I am sad though I scarcely know how to characterize my feelings. Disability is part of the matter. I’ve been traveling and as always, my blindness makes for unhappy experiences with airlines, Uber drivers, even fellow writers at a poetry conference who have tacit ableism. The other night at a poetry reading where I was seated in the front row a woman jumped over my guide dog who was lying obediently at my feet. She didn’t ask if this was OK. When I objected I was told that the man next to me had signaled to her that this was fine. Dissed twice. You should never jump over a guide dog. It’s disrespectful to the guide dog and her handler. Ableism has many facets but one of them is the assumption that the disabled don’t need to be communicated with; that we’re furniture of a kind. Yesterday an Uber driver tried to charge me extra for the guide dog. Today United Airlines made it difficult for me to accommodate my dog in a bulkhead seat, though the law is of course on my side. My daily status is provisional and while I generally wake up happy and love my life it’s also true that even the most customary aspects of living are steeper for the disabled. You can be philosophical about it. You can say it’s just another arm of the many armed goddess of bigotry. And this is true. As Wallace Stevens famously wrote: “the world is ugly and the people are sad.”
The trouble is this position isn’t sufficient for personal growth or civics. All citizens deserve dignity and at least something like respect. Read Malcolm X; Whitman;; Toni Morrison; read and read about dignity and its mysterious operations. Never give up. My black friends know all about living on sufferance in public, about the reasonable expectation they’re going to be treated poorly any moment; worse, they can be subject to violence just for appearing on the street. Though I’m less prone to overt violence it’s true that hate crimes against the disabled are common. Lucky it is when a day goes by without some shitty thing flying in my face. Ugly fate like loose boards.
One of the things I’ll never get over I think is the experience of being among artists and writers at conferences or arts colonies who see me standing in their midst with a guide dog and rather than speak to me, walk right past to engage with others. You can say, “well they’re just connecting with people they already know,” and this is possible but often untrue. Disability is a turn off. What could the blind poet share? I don’t know how to get out of this trap. In public settings I often feel like furniture. Maybe you’re sighted and introverted and feel this way too.
Am I just pissing and moaning? Right now the disabled are losing health insurance and their lives are in peril. Veterans with disabilities are far more likely than non disabled vets to commit suicide. The disabled remain unemployed at rates three times that of non disabled people. Or more. Because of the woeful state of public transportation in the US many disabled folks can’t even get to jobs. Only one in four college students with a disability graduates. Wallace Stevens indeed.
So I’m in a bit of a mood. Melancholy. Yes I’m happy. But there are these moments when the disabled feel especially alone.
In this way I’m just like everyone else, disability or not. Each of us is alone on this earth. It’s just that for some lucky ones, you’re not reminded of it every minute in the public square.
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