as well. Longmore underwent spinal surgery that he said saved his life but made him dependent on a respirator.
As a student at Occidental College, Longmore also began to learn about his life experience as it related to his disability.
He was inspired by two women who had also become disabled from polio, but whom he said raised children and traveled the world independently. “They lived their lives so much more competently than most people. That’s what inspires me and that’s what I’ve learned from them.”
“During college I came to realize that all of us [with disabilities] had been drilled in a sense of shame about our disability and about our bodies. We turned our devaluation inward, against our bodies, against ourselves,” he said.
Since then Longmore’s role as a disability rights activist was sparked. He fought for the rights of actors with disabilities, reproductive rights of disabled women, and picketed for physical access on university campuses. He also fought for his own rights to be able to pursue his dream to work as a professor.
“Living with a disability like mine is very expensive,” he said. Longmore’s respirator and other medical and non-medical needs such as hiring a typist for note taking, requires extra money.
“As long as I didn’t go to work and earn an income, I could get supplemental income, he said.”
In 1988, Congress passed an amendment to the Social Security Act that permitted people who were getting supplemental income to go to work and still be able to get medical insurance.
So in 1990, at the age of 44, Longmore got his first full time teaching job at Stanford University. Two years later, he was hired at SF State as a specialist in American Colonial History and later was granted tenure.
Longmore’s activism has worked toward changing laws that inhibit the lives of people with disabilities.
In March 2005, he received the Henry B. Betts Award, given annually by the American Association of Persons with Disabilities and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to “honor an individual whose work and scope of influence have significantly improved the quality of life for people with disabilities in the past, and will be a force for change in the future,” according to the AAPD.
“A lot of people will look at where I’m at and say ‘you’re really an inspiration’—the assumption being that is I got here because of my perseverance and tenacity. I got here much more because of the disability rights movement.”
In 2006, he was one of five California State University professors chosen from across the state for the prestigious Wang Family Excellence Award. The award celebrates CSU distinguished faculty and administrators who have displayed extraordinary commitment and dedication and made outstanding contributions and achievements in their field, according to the CSU website.
When he first came to SF State, Longmore said, he was able to walk, but because of the degenerative affects of polio, he now gets around in a high-powered wheelchair.
“In an instant, I went from being the slowest person on campus to being the fastest. And the scariest,” he said with a laugh.
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