Why the Able Bodied Don’t Like Disability in the Arts

planet of the blind

I was in residence at an arts colony not long ago when I heard a noted American novelist tell a wide audience that they’d never be so blind and poor of judgment again—referring to (wait for it) a broader appreciation of marginalized art forms.

Blindness as metaphor, indeed all disability as metaphor is offensive and “not cool” anymore. That this occurred at a well heeled arts event doesn’t surprise me. It’s still the case that disability isn’t part of inclusivity in the arts even when some of the most amazing creative work in contemporary America comes from the disability community.

Just so the leading national academic conference for creative writing, the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) has a long standing problem with disability. They dislike having to provide accommodations at their conferences and they are particularly disdainful to disabled writers.

I’ve come to see this as a matter of resort sales. Years ago I ran training sessions for Sandals and Beaches resorts. The idea was to help beach front hotels become better service providers for the disabled.

One executive said that having disabled people on their property would negatively affect business.

I saw what he meant: all their promotional material featured photos of sleek, gym toned, happy looking people. Some were white, some were from different ethnicities. But the point was everyone was very very attractive.

When you look at the photos featured on the AWP’s website you’ll notice that all the writers look like they’ve just come from the gym.

When you look at the photos from arts colonies you’ll notice that everyone looks like they’ve just come from the very same gym.

That the arts industry (such as it is) has so little awareness (such as it might be) about it’s devotion to normality is telling. Diversity is OK if it’s about race, gender, sexual orientation, but it’s not applicable if you use a walker, a stick, talk with your hands, walk with a guide dog, etc. Everyone knows that disability art isn’t real art. It is something else, isn’t it?

Adrienne Rich, Virginia Woolf, William Carlos Williams, Audre Lorde, Stanley Elkin, Robert Lowell, Andre Dubus, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane—all were disabled. Some walked with canes, some stuttered, some used wheelchairs. None looked like they were fresh from the spa.

In the narrow confines of American art, which let’s admit is academic art, it’s still the case that when illness is thought of at all, it’s imagined as something to be overcome. The arts in America are driven by the medical model of embodiment.

Try explaining this to the arts administrators. They’ll say, as indeed someone at the AWP said to a room full of disabled writers, “your time hasn’t come yet.”

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 StephenKuusisto.com.

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

4 thoughts on “Why the Able Bodied Don’t Like Disability in the Arts”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I’m the guy with the picturesque disability, cuz of my guide dog. They had me give a big speech when I arrived at Syracuse. Everybody cheered. And then, the day to day reality sets it.


  2. I have noticed that college and university departments, including those in the arts, practice unabashed tokenism to give the semblance of being inclusive and open to diversity.

    They almost always hire a person with a “picturesque” disability (I am sure reader can think of one of two)–one that won’t cause abled people to squirm or have discomfort, such as a person who must use a feeding tube, or just inject himself with insulin several times a day, or who is in a wheelchair or who is an amputee.

    Often these colleges have a “disability fair” for one day where a disabled keynote speaker is invited onto the podium and everyone cheers for an hour. The speaker is paid his stipend and sent packing, and the next day the discrimination continues for disabled students, faculty and staff.

    Lip service. There is not other way to put it.


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