Good morning disability peeps. It’s time. Aller se confesser. I’m making you my priests dear readers. I’ve sinned, though as is the custom let me say it’s a minor affair. Here’s the deal: I imagined after almost thirty years of the ADA, as a lodestar if not simply the law, well, I thought there’d be something like utopian éclat. I believed the disabled would burst onto the scene, collectively, shoulder to shoulder like the Red Army…or even the Salvation Army. Instead there’s been a splintering effect. Éclat in the fullest sense.
I’m writing about ageism. Move over Rover.
I taught two grad courses in disability studies a year and a half ago. One class focused on post colonialism and disability novels; the other was on disability and memoir. Because disability related courses are hard to cross list at my university I wound up with roughly six students in each class.
All went swimmingly for a time. We talked about Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell’s idea of “narrative prosthesis”—the ways in which stories are extended or dis-tended (my word) by the uninformed use of disabled characters. Think of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “All The Light We Cannot See” which makes heavy use of a blind teenaged girl who, despite Doerr’s imaginative ministrations, is unlike any blind person you’ll ever meet. She’s a genius on the inside but fully helpless so that her aged father has to bathe her. Yuck. Narrative prosthesis indeed.
Cultural appropriation department: non-disabled people “can” write disabled characters but they rarely do a good job. Notable exceptions exist. Toni Morrison’s “Shadrack” comes to mind. Some may argue but I believe Jonathan Lethem’s “Motherless Brooklyn” is reasonably good.
Both the classes unraveled on me. I’ve been teaching for thirty years. What happened? Two things. 1. The students didn’t want to do the readings. They were difficult. Novels like Ben Okri’s “The Famished Road” and “The Tin Drum” and cultural theory about literature and post-colonialism bothered these students. One actually said about halfway into the semester: “Why are we reading these books?” That was the thing—in both courses the students, most of them Ph.D. aspirants in disability studies wanted quite simply to talk about themselves. The aim of a class was (apparently) to talk about their respective feelings.
There I was, teaching like the literature professor I’ve always been. Guess what? For the first time in my teaching life I was actively disliked.
There are many ways to think about this: the readings were probative and demanding; I’m a terrible teacher; if a class is small why should we have to do real work; he’s just an old blind guy.
I gave them a lot of leeway, imagining they could do the work and talk about books. This turned out to be largely untrue.
Eclat: splinter; no child left behind; unable to read carefully; impatient; and worse, no interest in the broader global dynamics of disability figuration. “I’ve got my disability posture.”
What can we possible learn?
I’m still sorting this out.
But I felt the intolerance toward complexity and the ageism. I was just an old, inconvenient blind professor.
Why “blind” as opposed to merely professor?
Because without a sense of disability as arm in arm work, ableism still exists. What could a blind teacher possibly know?
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