On Being a Token

planet of the blind

I have to face it, I’m a token. Let’s visit tokens and tokenism. “Mistletoe was cut from an oak tree as a token of good fortune…”—the noun—descended from “betoken” (verb) “to be a sign of”—those of us so “tokened” are like laborers one sees wearing sandwich boards on city streets. The betokened are mobile sign systems. “Eat at Joe’s!” “Look! We Hire the Handicapped!”

I’ve been resistant to my betokened place. I’m a 60 year old university professor who entered higher education in his early thirties during “wave one” of feminism and I was present as the academy extended to include people who broadly hail from historically marginalized positions. Along came Disability Studies. “Aha!” I thought, (for I’m one of those “Aha” guys) “Disability is being taken seriously at last!”

Lucky me, I even landed a job.

So I’m fortunate but alas, I’m not a lucky token. Make no mistake: I’m a hanging plant.

I’m perfect for photo ops. I look fabulous standing with my guide dog next to the former astronaut, later a senator who graces the university with his good name. And I’m the “go to” professor when visiting “disabled” suddenly appear on campus and they want to showcase multiculturalism. Because I’m not a token when I’m more than a symbol I have to make choices. (I reminded the astronaut that as senator he voted against the Americans with Disabilities Act.)

Yes, Professor, you are a token.

He’s a token when he has no agency. When software and websites are inaccessible. His abled colleagues don’t really understand that this “inaccessibility thing” is a genuine problem. One Dean told me, “well it takes a long time for me to get my computer upgraded,” when I told her I’d been waiting months for someone to install a talking word processing program on my laptop. She equated ordinary delays and inconveniences with my inability to work. She saw no difference. Moreover, the comment was a micro-aggression. It ended further conversation. Where software and hardware support and disability are concerned I’ve been told to stop asking. My job is to look good and keep quiet. Tokenism indeed.

I know other disabled faculty, know they experience the same things, or worse.

Why then have I been slow to admit my entire betokened status?

In Finnish, my father’s language, “toivo” means hope. I’m a toiveikas mies—a hopeful man. I come from a long line of optimistic Scandinavians. Like many Finns I’m accepting of slow change. Essentially I’m more of a Finn than an American. I push steadily, keep on message, say what I think needs to be said.

I’ve told administrators at each academic institution where I’ve labored about their ADA snafus.

I’m almost inured to the eye rolling, though not entirely. It’s painful being a civil rights nag.

But here’s the rub: every day the place I work for makes decisions that perpetuate or extend inaccessibility I’m still a token.

In a way, when I’m not taken seriously I’m a stick figure. All tokens are cartoons.

Author: skuusisto

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

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