Disability Access, Brooklyn Poets, and the Collective Struggle

Last night I had a “Zoom” with poet Jason Koo who directs “Brooklyn Poets” a literary collective in, you guessed it, Brooklyn, NY. Also joining us was renee kay the BP Associate Director. To be frank I wish more folks in the arts–and who necessarily are “on” social media–could have conversations like the one we just had.

At issue: Brooklyn Poets has opened a new performance space at 144 Montague Street which is on the second floor of a mixed use building and isn’t wheelchair accessible. I raised the question about the accessibility of the space on their Facebook page and they confirmed the problem.

So we began our convo talking about Hemingway’s “iceberg” theory. The biggest parts of a story are always hidden–the writer hints at things unseen. Stay with me here.

I can’t speak for all disabled artists. But I “am” a disabled poet who publishes disability poetry and speaks about disability rights. I said disability is everywhere once you learn to look for it. Even if you don’t think it’s close by, it is.

Jason Koo made the initial mistake of responding to my Facebook query about accessibility with irritation. He said, quite rightly, that he didn’t know who I was and he doesn’t respond quickly to people he doesn’t know.

Full stop. Jason is a Korean-American poet who has the emotional candor and critical thinking to admit his mistake. Me? I shared with him that our preliminary FB exchange happened on the heels of my having been denied two Uber rides because I travel with a guide dog and even though this is against the law, shit like this happens to the disabled all the time. Living in the civic square as a cripple is a high gravity affair. So: Jason had been flippant and I was already in a kind of neurological hijacking. I called the BP a bunch of ableists. They are not.

There it was. Jason and I were both caught on the horns of a dilemma. Brooklyn Poets needed a new space, was under time pressures to find one, tried to locate an accessible venue, and then signed a five year lease for an inaccessible space, hoping they could fix the problems–and as most disability activists know, suddenly there were roadblocks–the Landmarks Preservation people, the landlord, etc. Brooklyn Poets had hoped they could fix the problems. And indeed, even now, they’re working to solve the inaccessibility issues. And yes, every event they’re hosting will be online simultaneously.

But here’s where the Zoom got really interesting. I mentioned Sascha Costanza Chock’s book “Design Justice” which argues that design should be a reflection of community values. If you’re a trans person or a guide dog user you’re always going to cause a problem with the TSA people. We talked about having community spaces that are truly welcoming for all.

Suddenly, where before, and in part because of the fight or flee endorphins of social media, I found myself in a rich and encouraging dialogue with two social activists who understand the future can’t be like the past. Jason is a Korean-American poet who’s experienced the alienating dynamics of white lit culture. renee is a trans activist. As we talked we realized how for each of us, this business of writing and advocating from the margins is truly intersectional.

The folks at Brooklyn Poets made a mistake. But then I made a mistake. They are good people and the future is going to be more just, theirs and ours.

Author: skuusisto

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

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