Thirty for Thirty on the ADA
As we near the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act I’ve decided to post thirty short essays about the law, the anniversary, and the cultural impact of #ADA @30. I’m doing this as a disabled person who’s lived half his life before the ADA. I’m reflecting on the “before and after” of the law.
Essay 3: Lyric Life
I was on a playground in Durham, New Hampshire. The year was 1960 and I was five years old. I had thick glasses and was smaller than my classmates. A big kid who I’ll call Rollie, who daily taunted me and called me “Blindo” approached me with a handful of dirt which he clearly meant for me to eat.
“You will eat this,” he said.
“It looks good,” I said. “Hey Rollie, have you ever eaten an acorn?”
Rollie held his dirt before him like a little pillow.
“An acorn?” he said.
“Yeah, they’re just like peanuts, really good, that’s why squirrels like them. You want one?”
“Sure,” he said. He held out his other hand and I dropped a neatly shelled acorn into his palm.
“Go on Rollie, its yummy!”
Rollie ate it. Then he turned red, and I mean red, not beet red or fire engine red—he was red as an unkind boy with his mouth swollen shut. Acorns are among the bitterest things on earth. And of course I only knew this because I’d tried one. I was a solitary kid. Spent a lot of time in the woods. Those were the days when a boy could still go to the woods.
Rollie was incapacitated. I don’t think he ever bothered me after that.
I still recall the thrill of my discovery. That language could render an enemy harmless was rousing.
I didn’t do a little dance. Didn’t brag about the matter. But I was on the way.
A lyric life, I think, is one wherein you can access feelings and then, by turn do something productive with them.
The simplest definition of a lyric poem is a poem that expresses the writer’s feelings.
Freud said: “Life as we find it is too hard for us; it entails too much pain, too many disappointments, impossible tasks. We cannot do without palliative remedies.”
One of those palliative remedies is lyric itself. One may think of this as causative intuition, a feeling that trips a switch and makes you sing when you should properly be weeping or running for your life. Again Freud: “Man should not strive to eliminate his complexes, but to get in accord with them; they are legitimately what directs his contact in the world.”
We are getting in accord. We are beside a country road picking edible flowers in the cool of the day. We do not pick edible flowers beside highways because there are pesticides in trafficked areas.
We remove the pistils and stamens before eating.
“Hey Rollie have you ever eaten Milkweed?”
“Rollie, you can trust me this time. It tastes like green beans.”
You will laugh at me, but I think of the ADA as green beans….
I think of it as the dictionary for disability assertion.
Now bullies ye will always have with ye. Of course.
Today’s disabled kids must also endure bullies.
Even now as a grownup I still endure them.
Not long ago I was called an “ignoramus” by a fellow faculty member at Syracuse University where I teach and run a program devoted to disability research. It is never appropriate to call anyone an ignoramus in an educational setting for the term’s antonym s are “brain “ and “genius” and its synonyms include: airhead, birdbrain, blockhead, bonehead, bubblehead, chowderhead, chucklehead, clodpoll (or clodpole), clot [British], cluck, clunk, cretin, cuddy (or cuddie) [British dialect], deadhead, dim bulb [slang], dimwit, dip, dodo, dolt, donkey, doofus [slang], dope, dork [slang], dullard, dum-dum, dumbbell, dumbhead, dummkopf, dummy, dunce, dunderhead, fathead, gander, golem, goof, goon, half-wit, hammerhead, hardhead, idiot, imbecile, jackass, know-nothing, knucklehead, lamebrain, loggerhead [chiefly dialect], loon, lump, lunkhead, meathead, mome [archaic], moron, mug [chiefly British], mutt, natural, nimrod [slang], nincompoop, ninny, ninnyhammer, nit [chiefly British], nitwit, noddy, noodle, numskull (or numbskull), oaf, pinhead, prat [British], ratbag [chiefly Australian], saphead, schlub (also shlub) [slang], schnook [slang], simpleton, stock, stupe, stupid, thickhead, turkey, woodenhead, yahoo, yo-yo…
As a disabled person I know full well what the delegitimizing effects of language can do to anyone who hails from a historically marginalized background but where disability is concerned the labeling I’ve described has a particularly specious and ugly history. Idiot, moron, half-wit, dolt, cretin are all familiar to the disabled. One would expect relief from these terms at a university. What’s particularly galling is that the subject I was discussing with the professor in question was ableism—namely that I’d said hello to him on an elevator, I, a blind man with a white cane, and he simply stared at me. No acknowledgement. When two students got on the elevator he lit up and talked breezily about how he hates snow. I followed him to his office and said that by not acknowledging a blind person he creates a social dynamic that feels off-putting and I wanted to discuss the matter. He became instantly contemptuous.
Now of course that’s because of the synonyms above. In this man’s antediluvian world view the disabled really shouldn’t be in the academy. Ableism is not only more pervasive than people generally understand its also more consistent at universities than is commonly recognized.
As for me, I’m an ignorant man to professor “p” for that’s what I’m calling him. “P” for privileged.
He doesn’t know it yet, but incapacities likely await him.
The good news is that when and if he’s discriminated against should that eventuality arise the ADA will likely protect him.