I have for much of my life been an outsider. By this I do not mean a victim or beseecher. Perhaps I’m these things in dreams. Asleep I’ve begged for admittance to Noah’s ark. By day I give no ground to those who dismiss me. Make no mistake: as a blind citizen I’m dismissed every day. Every. Single. Day.
My “outsider” status is therefore a matter of discrimination, ableism, of cozy habitual group dynamics. Geography doesn’t matter—I’m dismissed or have been dismissed at Syracuse University (where I currently teach) and on vacation. Blindness is a stigmata to the educated and whatever we might mean by the uneducated. Where disability discrimination is concerned its been my experience there isn’t much of a difference between the two.
I am not a defective sighted person. The majority still believes this. And so I’m an outsider by virtue of a twofold misapprehension. While visual impairment is inconvenient its no measure of my value unless we imagine value as the capacity to read eye charts. The ancients would have seen my value differently. They’d have applauded my memory or my brand of intelligence.
That the customary view of blindness is mediocre and unimaginative is hardly news to me and all the other blind people I know. That the social reception we receive continues to be miserable is the grout or cement of my outsider status.
The second dynamic of outsiderness is my refusal to accept the position. I’m not asking for permission to be in your cohort.
Permission is only a thing in desperate dreams.
I wonder if Noah allowed any disabled animals on his ark?
I wonder if Noah had a disability, either visible or invisible?
Was he obsessive compulsive?
What about Mrs. Noah? Did she suffer from seasickness? Agoraphobia?
I can say for sure that religious organizations are as dismissive of the disabled as the faculty clubs of universities.
The trick as I see it is to remain fresh, optimistic, grounded, kind, and unyielding in the personal and collective fight for dignity.
I don’t need permission for that.
Nor do you.
ABOUT: 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.
(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