Disability Visibility: the ADA @30

Writing as a poet let me venture that our understanding of tears, their history, or put more darkly our suppression of them is the paramount subject now in America. White people who either do not understand the tears of Blacks and indigenous peoples or they willfully suppress knowledge of them, which gets me to my point: confederate statues are engines to aid white people quash tears. When another statue comes down I say, “there goes another tear quelling appliance.”

In the disability community where great literature has been steadily rising for over two decades we’ve seen a potent reckoning with tear crushing, not as victimization, the tabloid weeping of television talk shows, but tough, ironic, edgy poetry and prose about the true histories of cripples. There are so many excellences. Check out Molly McCully Brown’s collection of poems, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded. (I’ve not yet read her new collection of essays Places I’ve Taken My Body but it’s on my short list.) 

Consider now an extraordinary new anthology edited by Alice Wong entitled Disability Visibility: First Person Stories for the Twenty-first Century. The disabled are not supposed to cry; we’re supposed to be inspirational; the ghost of Tiny Tim haunts every person who walks with a cane, rolls in a chair, navigates with a guide dog. Yet poets and literary non-fiction writers bring forward righteous cries, howls, odd giddy laughter that unsettles, yawps, and sing of ardor and truth. 

This book holds so many awakened voices and is so expertly edited you’ll turn its pages (or screen read with your talking tablet) in a readerly condition of glory. One has this with great literature. “At last someone has said this!” 

There are so many treasures in the book I fear I’ll overlook some while typing on my talking computer. I say read the entire book. Give it to friends. Buy several copies. (A trick I’ve had for years is to buy extra copies of poetry volumes and leave the on bus seats.) (This is what I do instead of giving to the United Way.)

Consider Ellen Samuels essay “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time” (what could be more apt for a pandemic struck nation?) where she writes:

“Crip time is time travel. Disability and illness have the power to extract us from linear, progressive time with its normative life stages and cast us into a wormhole of backward and forward acceleration, jerky stops and starts, tedious intervals and abrupt endings. Some of us contend with the impairments of old age while still young; some of us are treated like children no matter how old we get. The medical language of illness tries to reimpose the linear, speaking in terms of the chronic, the progressive, and the terminal, of relapses and stages. But we who occupy the bodies of crip time know that we are never linear, and we rage silently—or not so silently—at the calm straightforwardness of those who live in the sheltered space of normative time.”

As a guide dog traveler I’m invariably “out” of time and I spent years lamenting it until after reading Samuels I understood that time keeping is simply another instrument of industrial life, normalcy written on human bodies, a kind of scarring. But despite the predations of time the disabled can now imagine their own futures. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes: 

“Yet as disabled people, we know that one of our biggest gifts is the Mad, sick, disabled, Deaf dreams we are always dreaming and have always been dreaming, way beyond what we are allowed to dream. Not in the inspiration-porn way that’s the only way many abled people can imagine that disabled-people dream of “not letting disability stop us!” Wanting to walk or see or be “normal” above all costs, being a supercrip or an inspiration but never human. I’m talking about the small, huge, everyday ways we dream crip revolutions, which stretch from me looking at myself in the mirror—disheveled and hurting on day five of a major pain flare and saying, You know what, I’m not going to hate you today —to making disabled homes, disabled kinship, and community networks and disabled ways of loving, fighting, and organizing that not even the most talented abled could in a million years dream up.”

“What we are allowed to dream” is a resonance, a revolution, and it stands behind every poem and literary essay in the book. Consider the Harriet Tubman Collective’s assertion “that any struggle against white supremacy must also address all of its interrelated flaws—including ableism and audism.” Or consider this from Patty Berne, as told to and edited by Vanessa Raditz, on disability, queerness, and eco-systems:

“Let’s start by openly, joyously proclaiming that we are natural beings, not aberrations of nature. We find healing and justice in the realm of queer ecology, a burgeoning field exploring the vast diversity of gender and sexuality that exists in nature, such as the more than fifty species of coral reef fish that undergo one or more sex transitions in their lifetime, completely transforming their behaviors, bodies, and even reproductive organs.

When we begin to see the planet through this lens, we remember that the entire world has biodiversity that is precious, necessary for our survival, and deeply threatened. Whether we’re looking at ecology, society, or our human culture, diversity is our best defense against the threats of climate change.”

Wong’s stunning anthology gives us the true meaning of the ADA@30. We grieve, imagine, deconstruct the old, create spaces for the new. 

Speaking as a disabled man I’m a walking sign. It doesn’t say panic but it does say “this man will upend acquired habits and may cause headaches, cramps, even some dizziness.” The waitress leans in close to my wife who seems normal enough and with a nod in my direction says: “what will he be having?” I haven’t even opened my mouth and I’m a crank as my presence upsets custom and in most settings custom is what passes for belief. Disability is implicitly an overturning of practice which means it’s suspect and maybe it’s worse than that because it forces a revision of actual behavior. People living without disabilities, at least temporarily, genuinely dislike this. 

Small wonder I love this book so much. Equally small wonder that the ADA@30 matters so much. 

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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