About skuusisto

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

I Just Lost My Civil Rights Thanks to the GOP

Yesterday, February 15, 2018 the U.S. House of Representatives voted 225-192 to gut the Americans with Disabilities Act.   The bill known as “The ADA Education and Reform Act, or H.R. 620” is designed, so its proponents argue, to prevent frivolous “drive-by lawsuits” brought by lawyers who see inaccessible businesses and want to capitalize on the problem. The bill requires those filing against businesses for violating the ADA to first give business owners 60 days to describe how they’ll fix the problem. Then they have another 120 days to implement the changes. Sounds reasonable right? But the bill is actually designed to make the problem of lawsuits go away and does not put any onus on businesses to actually make changes.

As the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities correctly notes: “H.R. 620 would create significant obstacles for people with disabilities to enforce their rights under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to access public accommodations, and would impede their ability to engage in daily activities and participate in the mainstream of society. Rather, the burden of protecting the right to access a public place is shifted to the person with the disability, who first has to be denied access; then must determine that violations of the law have occurred; then must provide the business with specific notice of which provisions of the law were violated and when; and finally, the aggrieved person with the disability must afford the business a lengthy period to correct the problem.”

The “lengthy period” is a red herring as the bill’s supporters know. Again from the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities: “We know of no other law that outlaws discrimination but permits entities to discriminate with impunity until victims experience that discrimination and educate the entities perpetrating it about their obligations not to discriminate. Such a regime is absurd, and would make people with disabilities second-class citizens.”

As of this morning my civil rights and the rights of over 50 million Americans are now in jeopardy. Like thousands in the disability community I’ve watched with growing alarm as a well organized largely Republican lead coalition both in state and federal government has moved aggressively to weaken or even eliminate the rights of the disabled. Betsy DeVos has instructed the Department of Education to look the other way when matters of equal access for students with disabilities are on the table. Congress and the Trump administration are cutting Medicate.

These are outrageous developments.

Imagine this scenario if you are not disabled. One day you decide to go to a commonplace establishment. A popular eatery or coffee joint. When you get there the owner says, “Well, I don’t like serving  people with cartoon character tee shirts.” Then he adds: “Mickey Mouse violates my decor. And I don’t have time or resources to change my decor” You’re turned away.

Do you think this analogy is fatuous? I admit it seems ludicrous. But the principle is the same. The shop owner has made a decision, rather consciously, that there’s a type of customer he doesn’t want. Rather than admit his prejudice he complains that resolving the issue will likely cost him plenty. He tells you to go away.

Imagine that you then had to explain through lengthy filings why your rights were violated. Then further imagine that the owner has almost unlimited opportunities to do nothing.

How does that grab you?

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Dog of the Morning

 —in memory of guide dog Corky

She brings me my shoes, separately, one by one

And drops them softly on the counterpane

As if to say: a day is here 

With all the colors of waking

Seeing I didn’t know

Knowing my tangled dream

A man in late middle age

Caught with Edgar Poe

His shadows moving to and fro

At windows

A day of high wind

So one by one

I slip my feet inside.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

The Dog Who Loves You

It’s always seemed to me that adults, by which I mean most adults, by which I mean many of those I’ve met, have difficulty giving thanks. I don’t mean just saying “thank you” when the barista hands you a latte, but worshipful thanks. I suppose I’m talking about praise where creation is concerned.  If you’re agonistic or an atheist you’ll see straightaway the predicament I’m in. I’m now standing on the thin ice of religious devotion and some might stop reading this because of it. But you see, what I’m really talking about is the love of dogs. Everyday I give thanks to creation for dogs.

The Dog Who Loves You Stephen Kuusisto

(Image: Young 10-year old boy, Stephen Kuusisto’s step-son Ross, is lying in the grass. Yellow Labrador and guide dog “Corky” is standing above him and is about to “kiss” his nose.”)

Tenderness, dog spirit, moves beside and within me. She has me talking to myself in the street. Stranger I am well. My hands, so often clenched fly open. I am loved by dogs.

This of course sounds ridiculous. The great dog spirit, Canis Tempus is walking me straight out of the profane world.

But this is so.

Shortly after I was paired with met first guide dog, a yellow Labrador named “Corky” I rode the subway to Coney Island.  It was April and cold but the famed Boardwalk was a great place for a brisk walk. Hardly any people were about. We pounded over the wood planks fronting the ocean and I talked to Corky softly. She held her head up, very high, to scent the Atlantic, and it was easy to imagine she was experiencing delight.

Aristotle defined happiness as “human flourishing” which he said involved activity and exhibiting virtue, and both should be in accord with reason. “Corky,” I said,“you are my virtue.” I wasn’t entirely sure what this meant.

“She can’t be my full virtue,” I thought. “She can only be the agent of my honor.” “But it’s lovely, Corky, walking this boardwalk with you and the ghost of Aristotle,” I said half aloud.

A policeman approached us and said, “Are you OK?”

“He’s seen my lips moving,” I thought. “He probably thinks I’m lost.”

“I’m just happy,” I told the cop who was taken aback.

“That’s a first for me,” he said. “I mean, no one ever says that, even at Coney Island!”

“You know,” I said, “I grew up blind in the middle of nowhere and never learned how to travel. Then I got this incredible dog! I just can’t tell you how happy I am.”

Of course I was more than happy. I was thankful. Now, 24 years later, I’m still mindful and full of praise for the dogs in my life.

The dog who loves you turns up in your dreams. Last night she was a woman on a train who said her name was “Evensong” (I kid you not) and she was old and dignified.

The dog who loves you is part of your soul (I kid you not) and she insists that mirth never dies. That is, as they say, how things stand.

Carl Jung had it wrong: the anima or animus is not the man or woman inside you but the dog who loves you; the one who first loved you; who loves you now. Sorry Yeats, here’s how the poem should go:

“Young man lift up your russet brow,

And lift your tender eyelids maid,

And brood on dogs and dogs who love…”

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

No to H.R. 620, No to the GOP, Defend the Disabled!

Some days are hard to bear—you’re a single mom and rent is due. You don’t know where that money is coming from. Child care is hit or miss. Your children are sick and what meagre health insurance you have is being depleted by politicians who imagine poverty is a moral weakness.

There’s a lot of “moral weakness” going around these days in the United States. If you listen to GOP senators, and house representatives you hear that the lame, the halt, the poorest among us are undeserving of public help. There’s something wrong with them, according to the right wing narrative. They’re lazy. Feckless.

The disabled are part of this objectified collection of wanton souls. We’re costly. What with our needs for ramps and Braille and breathing tubes. What with our claims on health care. It’s hard to escape the lingering horror of Adolf Hitler’s dictum that the disabled are just “useless eaters.” The aggressive, rightward tilt of the GOP leans toward the wholesale elimination of Medicaid and deep cuts in medicare. This isn’t some kine of fiction—fake news—the GOP is working overtime to make sure the elderly, the poor, and the disabled have no supports to help them live. Pro-life party indeed.

Right now the GOP is pushing in the house a bill (H.R. 620) which is the product of long standing and relentless lobbying by organizations like the Better Business Bureau, and which is designed to eliminate the capacity of the disabled and their allies to sue businesses for willfully ignoring the accessibility provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Here are some basic bullet points that have been shared nationally by The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

HR 620 will eliminate the need for businesses to be accessible until a complaint is received; there will be no need to make a business accessible until someone complains; that will mean many groups building new buildings, renovating buildings, opening new businesses will not make their services accessible

HR 620 shifts the burden of accessibility from those who offer services to the person with a disability; no other group needs to prove their right to access to publicly offered services

We should not be gutting the rights of people with disabilities; if there is a problem, we should be limiting the actions of a small number of lawyers who are bad actors

HR 620 will take away the civil rights of people with disabilities; would we ever think about eliminating the rights of any other group of Americans? This is disgraceful.

You can read more about H.R. 620 and the cover language the GOP is using to confuse the public about the bill here:

https://dredf.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/myths-and-truths-about-the-ada-education-and-reform-act.pdf

**

What does it mean when a nation decides that the most vulnerable of its citizens should be stripped of their rights to participate in civic society? What’s the deep text underscoring predates of the weak?

The answer lies in right wing melodrama. Like the Third Reich, today’s Republicans have a scarcity narrative which is predicated on the idea that Mom and Pop America won’t get what’s due them if we take care of these obviously non-productive people. That we’ve come down to this just 28 years after the wholly bi-partisan adoption of the ADA is both horrifying and quite telling. Not long ago I was at an event in Washington, DC where former U.S. Senator Bob Dole, a wounded veteran, who championed the ADA said openly, “Today I fear that law could never pass on Capitol Hill.”

Please, if you’re reading this, call your local U.S. Representative and say “No!” to H.R. 620.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

 

The ADA is Under Attack

The ADA is under attack.  Next week, the House will be voting on a bill, H.R. 620 that would undermine the protections of the ADA and take away the rights of people with disabilities.  Please call your Representative and ask them to #VoteNo and #ProtectTheADA

Here are talking points:
·         HR 620 will take away the civil rights of people with disabilities

·         It will make people with disabilities wait for up to 180 days for services that other people have immediate access to

·         The wait may be even longer than 180 days because a business that is making “substantial progress” toward fixing a problem can take even longer than 180 days

·         HR 620 will eliminate the need for businesses to be accessible until a complaint is received; there will be no need to make a business accessible until someone complains; that will mean many groups building new buildings, renovating buildings, opening new businesses will not make their services accessible

·         HR 620 shifts the burden of accessibility from those who offer services to the person with a disability; no other group needs to prove their right to access to publically offered services

·         We should not be gutting the rights of people with disabilities; if there is a problem, we should be limiting the actions of a small number of lawyers who are bad actors

·         HR 620 will take away the civil rights of people with disabilities; would we ever think about eliminating the rights of any other group of Americans? This is disgraceful.

And here is a fact sheet from our colleagues at Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) about the myths and realities of this bill.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Scam Service Dogs are More Complicated than David Leonhardt Knows

David Leonhardt writes about fake service animals and their dishonest owners in the January 5, 2018 New York Times. I don’t know Mr. Leonhardt personally and so I have no idea what his private relationship to disability might be—one shouldn’t assume indifference—but when a writer uses the word “handicapped” in the 21st century one must wonder how versed the author is with disability. (I know at least a thousand disabled people and not one has his or her cap in their hands while begging on a street corner.) I wonder if Mr. Leonhardt would describe women as “wenches?”

It matters what you call us if you’re going to write about us. The disabled are members of society and if one supposes language doesn’t matter consider this: the word “handicap” carries within it (in addition to physical disadvantage) a whiff of dishonesty as in “a race or contest in which an artificial advantage is given or disadvantage imposed on a contestant to equalize chances of winning.” (Merriam-Webster.com)

The spectacle of American life has always carried “sub rosa” a popular suspicion, often translated into entertainment, that the disabled (or at least the ones seen on the streets) are very likely nothing more than scam artists. In popular imagination the words scam and handicap go together like baseball and hot dogs. It might also interest Mr. Leonhardt and his readers to know that the first motion pictures distributed in the United States invariably presented comic figures—men mostly—who swindled the public by feigning disability.

Comedy is one thing, reality where disability is concerned was often different. In the very era when those films were made “Ugly Laws” were enforced across the country—laws designed to keep the disabled off the streets and out of the public eye. By the late 19th century the rising middle class wanted to go window shopping or sit in cafes like the flaneurs of Paris. Public life offered a new kind of spectacle, the very streets were prosceniums. Asylums and prisons were hastily constructed to hide the disabled from view.

David Leonhardt’s article aims to highlight the current wave of faux service animals being passed off as necessary by airline customers who want nothing more than to bring their pets on airplanes. As a guide dog user I’m glad that he’s taking on the story. People who do not have disabilities are faking them so they can take their animals anywhere. I think Leonhardt’s motive for writing his piece was good. The problem is that public attitudes about disability are not informed by knowledge and sophistication. As I wrote just last week:

In the world of service animals, guide dogs are the gold standard. They are trained to guide the blind through heavy traffic, watch for low-hanging branches, take evasive measures when cars or bicycles run red lights, watch for stairs and even prevent their partners from stepping off subway platforms. Yes, they’re also trained to stay quiet and unobtrusive in restaurants and on public transportation. This professionalism is possible because guide dog schools spend tens of thousands of dollars breeding, raising and training each dog.

Leonhardt is right: the woman with a peacock claiming in the airport her bird is some kind of emotional support creature is in fact a problem. He’s also right to point out that when travelers feigning disabilities bring their untrained dogs on aircraft (with phony papers of course) they’re harming those of us who have genuine disabilities. They’re also trading on the extraordinary professionalism well trained service dog users and their canine companions have demonstrated for decades. Yes, there’s deception going on. I’ll grant this. And yes, this problem affects me and all of the disabled who rely on guide dogs, PTSD service dogs, hearing alert dogs, seizure alert dogs, mobility assistance dogs—these are dogs serving real needs and these teams have civil rights to travel wherever the public goes.

But forgive me: “scam” isn’t the right word to fairly describe what’s going on. Scam reeks of the old trope that the disabled are unseemly and might be, just like the beggars who imitated them, dishonest. Moreover I suspect many people who claim they require untrained dogs to manage even the simplest elements of daily life really believe this. In many respects the conundrum of fake service animals is more a sociological or psychological dynamic than a matter of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Beat with me here. The ADA attempts to guarantee the privacy of the disabled by stipulating if you have a service dog you cannot be asked to show proof of your disability.  This is fair. It’s the same principle employed in pharmacies when you read signs that say: “Please stand behind this line to guarantee customer privacy.” It ain’t nobody’s business and you better believe Americans like their privacy.

If you’re a veteran who has a traumatic brain injury or post traumatic stress and you have a fabulously trained canine companion to assist you, I’ll bet you don’t want to tell everyone about it. Certainly not in the cramped entryway of a jetliner.

So you see there’s nuance and scruple to this where the disabled are concerned. That our capacity and right to travel with our professional dogs is being eroded by elements of the public who want to game the system is undeniable.

Finally where the airlines are concerned and speaking as a seasoned traveler most of their personnel are poorly trained—as are the disability support teams in airports who are generally subcontractors. Every year the airlines destroy thousands of wheelchairs when paralyzed travelers are forced to hand them over as luggage. In turn pet owners who put their pets in cargo know that this is a life and death gamble. If the airlines can’t safely transport wheelchairs and poodles why would any emotional pet owner want to risk putting Fido in the cargo hold?

The airlines have as much to do with this problem as those needy pet owners. Make it safe for non-essential pets to fly down below and United, Delta, et.al. will go a long way toward solving this problem.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Dog of My Travels

My new memoir Have Dog, Will Travel explores how being paired with an exceptional guide dog changed me into a more curious, adventurous, and trusting person. Corky, for that was her name, helped me become better, especially on the inside. I think it’s safe to say this is the most  interior book I’ve yet written. And while no one can really do such a thing, I try to get inside Corky’s head as well.

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(Photo of Stephen Kuusisto with his third guide dog Nira, a yellow Labrador, in the English-Philosophy Building at the University of Iowa.)

I started my writing life as a poet. I remember the afternoon I told my father I wasn’t going to law school but instead had chosen to attend the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. As Franklin W. Dixon used to write in the Hardy Boys books, my dad was crestfallen. After a day or so he roused himself and said: “well we probably need more poets and no one in his right mind believes we need more lawyers.”

At Iowa I studied poetry with several well known poets including Marvin Bell, Donald Justice, and Sandra McPherson. Studying poetry meant both writing it and revising it–living and breathing extraordinary words by others and trying, often inexpertly, to write some lasting words of one’s own. That’s the thing about poems: in order for them to be considered any good they should be original and if you’re lucky your poem says something no one else ever has or at least not precisely. Ezra Pound said famously “poetry is news that stays new.” We should be surprised by poems, both as readers and writers.

Here’s the thing: when I was writing poetry in Iowa City I had no idea how to travel safely and independently–surely a primary need for any blind person. In my new book I describe how I went to Iowa two months before graduate school just so I could walk the town like a crime scene investigator–I walked a grid, up and down the charming brick streets and memorized the steps I’d have to take to arrive wherever I needed to be. In those days I was play acting at being a sighted person. This is not an unusual story among the blind and I claim no special distinction. But its safe to say I was closed in, anxious, quietly desperate, and yes, inwardly guilty–for wasn’t I a sham? And of course, as the depressed imagination goes–wasn’t I a sham in all things?

In Have Dog, Will Travel (which is subtitled, “a poet’s journey”) I narrate how I grew tired of not knowing how to strike out on my own and go anywhere I wished, any time, yes, on a whim. Freedom is about many things but “whim” is surely central to it. In the book I describe how, as a college student living in western New York I wanted desperately to go to New York City and hear the poet James Wright read at the 92nd Sweet YMCA.  In those days I needed sighted friends to accompany me places or I couldn’t go. I found no willing co-conspirators in my quest to hear one of my favorite poets and I stayed home. I felt the disappointment bitterly.

Climbing out of that place, that self-imposed covert, took several years for me. My book about a yellow Labrador is a poet’s journey because with Corky by my side I was able to do what others freely do all the time–I could wander without goals in New York City; walk loose jointed and open; push my curiosity the way a child floats a toy sailboat in Central Park. The book’s most joyous passages have to do with trusting my canine pal, plunging into traffic, and pressing forward because I just wanted to go to a baseball game (I’m a Mets fan) on my own.

Except I wasn’t on my own. I had a poised, confident, upright, vigorous, and soulful sidekick, who happened to be one hell of an exceptional dog.

She made me a better man. More trusting. More flexible. Open to others in ways I’d never imagined. And you know what? She made me a better poet.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a professorship in the Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org