SAN FRANCISCO — 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 Silvers taught for half a century, said the cause was pneumonia.
Silvers was already a well-regarded scholar with an expertise in aesthetics in the 1990s, when she started to focus increasingly 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 Silvers began to examine how it was being interpreted, whether philosophically, in the courts or on her own campus.
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.”
Anita Silvers was born on Nov. 1, 1940, in Brooklyn, New York, 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 was 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, “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.”
Silvers’ brother is her only immediate survivor.