Ableism in the Arts

Ableism is everywhere but it gets a special pass in the arts community. This is because many in the arts believe the apparently broken body has nothing to do with multiculturalism. The disabled are just medical problems.

In fact, when you “talk back” about this you’ll often be labeled as a malcontent. That’s how ableism works. I’ve experienced it multiple times in my life of poetry and advocacy. The Associated Writing Programs conference has for years been a disability horror show, though I’m told it’s getting better. When I brought up their problems with access some twenty years ago I was treated with contempt. OK. It’s what’s for dinner. I’ve gotten very good at spitting it out.

I’ve served as a panelist for the New York State Council on the Arts. I’ve seen organizations, non-profits, looking for money who say they’re not disability accessible but there’s a bathroom next door. I’ve seen poetry groups say their reading venues are not currently accessible to disabled people as if this is OK, as if it’s 1950.

Aren’t those cripples supposed to be in iron lungs somewhere out of sight?

Wheelchair users probably don’t care about poetry anyway. I think I saw a movie about it. I think Tom Cruise might have been in it.

And don’t let yourself think universities are any better. Auditoriums everywhere have steps for the visiting reader. No ramps. Bring this up and once again you’re the malcontent.

I’ll never forget my last visit to The MacDowell Colony where I listened to artists demeaning disability over dinner. One fellow who was working on a project involving queerness in comics announced that as a high school teacher nothing was worse than teaching the special needs students.

When I objected to the ableism, you guessed it, everyone stared at me.

Later in that same residency Michael Chabon gave a speech in which he announced that the MacDowell Colony would never be some “blind” again when considering graphic novel applications. He liked the line so much he said it twice. And there I was, sitting there with my guide dog.

Ableism is rampant among artists.

This is like saying there are crickets in the grass but frankly what’s troubling is the degree to which arts groups continue to willfully leave out the disabled in their activities.

The latest instance I’ve encountered as a group calling itself “The Brooklyn Poets’ which has remodeled a second floor walkup social space on Montagu Street.

I’m certain they had other choices of venue. They chose this space because frankly they liked it.

Disability access is always someone else’s issue in the arts.

Trust me on this. I’m not a malcontent. Nor am I bitter. The disabled however are BIPOC, queer, trans, Asian, African, Indian; they’re your neighbors, your sisters and brothers, your children, and yes, worthy of inclusion and respect. Of course the law says so. But the law is easy to avoid.

If you avoid the ADA you’re really no better than Donald Trump who said “why have Braille” in Trump tower. We all know they won’t be coming in here.

Author: skuusisto

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

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