The Ableist Shrug at Licorice University

Ableism: I’m the problem. I didn’t get cured. Didn’t stand up. Couldn’t read the books with my peepers. “Jeepers Creepers, where’d you get those peepers?” 

Good eyes are productive, produce results; bad eyes, get cured baby! 

Ableism: a term no one likes. Like licorice. (No one really likes licorice. Studies have shown this to be true.) 

What if I substitute “licorice” for ableism? Would it be easier to talk about? 

Licorice: a set of beliefs that hold everyone must like licorice. All licorice eaters are equal but some are more equal than others. If you don’t favor Glycyrrhiza glabra you can’t sit at the table. The great big licorice table. 

Note: too much licorice will poison animals and humans. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t whole cities of licorice. 

Side note; when I was a boy in Finland, licorice candies were sold in bite sized pieces, wrapped in wax paper featuring a cartoon of a little black child. 

Licorice is not innocence. 

Ableism: a predominant belief that discrimination against the disabled is just a matter of innocence. E.g. “We really care about disabled people. What’s that? You can’t get basic accommodations? Oh dear. That MUST be awful! I’m sorry you feel that way!”

Ableism: the disabled have ungoverned feelings. That’s their problem. Really. It is their problem not ours. 

I call the example just above “the ableist shrug”—universities are especially good at this. 

Back to licorice: “So Billy, you don’t like licorice? Then you can’t be in our club house!”

Ableism is infantile. 

The shrug is privilege. It’s not convenient to think about those people today. Perhaps we will get to them tomorrow. 

I’m sorry you feel that way.

Candy can represent hegemony. Finnish candy. 

The shrug: we are good people. We care about you. But your accommodation is way down on our list of priorities, because, well, how do I say this? You’re not in our budget. Not in our plans, not convenient, yes, that’s it! You’re really really really not convenient. We love convenience here at Licorice University. We may talk big about being the best! Frankly, business as usual is just fine. We especially like the Licorice Clubhouse. 

Shrug:  the word comes from Late Middle English and it originally meant “to fidget”—and fidget is an early Modern English word meaning “uneasy”—the shrug, the licorice ableist shrug signifies that disability makes the ableist both uneasy and vexed. Having to think about disability is nettlesome. 

When the disabled bring up their problems—lack of access to buildings, bathrooms, educational materials, transportation, zero dignity in the village square, the shrug works this way: 

  • We personalize the problem. 
  • It’s the disabled person’s difficulty not ours.
  • All disabled people are just failed medical patients. 
  • If you can’t be cured, you’re a failure as a human being.
  • While the disabled are talking, we look at our iPhones.
  • We all know there’s something wrong with the disabled, it’s below the surface, like icebergs.
  • You can’t see it, but below the waterline they’ve got bad attitudes. 
  • If the disabled just had better attitudes. 
  • When the disabled say, “we really hate it here” you say: “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
  • Which means the problems are not about accessibility and inclusion but all about the individualized disabled person.

If you were the right kind of disabled, (Tiny Tim for example) you’d be grateful for the little we’ve given you. “I know it’s a dinky crutch, hand made by your impoverished father, but it’s yours Tiny. It’s yours!”



Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Barnes and Noble

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Author: skuusisto

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

One thought on “The Ableist Shrug at Licorice University”

  1. Thank you for so vividly describing “the shrug.” “The shrug” is all too familiar to disabled faculty and students in higher education.

    In order to dispel any allegations of discrimination, colleges and universities have long used the tactic of tokenism.

    Universities hold annual “disability fairs” and “celebrations.”

    Yes, “celebrations of disability.” These events purport to recognize the contributions and potential of disabled individuals in society.

    Often a keynote speaker is trotted out–one with a “picturesque” disability: a handsome and strapping war veteran amputee, or maybe a dwarf who is a scholar. These people are lauded with terms like “brave” and “courageous.” There is no use of someone with an “unpleasant” disability, such as a person with a seizure disorder, suffers panic attacks, has a palsy, or maybe a paralysis.

    The disabled who do not meet the image of “brave” or “courageous” go about their daily lives making their own accommodations and are regarded like a private freak show who are pointed at and whispered about.

    After one day of “celebration,” the abled in universities and colleges go back to the status quo of lip service to the disabled community and offer those who request reasonable accommodation…the “shrug.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: