Thanking our Friend The Goldfish

Steve Kuusisto Posing as Marty Feldman

 

We were honored to read that Diary of a Goldfish has named Planet of the Blind “one” among many fine disability blogs. Goldfish’s full list offers a marvelous “Who’s Who” of disability rights activists and writers who are pushing the online presence of people with disabilities. Several years ago I wrote a special section of Disability Studies Quarterly devoted to blogging. Here is what I said on that occasion:

 

“Therefore all deformed persons are extreme bold — first, as in their own defence, as being exposed to scorn, but in process of time, by a general habit.”

–Francis Bacon “Of Deformity”

Perhaps no word carries more weight in the field of disability studies than the verb “to claim” for “claiming disability”is to demand intellectual accountability from a set of ideas. In her groundbreaking book “Claiming Disability” Simi Linton presents a contemporary version of the Elgin marbles, a bas relief for our times:

“We have come out not with brown woollen lap robes over our withered legs or dark glasses over our pale eyes but in shorts and sandals, in overalls and business suits, dressed for play and work–straightforward, unmasked, and unapologetic) We are, as Crosby, Stills, and Nash told their woodstock audience, letting our "freak flag fly." And we are not only the high-toned wheelchair athletes seen in recent television ads but the gangly, pudgy, lumpy, and bumpy of us, declaring that shame will no longer structure our wardrobe or our discourse. We are everywhere these days, wheeling and loping down the street, tapping our canes, sucking on our breathing tubes, following our guide dogs, puffing and sipping on the mouth sticks that propel our motorized chairs. We may drool, hear voices, speak in staccato syllables, wear catheters to collect our urine, or live with a compromised immune system. We are all bound together, not by this list of our collective symptoms but by the social and political circumstances that have forged us as a group. We have found one another and found a voice to express not despair at our fate but outrage at our social positioning. Our symptoms, though sometimes painful, scary, unpleasant, or difficult to manage, are nevertheless part of the dailiness of life. They exist and have existed in all communities throughout time. What we rail against are the strategies used to deprive us of rights, opportunity, and the pursuit of pleasure.”

Linton’s description of people with disabilities describes the insistence of disability studies scholars to reclaim public space, and by so doing,to re-shape the dailiness of life. Yet reading her description of the movement she could as well be describing the medium we have come to call “the blog” or “the blogosphere” for certainly there is a new medium for the transmission of ideas and it too is “gangly, pudgy, lumpy, and bumpy”. At the same time, web logging has given disability activists a means to find one another and to find a voice to express not despair at our fate but outrage at our social positioning.

With this issue of Disability Studies Quarterly we want to introduce the blog as a new forum for disability advocacy and public engagement. Writing online is simultaneously brash, phlegmatic, idealistic, dogmatic, creative, reasoned,and vituperative. The blog is at once a forum for seasoned writers even as it offers entrance to public discourse by those who are new to publishing. It is not too optimistic to characterize the blog as an equalizing force when one considers how infrequently disability is discussed as a social construction by the traditional press. In his recent collection of essays Bending Over Backwards, Lennar J. Davis notes that even progressive political journals like The Nation will often refuse to publish editorials or articles that are concerned with disability. Progressive opinion journals are, it would seem, no better at claiming disability than their conservative counterparts.

The web log is part notebook, part opinion magazine,half public speech, half the stuff of privacy. It is shrill, uninformed, sober, giddy, and in the right hands, a medium of inquiry. One thinks of Charles Dickens’s description of the writer as being an “ink stained wretch” for like the dailiness of journalism the blog demands constant attention: noteworthy bloggers often have hundreds, if not thousands of readers who expect fresh material each morning. In turn the blog allows for conversations between writer and reader as well as offering a cyber space “agora”—a very public space for argumentation, agreement, truth telling, and occasional lying. The blog is not journalism after all, though many writers in the field are amateur sleuths, and can weigh their topics with the skill of Montaigne.

Our aim with this section of the Disability Studies Quarterly is to create what used to be called a “roundtable discussion” in which we explore a range of topics with disability bloggers.

What kinds of digital communicative practices are being explored and invented by people with differing abilities?  What new kinds of texts are they reading and creating?  What is the relation between these practices and disabilities studies? How do concepts-such as "writing," "text," "author," "rhetoric," "literacy," change in digital landscapes that involve people with different abilities? In what ways have digital and multimodal technologies enable new forms of communication among different disabilities studies communities?  How do issues of digital access, materiality, or economics affect our understanding of disabilities studies within and outside the university? What is the relation between new and old communication medias in the context of disabilities studies?  How do new communicative practices change or inform our attitudes toward traditional scholarly texts in disability studies and established conventions–and vice versa?

It is entirely possible that these questions are too ambitious for the current moment. Disability bloggers are still newly gathering in the electronic version of Dr. Johnson’s18thcentury tea house. We are presently engaged in fast conversations. Yet it is clear that the multi-media electronic web log has emerged as a powerful and dynamic contemporary force in the disability community, both in the United States and around the world. The editors of DSQ felt that the time was right for a preliminary conversation in print about the social and intellectual dynamics of web logging.

Some of our bloggers choose to remain anonymous both in their daily postings and in this issue of DSQ. Others are willing to disclose their names though they are better recognized by the names of their sites: “The Gimp Parade”; “Wheelchair Dancer”;“Diary of a Goldfish”; “The Ampu-tee”; just to name a few. Like the names of the sites, the bloggers are fresh, insistent, darkly funny, and working with equal measures of irony and those declarations that are too often withheld for the sake of decorum. The web log is not, it turns out, a genteel media. When one adds to the broadside format the compl
ications of symptom and the
traps of bodily identity we see how complicated the art of claiming disability must be. Having access to the agora is both a rite of citizenship and the means to expression. Disability bloggers may use speech synthesis programs, vocalization programs, custom pointers, Braille displays,or portable devices designed for blind people on the go. These bloggers will inevitably agree and disagree about the traditional issues that are discussed in the town square but they will also bring to their discussion a further awareness and commitment to disability advocacy. When we consider the long history of social isolation that has surrounded the experience of disability we can sense the remarkable opportunity that is at hand.

 

S.K.