In April of 2000 when I was 45 I had me a little quandary: should I join the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, take a job teaching creative writing at a Big Ten university, or stay where I was, directing student services at a well known guide dog school? I thought how fortunate I was to have career choices. Disabled people struggle in the employment sector and it’s rare to be given options. Then, as now, approximately 70% of the disabled remain jobless in the US.
It’s flattering when the Mayor of New York asks you to serve as the Director of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. I had a one on one meeting with Rudolph Giuliani in his paneled office at City Hall. We talked about unemployment, about the power of government, about the difference leadership can make. I said the MOPD should be a bully pulpit for the private sector, that it was high time for New York to lead the nation in disability employment. I was offered the job. I asked for a couple of days to discuss the matter with my family.
I had a big problem on my hands. I was a Democrat, a left of center one, a Jesse Jackson voter, and I’d more than a few concerns about Giuliani. He’d fired the prior director of the MOPD for insisting the city meet ADA requirements in construction. (There was a lot of ADA fudging under Rudy’s administration.) I understood the lay of the land. Knew they wanted me because I’d been on Oprah Winfrey, had a handsome guide dog, and yes, I was a “communicator”—a term in American politics akin to being a fast mule skinner. (Relax, boys, the chili will be ready before you know it.)
There were stories. A cleaning woman with arthritis was fired because she couldn’t climb stairs. Without a job she was dropped from relief programs. Giuliani cut off federal food stamps for the poor, slashed funding for homeless shelters and low income housing construction. The Giuliani administration was a horror show.
I called my father, a retired college president and professor of political science. “I know I can’t do this,” I told him. “What’s the best way out?” “Well,” my dad said, “tell them you’re a writer and you can’t separate literary writing from your professional life. Trust me, they’ll get it.”
That’s exactly what I did. I took my old man’s advice. I’ve never had a minute of regret. But alas for me, just weeks later I did not take my father’s advice when he told me I shouldn’t accept a job offer from The Ohio State University to teach in their MFA program in creative writing. He said, essentially, “stay away from higher ed. They’ve always treated you badly.”
He was right about that. I’d been treated to discrimination in graduate school in the 1980’s because of my blindness. Later teaching as an adjunct I also endured violations of my rights. In the latter instance I filed a suit and received a settlement. “You’re taking a chance,” my dad said. I wouldn’t do it.”
I took the job at Ohio State not realizing there were faculty in the creative writing program who thought I couldn’t do the job. I had a best selling memoir to my credit, a brand new book of poems forthcoming from one of the best poetry publishers in the country, a degree from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and a decade of teaching under my belt. It turned out I got the job on the strength of faculty votes from the larger English department rather than the writing program. Of course I didn’t know. It became apparent after I showed up.
Remember. Nearly two thirds of the disabled remain unemployed in the US. It’s a staggering percentage. For the disabled it’s a utopian dream to think one’s skills and talents will be recognized.
Farce and tragedy depend on speed. When things fall apart it happens lickety-split.
I should have taken my father’s advice. I thought being hired was a sign of being wanted.
Funny: I was smarter about Giuliani than I was about Brutus Buckeye.
As I say, things come apart quickly. My mother died the night before my first class at Ohio State.
I taught anyway.
My assistive technology—talking computer and scanner, didn’t show up for two weeks. I asked the graduate students to read aloud from their nonfiction essays. And then, a student, a woman, a gay woman, someone who should presumably have been liberal minded, reported to one of the faculty who didn’t want to hire me that I didn’t know how to teach. Evidence? I was having students read aloud.
I got tenure there, eventually. But not because of my creative writing colleagues.
Since then I’ve been a full professor at two other universities.
But now, after 17 years I am forced to conclude my father was right. Higher education really is resistant to disabled faculty.
Moreover, given the problems of access disabled writers have been experiencing at the Associated Writing Programs conference—the national jamboree of the creative writing set—I’m further forced to conclude ableism is a particular problem in the CW world.
Why should this be so?
I think one reason is that healthy embodiment is largely imagined by academic creative writers as a prelude to a kiss. They believe creative writing “helps build strong bodies twelve ways”—to borrow the slogan from Wonderbread. Writing is “overcoming” or “healing” in this view. One may think of it as warmed over Hemingway. Literary scribbling is imagined to be a means of returning to health. You write. You become “strong at the broken places” and let’s be clear, if you’re overtly defective, blind, use a wheelchair, employ sign language, there’s something really wrong with you—something wrong with you on the inside.
Just look at the AWP conference website. Every photo shows a glowing man or woman. Everyone is robust. Many conferees in these photos would be hard to distinguish from advertisements for a gym or spa. The writing conference looks like club med. Moreover, that’s not an accident. The academic writing programs want collectively to appeal to youth. MFA programs need students. Small presses need readers who are recent graduates of those programs. Defects are a turn off. Even elders are problematic.
Disability can’t be overcome. It doesn’t go away if you say the proper things about it. It’s sexy or not sexy according to sophistication, by which I mean the sexiness of disablement depends on whether party goers are resistant to normative values. Certainly the creative writing universe could use a good “cripping” and that goes for the MFA programs as well as the national conference.
I’m old now. Or about to be. I’ll be 62 in March. It’s the back nine of the golf course. I spend more time now trying to imagine how I might be peaceful—not in a cliche sense, not like “oh, how will I be on my death bed” but more in spiritus mundi. I can’t change the world as I once imagined. Hell, I can’t even get the university where I presently teach to provide basic accommodations to students or staff without excessive delay and hand wringing. As a disabled man I face daily frustrations. They’re endemic to employment, to travel, to a culture besotted with health as metaphor, the glistening gymnasium body with its banana yellow spandex. The wide smile with clean American teeth.
No. I can’t change much. But I can call out ableism.
When my father said I shouldn’t go back to teaching, he was probably right. But I did it. And I try to keep my honor. Neither Giuliani or the MFA industry can have it.