Disability, the Academy, and Gestural Violence

In his essay “How Can We Explain Violence Against Disabled People?” Dan Goodley, Professor of Psychology and Disability Studies at the University of Sheffield argues that offenses against the disabled have their origins in ableist cultural practices. He points to the circulating practices of ableism:

The cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek, in his 2008 book Violence suggests while it is important to document and address all forms of violence we should also be prepared to move back from the obvious signals of violence to ‘perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts’. Žižek urges us to consider the ways in which the whole panoply of violent acts against (disabled) people can only be understood by reflecting on the wider circulating practices of dominant (disablist) culture.


Those of us who live with the daily reality of disability know first hand the meanings of “the wider circulating practices of dominant (disableist) culture” as its circulations are a hydra headed affair, a monster with many heads, and it generally appears no matter what state of mind we may be in.

Goodley adds:

His ( Žižek’s) work encourages us to consider the normal, everyday, mundane, accepted workings of societal institutions and community practices as being inherently violent against those that, in some way or another, threaten their everyday workings and practices. Other forms of violence emerge. One of these is what is Žižek terms systemic violence; which he understands as the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems. ‘We’re talking here’ he says, ‘of the violence inherent in a system: not only of direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination: including the threat of violence’ (Žižek, 2008: 1-8). This kind of violence was apparent in the lives of the disabled children and families that we spoke to who told us of disabled children being manhandled in Christmas performances by staff in order to behave and not disrupt the show. This violence is to be found when a child’s hand are pulled away from a canvas because their messy painting methods were at odds with the classroom task that had been set in tune with the requirements of a lesson in-keeping with the National Curriculum.  Similarly, we find the pressures of the system in the numerous parental stories of stress, tears and near breakdown explained by the endless need to fight the school system to recognize and include their children. These narratives of systemic violence might not be as hard hitting as the earlier accounts of physical and mental acts of abuse. They are often not as newsworthy. They are, however, as brutal and potentially damaging as any form of disablist violence because they say something profound about the wider disablist culture in which we live.


The wider disablist culture is the thing I live, have lived, and most likely, despite advancements in the law, shall continue to live. Because I’m blind I often suppose when I’m in a meeting with sighted people (and here I must insert sighted people to whom I am beseeching an accommodation) that they are vexed by a cathectic thing, as blindness bears to the sighted both psychological discomfort and a concomitant demand for creativity. Where the latter is concerned we recognize how fickle the gods of imagination are and have always been. As to the former, nothing scares sighted people more than the prospect of sightlessness. Ipse dixit. Most sighted people, even progressive ones, won’t readily admit this. But the cue cards of the sighted often read as follows: “I’m a good person; didn’t I let you enter my house with your guide dog?”; “I’m a good person; didn’t I admit you to my university class in hermeneutics—and now you want accessible books? I’m a good person but you’re straining my limits. My goodness is my bond, surely, but I’m not required to imagine how I might work with you.”

These are micro-aggressions routinely experienced by the blind. In turn there is the violence of  playgrounds (which we survived, though not without aspects of PTSD) and then there are the manifold aggressions of sighted teachers and administrators, shop keepers, business figures, politicians, Uber drivers, airline personnel, stray zealots, and the creeps one meets on the riverboat as Mark Twain would say. (One finds every sort on the river boat…)

At its very core blindness represents to the sighted a catastrophic obstacle to the smooth running of economic and political systems. Throughout my entire professional life (which has, so far, spanned faculty and administrative assignments at 4 colleges) I’ve absorbed lots of callous and infantilizing rhetoric when requesting accommodations. We live, it seems, forever on the playgrounds of childhood if we’ve a disability and propose to live professional lives.

Sometimes I picture academic workplaces as schoolyard swing sets. Twenty years ago there was a popular self-help book by Robert Fulghum called “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”.  When it hit the stores I took its title ironically—through a disability lens if you will. Fulghum’s conceit was that early childhood classroom experiences offer us a Dale Carnegie practicality, a spit and polish straightforwardness which, when reimagined, leads you to adult triumph. Here is Fulghum’s kindergarten règles de la vie:

  1. Share everything.
  2. Play fair.
  3. Don’t hit people.
  4. Put things back where you found them.
  6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  7. Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody.
  8. Wash your hands before you eat.
  9. Flush.
  10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  11. Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.
  12. Take a nap every afternoon.
  13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
  14. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  15. Goldfish and hamster and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
  16. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.”

Aside from obvious inaccuracies (that we don’t know why plants grow, or that cookies are good for you) what’s always interested me about the list is its core assumption that all kids are the same. Here’s what I learned most days as a blind child in elementary school:

  1. Sighted children shared nothing.
  2. No one played fair.
  3. Hitting people was easy and the blind kid was a perfect target.
  4. Hiding things from the blind child was sport.
  5. Disarranging the blind kid’s possessions was also rather fun.
  6. See above.
  7. Sorry is absurd.
  8. Steal soap from the blind kid.
  9. Push him in the toilet whenever you have a chance.
  10. Always take the blind kid’s lunch.
  11. You get the picture…

Back to Slavoj Žižek. Ableism and dominance. ‘We’re talking here of the violence inherent in a system: not only of direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination: including the threat of violence.” Blind people are largely familiar with relations of domination, and for my purpose here, I will rename the threat of violence in the academic workplace as “gestural violence”—certainly the blind can hear body language. Umbrage needs no visible hand gestures. Annoyance, spoken, does not require facial features.

Gestural violence is deterministic; it’s predicated by inconvenience—a blind graduate student needs multiple streams of accessible information if she’s to succeed. The Dean or Associate Dean finds this request threatening for she knows nothing about the ways and means of delivering accessible information. It’s vexatious, the request, the ignoble “ask” because the system is incommodious. For over forty years American colleges have pursued a rehabilitation model of disability that relies on the creation and maintenance of offices of disability services. These are generally designed for undergraduate students. They are geared to make accommodations for students according to narrow expectations. Extra time for tests; a book printed in Braille; a note taker perhaps. These are good things, necessary, and altogether outdated in the age of information technology when students are expected to work through multiple online information systems to complete assignments.

Gestural violence happens in the academy whenever a disabled employee or student asks for an accommodation the school doesn’t know how to deliver, or fears will be expensive.  G.V. is always the first response when non disabled administrators or faculty are faced with bewildering disability related challenges. It works by deflection. It works by assumptions. If you were a better disabled person you wouldn’t be bothering me. If you were less blind you’d be easier to deal with. If only you had a better attitude about life. Gestural violence is automatic. It is invariably disgraceful, shockingly unacceptable, and yet, tied to dominance, it is widespread within higher education.

Often a signature of disablist G.V. is that the abused individual imagines he has some control over the situation—the disabled person may even try to relieve his abuser, a scenario familiar to those who work at Women’s Resource Centers. I don’t know how many times I’ve endeavored to make disablist colleagues feel some uplift while discussing ADA violations—the newly renovated building that has no accessible restrooms; the broken wheelchair lift; the philosophy conference on disability that was wholly inaccessible; the problems with course management software; systemic breakdowns in the delivery of basic services—always trying for agreement, making my little jokes: “It’s not the Cuban missile crisis…” or the like. But this seldom works. Because deflection and deferral are the mainstays of systemic ableism, the cripple must be persistent. Week after week he bothers the system; year after year. Ableists then call the beseecher a crank, a malcontent, a man with a bad attitude.

Certainly these things have been said about me at every institution of higher education I’ve been at. The blind professor doesn’t have the proper attitude. He’s a nuisance. His very presence asks too much of us. “I’m sorry Steve, but I didn’t have time to make an accessible copy of this.” “I thought this accessibility problem was solved a long time ago, gee…”







Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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