May 16, 2008
Opening others’ eyes
Blind professor helping UI students, doctors see
disabilities in a new light
By Diane Heldt
IOWA CITY — Blindness is thought by many to be a great calamity,
still viewed in 19th-century Dickensian terms, says University of Iowa
professor Steve Kuusisto.
But the reality, says Kuusisto, who has been blind since birth, is that
his talking computer, his guide dog and public transportation allow him to do
most anything sighted people can.
“It’s not an obstacle to having a good job and a full life,” he said.
“Nobody has to have a second-class life. Really, the sky’s the limit.” That
philosophy, the 53-year-old Kuusisto said, fuels a new vision of disability
that is emerging. That vision moves away from viewing people with disabilities
as “defective,” he said, to finding ways for technology and society to help
them lead the richest, fullest lives.
It’s a vision Kuusisto (pronounced COO-sis-toe) brought to the UI last
fall when he joined the faculty as an English professor with a joint
appointment in the Carver College of Medicine.
At the medical college he is a “humanizing agent” who helps educate
doctors about disability issues. UI officials hope Kuusisto bridges the goals
of disability advocates and health professionals.
“I’m probably the firstever poet named to a faculty of ophthalmology,”
Kuusisto says with a smile.
A graduate of the UI Writers’ Workshop and a best-selling author who has
appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, Kuusisto was recruited from Ohio State
University, where he helped develop a disability studies program spanning
Part of his UI job is finding ways to better integrate thinking about
disabilities into the curriculum.
In addition to teaching creative non-fiction, memoir and essay writing
and meeting weekly with UI ophthalmologists, medical students and scientists,
Kuusisto spearheads the new disability studies program, the first of its kind
among Iowa’s statefunded universities.
It’s an interdisciplinary look at how cultural and historical forces
shape the public’s view of disability.
Kuusisto isn’t sure yet what form it will take. It could be a program
with an academic major and minor, or it could be more informal.
He envisions courses about disability in public policy, in medical
ethics and in literature, among other topics. This summer Kuusisto will teach
the first class, about disability in film. He jokes that students will be
surprised to find a blind professor teaching a course about movies.
Gillian Grady, 21, a senior from Wynnewood, Pa., said Kuusisto’s
creative non-fiction writing class this spring made her more aware of phrasing
in her writing.
“I read everything out loud because I knew that’s how he would hear it,”
she said. “That really changes things.” Jessica Fritts, 22, a senior from Cedar
Rapids, said Kuusisto has a good sense of humor and puts students at ease. In
class, Fritts and Grady said, students must interact more because Kuusisto
can’t see their faces. “You have to engage vocally, you can’t just nod along,”
Kuusisto said he addresses his blindness with students immediately,
though he jokes that walking in with his guide dog, a yellow Lab named Nira, is
a tipoff. “I tell them one of the best strategies for talking to a blind
professor is never raising your hand,” he said.
“It leads to an informal, open class discussion atmosphere.” Software
turns Kuusisto’s laptop into a talking computer that reads e-mail and student
assignments. Typing is easy, he said, because the computer reads back what he
Blindness shapes his teaching and writing, giving him interesting
stories he tells from the perspective of “sightseeing by ear,” Kuusisto said.
He also serves as an example that resources, technology and
opportunities exist for people with disabilities and, specifically, for the
That’s important because, Kuusisto said, about 70 percent of blind
people remain unemployed regardless of education level. “Blindness is a
disability that demands that you find intelligent, useful accommodations at all
times, but it’s not a life-limiting disability,” he said.
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