Blindness and the Bellhop

Cover of Planet of the and dog....

Someone asked me not long ago if being blind has been a positive factor in my life. It’s not a new question and every disabled person has experienced a hundred variants of it. “How did you go blind?” “How do you live being confined in a wheelchair?” Usually the questions are framed in negative terms so the insertion of “positive” was interesting. Many in the disability community talk of “disability gain” by which we mean to suggest how being disabled offers insights and advantages to people. So although the question was intrusive I liked it.

Another reason I liked it is that it can’t be answered. It’s a philosophical conundrum. Does an apparent obstacle offer advantages? The Greeks certainly thought so. But I know plenty of blind people who don’t think blindness is much of a problem and I’m largely on their team. Blindness isn’t the issue, the built environment is. A world that utilizes the principles of design justice can eliminate the circumstances that create disability in the first place. If there’s an advantage here one may say it’s a matter of imagination. How do we design airport security stations so they’ll be welcoming to people from every walk and roll of life?

If the answer is “no” since blindness isn’t really a problem then I’ve overturned the employment of a long standing literary device, what the scholar Elizabeth Spelman has called the “literary bellhop”—the character who conveys suffering in ways that benefit the audience. Today’s disabled (or cripples as we like to call ourselves) aren’t interested in this performance any more.

This is altogether good, but there’s a further problem. The disabled, both in the United States and around the world still lead lives of poverty and neglect. Isn’t my rejection of disability suffering just a matter of privilege? After all, I’m a blind professor at a great university. I’m paid to have opinions. I’ve got medical benefits. Maybe I’m a bellhop just by way of succeeding—at least in the eyes of my questioner above.

I don’t want to be a metaphor for the non-disabled. I haven’t “overcome” my disability either through work or a moist insistence on mind over matter. I’ll concede that I’ve been lucky. But I’ll concede that being a blind academic makes me a rarity and therefore I’m symbolic whether I like it or not. Which brings me back to the question. Has blindness been positive? No. I still can’t get accessible ebooks or readable documents most days. No. When I try to enter the stadium the accessible entrances are locked. (Guide dogs can’t easily go through tiny revolving doors.) The obstacles presented by the work-a-day built world are numerous. But they’re failures of public imagination and no reflection on me. Today’s cripples are done holding still while you see yourselves reflected in our differences.

Author: skuusisto

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

One thought on “Blindness and the Bellhop”

  1. Among the many things you’ve taught me is to look at the world differently, to see it in ways I would not have thought to.


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