On Susan Sontag, Taste, and Disability Inclusion

Susan Sontag once wrote: “Rules of taste enforce structures of power.” I’ve always liked this quote because as a disability rights activist I know what the late scholar Bill Peace called the problem of “the bad cripple”—the disabled who persist in their demands for inclusion are easily caste as people of bad taste. We’re the ones who spoil the even tenor of the dinner party or the golf course. We trouble the classrooms and the gymnasium. We’re a terrible burden on airplanes.

Two days I ago I sent an email to a faculty colleague saying that a PDF she’d forwarded to a wide range of folks was inaccessible. This colleague was wounded. She wrote me to say she’d tested the PDF and it was accessible on her machine. She felt that I’d mistreated her. She didn’t mean to say it, but I was the bad cripple.

The PDF was entirely unreadable by my screen reading software.

The professor in question talked to her departmental technology specialist who opined that the problem is that I use a Mac and that’s why I couldn’t read it.

The difficulty with this is that it’s entirely inaccurate. The PDF was fully inaccessible. But I became the problem “twice over”—for complaining and then for having the wrong kind of operating system.

I resent this. Moreover I dislike the assumption that I should never state the case, or by extension that I should be exceedingly kind to people who disperse inaccessible materials, as if it’s my job to make everyone feel OK about “the disabled.” I reject this principle. I might once have subscribed to it, say twenty years ago. But it’s not my job anymore.

Not long ago I pointed out that our human rights film festival and our disability film festival are inaccessible to the blind. No effort has ever been made to incorporate basic audio description for movies we show at my university.

When I brought this up a faculty member lectured me about how expense and difficult this would be.

Doing the right thing where disability and inclusion are concerned requires letting go of old cobwebby assumptions about disability accommodations, expectations, and the use of taste to enforce dominant power structures.

I’m sorry I hurt the faculty member’s feelings about the inaccessible PDF. She thought she was doing the right thing by checking it. The problem is that our university doesn’t have a syncretic and workable system for assuring that anything we do is accessible.

Not long ago we purchased an online program to educate staff about sexual harassment But the university never adequately tested the product and it was in fact inaccessible.

As a disabled faculty member I feel these things deeply.

It’s my hope that we’re heading in a better direction.

It’s my hope that in what remains of my career I’ll be freed from having to be the bad cripple.

My guide dog just looked at me as if to say “good luck with that.”

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