Mover: Anita Silvers '62
Anita Silvers ’62 was back in Westlands early last summer, leading a seminar from her wheelchair and looking out once again on the perennial display of wisteria. Reminded of similar summer days in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when she was a student at Sarah Lawrence and involved in the Civil Rights movement, Silvers said she’s proud of the progress that has been made “in moving people of color and women toward the center of society.”
But the philosophy professor at San Francisco State University, who has been in a wheelchair since contracting polio at age nine, is disappointed that nothing, or barely anything, has been done to integrate people with disabilities.
“When I was a student and in the years after,” she recalled, “I fought for the integration of marginalized people, but I’ve waited pretty much in vain for people to take up the integration of people like me.” Last July was the anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act, she reminds us, and while the 12-year-old law has accomplished some things to advance the position of disabled people, there still is much to be done.
That, in fact, was the reason why Silvers was back at Sarah Lawrence—as the co-leader of a seminar on Justice, Equality and the Challenge of Disability. Attended by 18 scholars—professors of law, theology, philosophy, English and anthropology—the seminar’s goals were twofold: to examine why relatively few gains had been made for those with disabilities and to begin to build an intellectual community in the United States and abroad that would lay the groundwork for policy changes. One participant, Dr. Shearon Smith of Tuskegee University, who works with developmentally disabled adults, returned to Alabama to teach her students how to advocate for themselves from the point of view of justice and equality. “Given the wide reach of disability in the general population, its neglect in the classroom is as striking as its absence in theories of justice,” said Silvers.
In December, over cups of tea in the Compass Rose Room of the St. Francis Hotel in downtown San Francisco, Silvers—who motors about in a scooter these days—reviewed the gains from the seminar and the promise she sees for the future. She recalled that in 1962, when she graduated, there was a reluctance in professions such as medicine and law to consider those with disabilities as practitioners. As a consequence, she explained, her work in ethics, bioethics and legal theory has been directed to exploring philosophical perspectives about the intolerance and social limitations that have shaped her life.
While not negating the gains that have indeed been made, she said, she remains intent on moving yet further ahead. At San Francisco State, where Silvers teaches bioethics, her students work as volunteers in places such as hospitals, hospices and emergency rooms to address concepts of justice discussed in class. The issues: Who gets priority in medical care? Who receives organs? And how are critical medical decisions involving life and death really made? “The students see these issues really played out, as opposed to just reading about them in the textbook,” said Silvers, who also serves as a bioethics consultant for a local hospital.
In the past decade, Silvers has written more than 30 essays focusing on conundrums prompted by the presumption that, as she explained it, “Normality, construed mainly with reference to species-typical biological states, is a natural standard.” She is now condensing and collecting them into a book whose working title is Singularity and Normality: Philosophy, Medicine and the Law.