Anita Silvers, an Authority on Disability Rights, Dies at 78
By Neil Genzlinger
March 22, 2019
Anita Silvers, a philosophy professor who was a leading voice in the interpretation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, arguing that disability rights should be viewed the same as other civil rights and not as an accommodation or as a social safety net issue, died on March 14 in San Francisco. She was 78.
San Francisco State University, where Dr. Silvers taught for half a century, said the cause was pneumonia.
Dr. Silvers was already a well-regarded scholar with an expertise in aesthetics in the 1990s when she started to focus on disability law and definitions related to it. She knew about disabilities firsthand: She had polio as a child, and the disease left her with limited mobility. The Americans With Disabilities Act had been passed in 1990, and Dr. Silvers began to examine how it was being interpreted, whether philosophically, in the courts or on her own campus.
“A critical thing for her was to understand the A.D.A. as a civil rights statute,” said Leslie P. Francis, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Utah who wrote papers and edited a book with Dr. Silvers. “Not as an approach to giving people special privileges, but as a way of giving people the rights that everyone else has.”
Dr. Silvers wrote or co-wrote numerous papers on the subject, arguing that a fundamental flaw in many interpretations of the act was measuring people with disabilities against an idea of “normal.”
“Progress depends on constructing a neutral conception of disability, one that neither devalues disability nor implies that persons with disabilities are inadequate,” she wrote in a 2003 paper published in the journal Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics. An earlier paper, published in 1994, was subtitled “Equality, Difference and the Tyranny of the Normal.”
She and Dr. Francis edited a 2000 book, “Americans With Disabilities: Exploring Implications of the Law for Individuals and Institutions,” for the 10th anniversary of the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. She was concerned about the way the act was being interpreted in legal rulings, and although most of her writing was as a scholar and not as someone affected by polio, she would play that card to make a point.
“As I search through decisions,” she wrote in a 2002 article in Newsday excoriating the Supreme Court for what she viewed as its unhelpful rulings on disabilities in the workplace, “the terrors of past suffering shadow my future. To cloak my polio-crippled gait, will I have to arrive at work before dawn and leave long after other workers, as I used to do? Will I have to crawl upstairs again because colleagues take offices on the first floor?”
“Judges’ own privileges safeguard them against discrimination,” she concluded, “while they dodge their duty to give less fortunate Americans equitable opportunity to work.”
Anita Silvers was born on Nov. 1, 1940, in Brooklyn to Seymour and Sarah (Rashall) Silvers.
“She went to Girl Scout camp in 1949 and returned with a severe case of polio,” her brother, David N. Silvers, said, “which required her to spend over a year in an iron lung,” the respiration device.
The disease left her with partial quadriplegia. She was angry about her limited mobility, her brother said, but also determined not to be constrained by the condition. He illustrated that determination with a story about a cross-country trip.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree at Sarah Lawrence College in 1962, she earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1967 and was hired to teach philosophy at San Francisco State. She needed a car to drive to her new job.
“If you’re profoundly disabled and you go cross-country in a car,” David Silvers said in a telephone interview, “the logical thing to do is to get a Ford or a Chevrolet, because if you break down you can get parts.”
Instead, he said, she bought a British car, a Rover.
“That to me is a microcosm of what she was all about,” he said. “If she wanted a Rover she would get a Rover, regardless of whether it made sense in terms of her disability.”
David Silvers is her only immediate survivor.
Dr. Silvers’s expertise in aesthetics led President Jimmy Carter to appoint her to the National Council on the Humanities in 1980. In 1989 she and three co-authors, Margaret P. Battin, John Fisher and Ronald Moore, published “Puzzles About Art: An Aesthetics Casebook.”
At a recent symposium honoring the legacy of Jacobus tenBroek, founder of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Silvers recalled one of the things that had led her to turn her attention to disability rights. She said two blind students, having heard that there was a professor on campus with a disability, sought her help in getting into a math class whose professor had turned them away. Dr. Silvers, who used a motorized scooter to get around campus, went to see him.
“He explained to me that they just could not let these two students into a math class because they didn’t know how to teach them, because when you’re teaching math you write on the blackboard,” she related. “ ‘In fact,’ he said, ‘when you’re teaching anything you write on the blackboard.’ Now, as it happens, I don’t write on the blackboard because I can’t reach the blackboard.”
In addition to aesthetics and the rights of people with disabilities, Dr. Silvers wrote about assisted suicide, feminist issues, medical ethics, the evolving field of discrimination based on genetics, and more.
“She had a voracious mind and many philosophical and political interests,” Justin Tiwald, chairman of San Francisco State University’s philosophy department, said by email, “but she never lost sight of the implications of her views and practices for people with disabilities.
“Her popular course on medical ethics,” he added, “was both an introduction to that subject and an opportunity for her to get students thinking more deeply and sensitively about ways in which our implicit moral concepts and frameworks stack the deck against people with disabilities right from the start.”