Self-interview, July 26, 2020 “The ADA @ 30”
Q. What does a poet know about civil rights?
A. Who “allows you” to know beauty? That’s the foundational question of people who want their freedom. It’s a variant of Gore Vidal’s wonderful axiom: “Politics is knowing who’s paying for your lunch.” So if I, as a blind writer and teacher can’t get access to books and articles because they’re not accessible then I’m being kept from knowledge, which I understand in the Enlightenment sense to mean beauty. And children in cages on the Texas border are being kept from books and ideas—not to mention they’re being warehoused without their parents during a lethal pandemic—but you must understand, take away access to beauty and you’re on the road to completely dehumanizing people.
Q. Why do you like Gore Vidal?
A. Gore said: “The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.”
Q. What’s wrong with the current ADA @ 30 articles you’re seeing in the news?
A. The Washington Bubble Machine is pretending that the ADA is “still” a milestone. But it hasn’t been a success where jobs are concerned. While the term “reasonable accommodation” aims to show employers that retro-fitting a job for a disabled employee is readily achievable and inexpensive, the term is frightening to employers.
Q. Why is it frightening?
A. (Invoking Gore Vidal) because Americans hate the word “reasonable.” What we really believe is: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”
Q. So why must the disabled “fail” in this instance?
A. See above. Americans hate the word “reasonable” and as soon as they hear it they small a rat. Let me give you an example. In the late 1990s I was working at a famous guide dog school and one day I got into a conversation with two top executives—both of them “non-disabled” (whatever that means). They were arguing about the cause celebre of the moment, the case of the disabled golfer Casey Martin who had sued the PGA because they said he couldn’t use a golf cart during professional matches. Martin could hit a golf ball but he couldn’t walk distances. Martin took his case to the Supreme Court. My non-disabled colleagues were hot to argue that riding a golf cart fundamentally alters the nature of golf. I said, when you golf do ride a golf cart? Yes, they said. So are you really golfing if you ride a golf cart, I asked. Oh yes, they said but in a pro tournament it’s the walking from green to green that makes or breaks a golfer. I said it didn’t sound convincing at all. The Supreme Court agreed with Martin. Opposition to his participation was tricked out in the lingo of fairness and competition but what the PGA was really saying is that no one in America likes the word “reasonable” because of course the secret adage of our nation is “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.
Q. Are you always such a pain in the ass?
Q. What would be better than the term “reasonable accommodation” in your view?
A. That’s a great question. I like the term “usability” which means can an employee use the stuff they give you to do your job. Since Americans hate the word “reasonable” let’s just say that all workers get to inquire about the tools they’re using. We can call it any variety of thing, the utility index, the Craftsman Cantata….the point is that when we ask people to perform tasks we should give everyone the opportunity to select the right tool for the job. I call that reasonable.
Q. Do you want to add anything at this point?
A. Yes. Higher education has a lot of trouble with disability. Lots of colleges and universities can’t imagine disability as being part of their understanding about diversity and inclusion. Gore Vidal again: “The important thing is not the object of love, but the emotion itself.” Offices of diversity and inclusion on campuses have no love in them only the rhetoric of objects. When it comes to the rhetoric of objects the disabled are a real problem.
Q. And why is that?
A. Because the disabled are “not” their wheelchairs or guide dogs. We trouble the insistences that difference is strictly about embodiment. We trouble everything. And we tend to know who’s paying for our lunches.