Strictly speaking an ode is a lyric poem in the form of an address to a particular subject, often elevated in style or manner and written in varied or irregular meter. Also a poem meant to be sung.
This is my ode to disabled men.
Under the spreading chestnut tree the village cripples sit. They’re all men. The broken men sell tin cups, pencils, knives and oils—that’s if they have inventory. If they have none, they sing, play the fiddle and beg. To passersby it’s all the same. Disabled men are thought to be beggars no matter what they do.
This is why people offer to pray for me when I’m walking in public. I’m just a blind guy going about his business. Strolling the campus of The Ohio State University one morning I find my path blocked by a woman. “I’d like us to get down on our knees and pray to Jesus on your behalf,” she says.
Disability is sin. It’s dishonest. It’s in need of absolution and salvation.
In the 1970’s we chanted things like “you gave us your dimes, now we want our rights.”
In the 1980’s we said “nothing about us without us” which means able bodied people don’t get to narrate our lives any more.
In the 90’s we got the ADA. “We’re here, whether you’re ready or not.”
In a scholarly article entitled “Begging the Question: Disability, Mendicancy, Speech and the Law” Susan Schweik tells the story of George Gray a legless man who sued a social reformer for libel in 1911:
“Forbes boasted in print that his charitable work had induced Gray to “lead an honest life” and had converted him from a crippled beggar to a self-respecting peddler. Forbes had described Gray in print as the very type that needed charitable intervention: “the runaway boy who goes on the road to see the world, lost both legs while a tramp; returned to New York and became a street beggar.” Forbes’ article, co-written with Silas McBee and published in The Churchman, an Episcopal church organ, held Gray forth as a model of successful reform under the auspices of modern scientifically organized charity: “Induced to lead an honest life under the auspices of the National Association,” Gray now, Forbes boasted, “maintained himself honorably.”4
In a similar vein, Forbes’ obituary in the Times described his work setting up “scores of crippled beggars…in self-respect as newspaper vendors” (“The Late James Forbes”).
George Gray, however, did not need to derive his self-respect from James Forbes; he had no desire to be held up as organized charity’s poster newsboy, and he objected to the insinuation that he had ever lacked “a reputation for honesty and integrity.” He refused, in short, to be made for one moment into an unsightly beggar. His libel case against Forbes and McBee was fought through multiple appeals. Gray’s difficulty contesting Forbes’ interpellations is compounded by the New York Times coverage of the case, which erroneously reports his name?not as George but James, Forbes’ own first name (“Legless Newsboy Sues”).”
We were always imagined as sinners and thought to be in need of moral improvement.
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