Review Essay: Women With Intellectual Disabilities: Finding a Place in the World, edited by Rannveig Traustadottir and Kelley Johnson. Philadelphia: Kingsley, 1998.
“Women,” Jean Baker Miller wrote, “stay with, build on, and develop in a context of connections with others” (p. 83). Through social interactions women find meaning and motivation to learn, to grow, and to lead purposeful lives. Women's relationships and the shared experiences of story-telling comprise the central themes of Rannveig Traustadottir's and Kelley Johnson's book, Women With Intellectual Disabilities: Finding a Place in the World. The editors, both recognized for their work concerning women with intellectual disabilities, adopt the autobiographical approach to understand and relate the lives of certain women who traditionally have been excluded from conversations between and among other people. They engage the stories of women who have rarely been heard. Their purpose is to bring to public attention a particular group of women who struggle to find places in their families and in communities, in feminist circles, and even in the disability movement. Personal empowerment for women with intellectual disabilities is the goal, and it is promoted through story-telling and the collaborative process of research and writing.
The editors organize the contents of this volume with four themes, each concerned with an aspect of place and personal relationship: families, intimate relationships, work, and communities. Each section begins with a personal narrative that is followed by one or more reports about women with intellectual disabilities. A summary of related research concerning women and intellectual disability concludes the sections. The narratives, with their first-person accounts of the women's experiences, are especially compelling, for they provide the focus and direction for the book. The other material, articles about women with intellectual disabilities and the research reports, help to explain and provide a frame of reference. Reports of related research are perhaps the most varied works within this collection, and although they provide an important dimension to frame the autobiographies, they tend to interrupt the narrative flow. After reading the research, I welcomed the return of women's personal stories. Overall, I would have liked to hear more of the voices of the women featured in the publication and a little less from the researchers.
Traustadottir and Johnson acknowledge the problems they encountered in trying to incorporate the views of a disparate group of people. Furthermore, these difficulties were exacerbated by complicated logistics of working collaboratively at great distances and with different languages. From Australia to Iceland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, New Zealand and Norway, England and the United States, women worked together to produce the stories that appear in this book. The central problem, however, was to represent the stories of women who experience difficulties with communication. The editors make no claim that the women speak for others with intellectual disabilities, nor do they apologize for the possibility that they may be appropriating the lives of women with intellectual disabilities by objectifying the experience. On the contrary, Traustodottir and Johnson acknowledge their concern about these issues, yet they justify their approach as one attempt to assure that there is an opportunity for women with intellectual disabilities to tell their stories in a public way.
Because women's stories are shared through social interactions, it is important to the editors that these women not only tell their tales, but that they hear one another's accounts as well. Thus, each chapter begins with a synopsis in large print designed for persons who find reading difficult. The editors express their hope that these introductions will help make the book accessible to all, including women for whom reading may be difficult.
I am repeatedly drawn into the women's personal narratives. Like most stories shared by women everywhere, they tell about people they have known, past and present. They relate hopes and disappointments, achievements and failures; they recall complex emotions of sadness and joy, anger and love. Waiting is familiar to many of these women: waiting for a family member to return, a home to move to, a job to begin, an opportunity to live on their own. The very absence of activity has its own intensity in the telling. The most compelling of these stories provide the deepest insights into lived experiences and the personal reflections of the narrators.
Two of the personal narratives stand out for me: One, by Pat Felt with Pam Walker, offers insight into the experience of living in a L'Arche home in Syracuse, New York. Pat tells about her childhood and her 30 years of living in institutions. She describes her move to L'Arche as one of the founding members and relates her experiences there. It is a story of friends, of relationships compromised by professional roles and responsibilities, and of hope for the future, despite disappointments. In a revealing insight, Pam describes the process by which she and Pat collaborated on the autobiographical project. I wish that other collaborating teams had been as forthcoming because I wonder how the other women worked together to produce the stories I read—not a minor detail considering that this is a rare attempt to publish the first-person accounts of individuals who for the most part have trouble communicating verbally and in writing; and their collaborators, apparently, were professionals.
Tamara Kainova writes with Maria Cerna about her experiences growing up in Prague. She reflects on her childhood, on the people who have been important in her life, and the journeys she has made into her adult years. Her stories reflect sensitivity and a writer's eye for detail and meaning in the ordinary aspects of her life. The collaborators open chapter 1 with a brief 6 pages about family relationships, and then they reappear in chapter 10 with a short continuation of the former narrative and an emphasis on work. Although the editors' decision to split the narrative suits their organizational structure, it doesn't serve the story well.
In summary, it is the personal stories of women with intellectual disabilities that make this book unique and important. The way they draw me in confirms Jean Baker Miller's theory about the reciprocal nature of women's social interactions: Personal meaning and development depend on the exchanges that occur in collaborative relationships. From their stories I learn not just about women with intellectual disabilities, but about all women and about myself. Traustadottir and Johnson have produced a book in which they demonstrate first-hand the significance of relationships in women's lives and the importance of story-telling.