Vic Finkelstein: A Life Remembered

Alan Roulstone, Professor of Disability and Inclusion, University of Northumbria, UK

It was recently announced that Vic Finkelstein, veteran disability activist and academic had sadly passed away.  Vic Finkelstein was born in Johannesburg in 1938 and was part of the Jewish South African diaspora from Eastern Europe. Growing up in Johannesburg and Durban, Vic’s observations of the caste-like structures in South Africa amongst Black, Indian, Jewish, white British and Afrikaans populations informed his later understanding of disability.  His views of the worst excesses of the apartheid regime were brought to a head in 1954 aged 16 when he suffered a traumatic spinal injury in a pole vaulting accident at Durban High School. Finkelstein’s life was changed fundamentally by this event. As a wheelchair user unable to access many formerly accessible environments, Vic connected the spatial, economic and cultural segregation of black and white South Africa and the limits placed on disabled people at that time. Disabled people, as with black South Africans, were seen as ‘categorical problems’, populations inferior to and apart from the mainstream of life. Continue reading

What Are Words, Actions, and Attitudes?

Kristín Björnsdóttir, Assistant Professor, University of Iceland, Reykjavík, Iceland

A few weeks ago, I stood in front of a large group of undergraduate students at the University of Iceland. ‘My brother is a retard,’ I said. The students stopped browsing the Internet, updating their Facebook status, all the chattering stopped, and the big lecture hall became very quiet. ‘Yes, my brother is retarded,’ I repeated. One young man smiled and asked: ‘Why? What did he do?’ The students laughed and I smiled back and said: ‘He did not do anything. That’s his diagnosis’. My students did not realize that I was not using the term ‘retardation’ as slang to describe my brother’s (negative) behavior. I explained to the students that it was written in his medical records that he was retarded. We talked about how labels, such as ‘mental retardation’ emphasize people’s limitations and what they lack in terms of abilities and competencies. Eventually the labels are used to describe any type of human and social limitations and often we forget where these words come from.   Continue reading