Thirty for Thirty on the ADA: Essay Three “Lyric Life”

Thirty for Thirty on the ADA

As we near the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act I’ve decided to post thirty short essays about the law, the anniversary, and the cultural impact of #ADA @30. I’m doing this as a disabled person who’s lived half his life before the ADA. I’m reflecting on the “before and after” of the law.

Essay 3: Lyric Life

I was on a playground in Durham, New Hampshire. The year was 1960 and I was five years old. I had thick glasses and was smaller than my classmates. A big kid who I’ll call Rollie, who daily taunted me and called me “Blindo” approached me with a handful of dirt which he clearly meant for me to eat.

“You will eat this,” he said.

“It looks good,” I said. “Hey Rollie, have you ever eaten an acorn?”

Rollie held his dirt before him like a little pillow.

“An acorn?” he said.

“Yeah, they’re just like peanuts, really good, that’s why squirrels like them. You want one?”

“Sure,” he said. He held out his other hand and I dropped a neatly shelled acorn into his palm.

“Go on Rollie, its yummy!”

Rollie ate it. Then he turned red, and I mean red, not beet red or fire engine red—he was red as an unkind boy with his mouth swollen shut. Acorns are among the bitterest things on earth. And of course I only knew this because I’d tried one. I was a solitary kid. Spent a lot of time in the woods. Those were the days when a boy could still go to the woods.

Rollie was incapacitated. I don’t think he ever bothered me after that.

I still recall the thrill of my discovery. That language could render an enemy harmless was rousing.

I didn’t do a little dance. Didn’t brag about the matter. But I was on the way.

A lyric life, I think, is one wherein you can access feelings and then, by turn do something productive with them.

The simplest definition of a lyric poem is a poem that expresses the writer’s feelings.
Freud said: “Life as we find it is too hard for us; it entails too much pain, too many disappointments, impossible tasks. We cannot do without palliative remedies.”

One of those palliative remedies is lyric itself. One may think of this as causative intuition, a feeling that trips a switch and makes you sing when you should properly be weeping or running for your life. Again Freud: “Man should not strive to eliminate his complexes, but to get in accord with them; they are legitimately what directs his contact in the world.”

We are getting in accord. We are beside a country road picking edible flowers in the cool of the day. We do not pick edible flowers beside highways because there are pesticides in trafficked areas.

We remove the pistils and stamens before eating.

“Hey Rollie have you ever eaten Milkweed?”

“Rollie, you can trust me this time. It tastes like green beans.”

You will laugh at me, but I think of the ADA as green beans….

I think of it as the dictionary for disability assertion.

Now bullies ye will always have with ye. Of course.

Today’s disabled kids must also endure bullies.

Even now as a grownup I still endure them.

Not long ago I was called an “ignoramus” by a fellow faculty member at Syracuse University where I teach and run a program devoted to disability research. It is never appropriate to call anyone an ignoramus in an educational setting for the term’s antonym s are “brain “ and “genius” and its synonyms include: airhead, birdbrain, blockhead, bonehead, bubblehead, chowderhead, chucklehead, clodpoll (or clodpole), clot [British], cluck, clunk, cretin, cuddy (or cuddie) [British dialect], deadhead, dim bulb [slang], dimwit, dip, dodo, dolt, donkey, doofus [slang], dope, dork [slang], dullard, dum-dum, dumbbell, dumbhead, dummkopf, dummy, dunce, dunderhead, fathead, gander, golem, goof, goon, half-wit, hammerhead, hardhead, idiot, imbecile, jackass, know-nothing, knucklehead, lamebrain, loggerhead [chiefly dialect], loon, lump, lunkhead, meathead, mome [archaic], moron, mug [chiefly British], mutt, natural, nimrod [slang], nincompoop, ninny, ninnyhammer, nit [chiefly British], nitwit, noddy, noodle, numskull (or numbskull), oaf, pinhead, prat [British], ratbag [chiefly Australian], saphead, schlub (also shlub) [slang], schnook [slang], simpleton, stock, stupe, stupid, thickhead, turkey, woodenhead, yahoo, yo-yo…

As a disabled person I know full well what the delegitimizing effects of language can do to anyone who hails from a historically marginalized background but where disability is concerned the labeling I’ve described has a particularly specious and ugly history. Idiot, moron, half-wit, dolt, cretin are all familiar to the disabled. One would expect relief from these terms at a university. What’s particularly galling is that the subject I was discussing with the professor in question was ableism—namely that I’d said hello to him on an elevator, I, a blind man with a white cane, and he simply stared at me. No acknowledgement. When two students got on the elevator he lit up and talked breezily about how he hates snow. I followed him to his office and said that by not acknowledging a blind person he creates a social dynamic that feels off-putting and I wanted to discuss the matter. He became instantly contemptuous.

Now of course that’s because of the synonyms above. In this man’s antediluvian world view the disabled really shouldn’t be in the academy. Ableism is not only more pervasive than people generally understand its also more consistent at universities than is commonly recognized.

As for me, I’m an ignorant man to professor “p” for that’s what I’m calling him. “P” for privileged.

He doesn’t know it yet, but incapacities likely await him.

The good news is that when and if he’s discriminated against should that eventuality arise the ADA will likely protect him.

Thirty for Thirty on the ADA 

 

As we near the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act I’ve decided to post thirty short essays about the law, the anniversary, and the cultural impact of #ADA @30. I’m doing this as a disabled person who’s lived half his life before the ADA.  I’m reflecting on the “before and after” of the law. 

Essay 1:

“Bicycle-Blind & Belabored”  

In the mid 1990’s just three years after the adoption of the ADA I decided to write a memoir about growing up blind before I had any rights. Nonfiction was suddenly all the rage. The critical and commercial success of books like The Liars Club and Angela’s Ashes brought the  memoir to the public’s attention. Where formerly “the memoir” had been the metier of statesmen or Hollywood has beens (I exaggerate only slightly) young writers were sharing stories about achieving self-awareness. The memoir was now about comic irony. Everyone could have his or her own bildungsroman and it was refreshing and by God there was a new law for cripples and overnight we had the public’s eye in new ways. Lucy Greeley’s Autobiography of a Face was brand new as I began my first book, Planet of the Blind. Memoir was fresh; the ADA was new; disabled writers had a chance. 

Literature aside this is what the ADA means: the disabled getting their chance. (A joke I love says we call the United States “the melting pot”  because  scum rises to the top while the people on the bottom get burned.) The disabled were always on the bottom, a fact made all the worse if they were poor, black, or if they were crippled women. America had always believed cripples belonged in asylums, “special” schools, that room behind the family garage—anyplace but the village square.  In her groundbreaking 1998 book Claiming Disability Simi Linton presented a new vision of the Parthenon marbles, a bas relief for what the ADA meant and means:

We have come out not with brown woolen lap robes over our withered legs or dark glasses over our pale eyes but in shorts and sandals, in overalls and business suits, dressed for play and work — straightforward, unmasked, and unapologetic. We are, as Crosby, Stills, and Nash told their Woodstock audience, letting our “freak flag fly.” And we are not only the high-toned wheelchair athletes seen in recent television ads but the gangly, pudgy, lumpy, and bumpy of us, declaring that shame will no longer structure our wardrobe or our discourse. We are everywhere these days, wheeling and loping down the street, tapping our canes, sucking on our breathing tubes, following our guide dogs, puffing and sipping on the mouth sticks that propel our motorized chairs. We may drool, hear voices, speak in staccato syllables, wear catheters to collect our urine, or live with a compromised immune system. We are all bound together, not by this list of our collective symptoms but by the social and political circumstances that have forged us as a group. We have found one another and found a voice to express not despair at our fate but outrage at our social positioning. Our symptoms, though sometimes painful, scary, unpleasant, or difficult to manage, are nevertheless part of the dailiness of life. They exist and have existed in all communities throughout time. What we rail against are the strategies used to deprive us of rights, opportunity, and the pursuit of pleasure. 

It was a dazzling party. Even if disability scholars and writers didn’t quite know each other in the last moments before the world wide web, the ADA had sprung us; provided us with optimism; it gave us what Linton calls the dailiness of life. And along with that came stories. I wrote about being lonesome as a boy, about the hardships of blindness and the static miseries of shame. I described my mother’s terror of disability and how she pushed me to pretend to be normal—a story which is legion among the disabled and is all too often prevalent among people like me who are legally blind. We can’t see well enough to read books, recognize people, read signs—we see like abstract painters. My mother wanted me to go to a public school, not the dreaded school for the blind, and she pushed me into a very unfriendly world always demanding that I never reveal how blind I really was. That was life pre-ADA. Pre-inclusive education. No one in my parents’ circle believed the disabled could pursue pleasure unless they appeared normal. One of the first passages I wrote in Planet of the Blind was a memory about riding a bicycle in early childhood: 

I would conquer space by hurtling through it. I wore telescopic glasses, suffered from crushing headaches, but still chose to ride a bicycle—with nothing more than adrenaline for assurance.

How do you ride a bicycle when you can’t see? You hold your head like a stiff flower and tilt toward the light. You think not at all about your chances—the sheer physicality of gutters and pavements. One submits to Holy Rule and spins ahead.

Picture this: A darkness rises. Is it a tree or a shadow? A shadow or a truck? The thrill of the high wire is the greatest wonder of the brain. There is, at the center of our skulls, a terrible glittering, a requiem light. I lower my face to the cold handlebars and decide it’s a shadow, a hole in sunlight, and pedal straight through.

Here’s another shadow, and another. I turn sharply but this time plunge into tall weeds. Insects rise into my hair, cling to my sweaty face. From the road comes the hiss of angered gravel, a car roars past. Thanks be to God! I’m alive in the wild carrot leaf!

I let a bee walk along my wrist, feel it browse on my perspiration. The bicycle coasts, and I squint in the glare, and then I hit a root. As I fall, I take the sting of bee, then the sting of cement. My glasses fly off. The only thing I wonder is whether I’ve been seen. Nothing with this boy must be amiss! He belongs on the street!

Now I’m on my knees groping for the glasses. My wrist has swollen. One wheel is still spinning. I’ve barely struck the ground, and my fingers are everywhere. I must find the glasses before anyone sees me. No one must know how evanescent is my seeing. No one must know how dangerous my cycling really is.

In summary, if I didn’t look normal, if I wasn’t successful in the attempt, then putative strangers would come and take me to the “blind school”—my mother made certain I understood this. She passed her fears down to her altogether trusting little boy. 

Pre-ADA was about ugly charades, the “on fire” agonies, the humiliations of passing. God help you if you couldn’t. There would be no public square for you. By this I mean available, open, admissible space. If you were crippled on the street you were subject to cruelty. If you were crippled at the university they’d be sure to tell you to leave. 

As late as 1985—yes, believe it—just five years before ADA, I was told by a graduate professor that if I was blind I shouldn’t be in his class. This was at the University of Iowa. That’s pre-ADA in a nutshell. I went to the department chair—he called me a whiner; I went to the Dean, he looked at his watch; I went to the university’s “ombudsmen” (quite a feat since his office was incredibly well hidden) and he also looked at his watch; I talked to the moribund and ineffectual disability support office—they said, the best we can do is give you a note that says you can have more time for exams. The demeaning, bigoted, ableist hostility was untouchable. 

I left without my Ph.D. I already had a graduate degree in poetry writing. I packed up. Pre-ADA there was no recourse. If they told you to get lost, well, you didn’t have ammo to fight with. 

Those who say the ADA has’t done enough for the disabled are not wrong. And there are still professors everywhere like the late Dr. Sherman Paul who treated me with unspeakable disdain. But post-ADA you can fight back. Post-ADA there are consequences provided you’re willing to snarl and push. There’s still a boatload of ableism around. It may even be fashionable with some. But ableism is long past its sell date and it smells funny—by which I mean you can’t hide it anymore. 

I know the ADA hasn’t created lots of jobs and I know it hasn’t changed every mind. Even now the Chamber of Commerce still fights disability rights. Last year with the Chamber’s help Domino’s Pizza tried to say the blind don’t have the right to use their websites—they lost in court—but you see how it goes.

No one should have to risk death to prove he or she or they belong on the street as I had to so long ago. The ADA has driven a stake through that monster’s heart.

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 

Thinking of Cesar Vallejo, Early Morning, in the Age of Police Brutality

I want to begin with a short poem by the great Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, translated by Robert Bly: 

Black Stone Lying On A White Stone

I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,

on some day I can already remember.

I will die in Paris—and I don’t step aside—

perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.

   It will be a Thursday, because today, Thursday, setting down

these lines, I have put my upper arm bones on 

wrong, and never so much as today have I found myself

with all the road ahead of me, alone.

   César Vallejo is dead.  Everyone beat him

although he never does anything to them;

they beat him hard with a stick and hard also

   with a rope.  These are the witnesses:

the Thursdays, and the bones of my arms,

the solitude, and the rain, and the roads. . .

This poem has been much on my mind for several reasons. Vallejo wrote it in despair and weariness. As a Marxist poet living in exile in Paris he was hounded by the police, was frequently arrested and subjected to beatings. His is the true story of literary exile in Paris as opposed to the white privilege story of Hemingway and his circle. Hemingway’s crowd held no political positions and fought for no causes. 

It’s also been in my thoughts because it’s about life inside the broken body which to my mind makes it a disability poem. His upper arm bones are wrong, his will can’t change the fact, and like so many cripples he finds himself alone. The only witnesses? The opaque and unfeeling days. 

The third reason the poem’s been in my thoughts is that we’re living in a globalized police state now. From Minneapolis to Mumbai; from Atlanta to Ashgabat police violence is not just the norm, it’s welcomed by the ruling classes. This poem is about the toll this takes “on the inside”—what this does to “the inner life.”

The poet will die in Paris on a rainy day—a day he can already remember, for death by persecution really never ends. 

It’s a brave poem. It skips the contemporary American penchant for lyric poems that sentimentalize the glories of nature or the joys of sex.  

It’s a brave poem. There’s a hint of Orwell. (The jackboot that’s going to step on you throughout eternity.) 

It’s a brave poem. Cesar Vallejo never does anything to anyone and they beat him for his very consciousness and his foreign appearance. 

It’s a brave poem because he wrote it without sentimentally. 

It is much on my mind. 

Peace: A Noble and Complete Action

If you don’t admire other people’s love you probably have no love yourself. Cis white men are prone to this but so are black men and Asian men—and now, as we’re seeing all too clearly, so are women—J.K. Rowling and the inflorescent and rededicated Phyllis Schlafly for instance, or Candace Owens. Without love all you have is steroidal rhetoric. People who live without true love for others are very loud. And let’s face it, queer people can be mean as anyone and disabled peeps—don’t even get me started. “What is love,” said Pilate, washing his hands. Love of others is an inconvenience. It’s much easier to step on people. These were my thoughts when Donald Trump gassed innocent protestors so he could hold a bible upside down outside St. John’s Church in Washington, DC. Love is inconvenient.

So is the language of peace. Two days ago I saw an interview with a black woman in Minneapolis who’s hair salon was burned to the ground during the first wave of rioting following the murder of George Floyd. She has nothing now. No insurance. No health care. No money. No prospects.

I’ve been told calling for “peaceful” protests is white privilege. I don’t buy it. I’ll never buy it. Never.

I do not underestimate centuries of oppression and rage.

Calling for peace is not convenient. Its a declaration of work.

On Going Maskless and Disability

When I was a new guide dog traveler some thirty years ago a strange man grabbed me as I was crossing Fifth Avenue in New York. He yanked me forcibly until we reached the far sidewalk and then without a word he ran away. My dog looked up at me as if to say: “Man that was weird!” Now that we’re in the heart of a pandemic I’m wondering how it will be when I finally return to the streets. Can the blind count on people to keep their distance? Guide dogs are trained to navigate around people but they’re not trained to imagine six feet of social distance. At best they use our combined width as navigable space.

A friend who’s autistic tells me that maskless people are triggering his anxieties. I get it. And what about if you can’t see “the other?” Being disabled in public requires that you believe strangers are obeying the law, that they’ll stop for red lights, place fencing around a hole in the pavement, behave with concern. The maskless throngs I’m hearing about scare the heck out of me. I’ve had pneumonia four times and almost died from the so called “Hong Kong” flu in 1969. If I can’t see you coming and you don’t care about my health then being on the street, any street, is an impossibility.

My guide dog can keep me from falling down stairs, stepping into traffic, hitting my head on low hanging branches, can find an escalator or the nearest door. But she can’t save me from the projective cruelty of Fox News addicts who think masks are just a cheap gimmick in the culture wars.

The disabled, blind or not, neurodiverse or not, wheelchair users or not, deaf or not, we need you to take our very survival with the utmost seriousness. This is especially true when it comes to colleges and universities that are now imagining how to reopen. Don’t grab us. Don’t breathe in our faces.

I was horrified to read that Johnny Cash’s granddaughter was verbally assaulted yesterday by a non mask wearing bully. She has a history of pulmonary problems. She’s me. She’s millions of us. Young and old. Overtly disabled or living with things you can’t see. The anti mask movement is essentially saying, “life is cheap.” And also: “I’m so much better than you are, because I don’t believe in facts.”

Here’s a fact: the disabled are the largest minority in the US. Our health matters. The vulgar idea that some lives are easily sacrificed for the “economy” is just repackaged Nazi era eugenics. Hitler said the disabled were useless eaters. The right wing stampede to reopen business without safeguards touts the notion that some lives are less valuable than others. Going maskless is their flag.

Mr. President I’m One of Those Who Needs Reassurance

I’m disabled, Mr. President. I work with the disabled. We represent every ethnicity and nationality: we’re old, young, veterans, parents; we’re gay and straight, and yes, we have physical and other limitations that cause us to be medically and socially vulnerable. When yesterday you rebuked NBC reporter Peter Alexander for his “nasty” question about how you might reassure anxious Americans you essentially dismissed the 60 plus million Americans with Disabilities. I think you knew you were doing it.

Not once in any of your press conferences about the novel Coronavirus has the word disability been uttered. Not once. I know why. You think Americans who need “reassurance” are weak. Moreover you think without irony that life is unfair. When asked why star athletes are getting virus tests while ordinary Americans are waiting you told us this is how life in America operates. Reassurance is a pesky word isn’t it? It means to restore people to confidence. What about those of us who’ve never had it in the first place? While you berated Mr. Alexander you were essentially saying America is a cruel craps game and the losers can go to hell.

There was nothing nasty or corrupt about Alexander’s question, Mr. President. Where will the disabled get treatment when the majority of our hospitals and clinics are only conditionally accessible? Where will those who rely on Medicare get help when so many states have been cutting services prior to this health emergency? What is the VA doing to assist wounded warriors who may contract the virus, especially older veterans? I suppose you’d say these are nasty questions too.

When the Nazis came to power Hitler declared the disabled “useless eaters’ and insisted the only valuable citizens in Germany were those who were hail and hearty. That’s an extreme way of saying life is unfair. By showing no empathy toward the most vulnerable in society you’re essentially saying the same thing. No wonder the health experts who stood behind you yesterday looked stricken. No wonder they wanted very clearly to hide their faces. You thought you were demeaning NBC but you were stomping on those who need help the most.

No One Taught Me to Be Good, or: Thinking of Trump’s Last Speech

No one taught me how to be good. This is likely true for you as well. If anything I was taught the consequences of being bad. But where love’s concerned, I wasn’t given much. There was Jesus of course, but he was impossibly good and not much fun. There was Huck Finn who was conditionally good and that was OK by me. I first read Huckleberry Finn when I was eight. I listened to it on long playing records from the library for the blind.

In chapter 36, after they’ve freed Jim from jail, Tom Sawyer says to Huck: “Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and a body ain’t got no business doing wrong when he ain’t ignorant and knows better.”

This is better than any Horatian chestnut. It should be on the entablatures of all our public buildings.

As for Horace, this should also go on our buildings: “The foolish are like ripples on water, For whatsoever they do is quickly effaced; But the righteous are like carvings upon stone, For their smallest act is durable.”

People will know if, indeed, you ain’t ignorant and you know better, and you behave badly.

The proper goodness, the one we should all strive for is the durable.

You don’t need God or organized religion but you do need personal irony. Conscience depends on it. If you ain’t ignorant and you know better, then don’t poison the water tables. Don’t gut the Environmental Protection Agency. Don’t eliminate scores of jobs in the Center for Disease Control. Don’t downplay science. Don’t yammer about global warming being a hoax.

Does Donald Trump truly not know better? Would Tom Sawyer look him over and judiciously say, “he does wrong because he’s ignorant and don’t know nothin’ different?”

This is of course the mystery of Trump: because he appears to be sufficiently educated he must know better. Therefore he must be doing wrong out of basic criminal advantage. Which brings us back to Tom Sawyer, for his comment comes as he and Huck commit a crime (as it would have been adjudged before the Civil War.) And these boys knew that right is right and wrong is wrong and there were some mighty ignorant adults in charge.

As for Trump, I wrote in a blog post some time back entitled Ubu Trump:

America is now fully a cartoon culture. We have cartoon families, cartoon immigrants, stick figure women, logos for cripples, cartoon news shows, and of course, the cartoon web.
In a cartoon society issues of oppression—the forces of oppression—no longer need to correct and punish deviants, for “these people” are fully written off like Goebbel’s schoolbook cartoony jews.

Everyone is a cartoon.

And because people know it, even the least literate, they suspect they are the victims of a joke.

This is Donald Trumps signature line. That America is a joke.

Skull Kissing in the Age of Twitter

In The Revenger’s Tragedy by Christopher Middleton, Vindice avenges the murder of Gloriana by the Duke who’s tricked into kissing Gloriana’s skull which has been treated with poison.

Jacobean theatrics offer an excellent example of what’s come to be called “cancel culture” since love, lust, advantage, politics, and poison are in plain view, center stage, and one fairly wonders if social media “posters” recognize tragic irony as it requires knowing everyone sins and understanding what love requires of citizens.

There is no such thing as an unpolitical cry. And we must cry. But to cry for justice requires love not skull kissing. Any Jacobean viewer would get the point. Try explaining this to the trolls for whom single issue politics and resentments are the tinctures de jour.

Anne Sexton wrote: “live or die, but don’t poison everything.” One can only imagine what she’d say about Twitter. I say its often the kissing of skulls.

I know disabled people who believe all non-disabled people are disability bigots or guilty of ableism. Since this cannot be true its just a poisoned prop. All poisoned props are falsehoods but they’re irresistible. Most people would rather believe in toxicity than see beyond it. In identity politics anyone who’s not like you must surely have bad motives.

Watching last night’s democratic debate I saw the variant toxicities on display. There was a lot of skull kissing going on. If you like Mayor Pete you’re a heartless shill for billionaires; if you like Bernie you have to believe that the rich are un-American. Each candidate has his or her variant of this. You can say this is politics as usual and yet the code switching and winks to singular toxicities is everywhere apparent which means the democrats will likely fail to unite. Skull kissing is never the art of winners.

Contrarianism in the Age of Cancel Culture

In his excellent book “Letters to a Young Contrarian” the late Christopher Hitchens wrote: 

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia, said Oscar Wilde, is not worth glancing at. A noble sentiment, and a good thrust at the Gradgrinds and utilitarians. Bear in mind, however, that Utopia itself was a tyranny and that much of the talk about the analgesic and conflict-free ideal is likewise more menacing than it may appear. These Ultimates and Absolutes are attempts at Perfection, which is—so to speak—a latently Absolutist idea. (You should scan Brian Victoria’s excellent book Zen at War, which, written as it is by a Buddhist priest, exposes the dire role played by Zen obedience and discipline in the formation of pre-war Japanese imperialism.)”

Excerpt From: Christopher Hitchens. “Letters to a Young Contrarian.” Apple Books.

If you want to cancel someone (a harrowing parlance) all you have to do is say he she or they is not up to the ideal of perfection. The Fascist or Stalinist doesn’t rest until the world is cleaned of imperfect people.

I’ve always been a problem because I trouble the public nerve of ableism—which for me means the industry of harming all marginalized people for the disabled are black, brown, Asian, Latino, white, old, queer, and owing to normative formations, (utilitarianism) wishes to eliminate all who are physically different.

Not liking what someone says is not sufficient reason to eliminate them though I may wish you’d shut up. I don’t believe in the language of cancel.

Nor do I believe academics should be fired for holding loathsome opinions. If the ideas are bad they’ll not stand the test of time. 

Hitchens again:

“If you want to stay in for the long haul, and lead a life that is free from illusions either propagated by you or embraced by you, then I suggest you learn to recognise and avoid the symptoms of the zealot and the person who knows that he is right. For the dissenter, the skeptical mentality is at least as important as any armor of principle.”

It’s hard to be a dissenter because you’ll not be much applauded. 

I’m a fan of Kwame Appiah’s book “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity—Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture” which troubles the incorporation of singular cultural positions. Identity is built around insider vs. outsider negotiations or worse, willful erasures.

Identities matter to people. They offer spiritual and juridical power and create the basis for critical solidarity and progress. As Appiah points out, identity gives us reasons to do things. They also give others reasons to do things “to you” and all human rights activists know it.

Appiah writes:

“In sum, identities come, first, with labels and ideas about why and to whom they should be applied. Second, your identity shapes your thoughts about how you should behave; and, third, it affects the way other people treat you. Finally, all these dimensions of identity are contestable, always up for dispute: who’s in, what they’re like, how they should behave and be treated.”

Its the contestability of prefiguration I’m interested in. You shouldn’t subborn blackness or disability or gender to abstract, privileged philosophical thinking. But identity also creates hollow perfectionism as Hitchens knew.  I’ve seen blind people ridicule other blind people because they chose to walk with guide dogs as opposed to white canes. Cultural call out is aimed at canceling the contestable. It leads to public shaming and trolling. 

I’m also a big fan of the writer Roxanne Gay who writes about resisting the racialized and patriarchal oppression aimed at the diminishment of black women’s bodies.  No one should be able to diminish bodies. We defend our identities for excellent reasons. 

We have many things to do out there as Appiah says. Turning away from the humanitarian power of identity is not a good idea. Contesting the traps of identity rhetoric is important however. I have white privilege. I also can’t get into restaurants and taxi cabs because I have a service dog. I live in multiple identity traps. Appiah ends his book with a famous Latin quote:

“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.”

On University Constructions of Shaming Environments

I should come clean and straight off: I regret having been a disabled professor. Regret follows me from room to room and there’s no help for it. I’m considered less capable, less collegial, more of a nuisance than any of my colleagues. There are too few like me in the faculty ranks to be of consequence. I’ve been tenured at three major universities and been accorded more misery than I care to relate for it gets soggy and yet, without a cadre of disabled faculty I can tell only you that talking back to dismissive and ableist faculty and administrators who don’t like your relentless call for accessible websites and buildings earns one the reputation for being a malcontent. What keeps me going?

Sheer stubbornness. I’m of Finnish. descent. My people are granitic and quite stoical. I’m not happy with suffering but I recognize it as one of the effects of gravity. This means despite the fact that I’m a poet I’m also discerning. Why should academics be more tolerant of the disabled than any other group? Higher education is predicated on the unspoken notion that everyone is for herself or himself and they’re in a race against others. Everyone knows the story of the graduate student who finds the important pages razored out of the books on reserve. This is the way of it.

Here’s to the colleagues who haven’t joined me in calling for visual presentations to be fully accessible to the blind as well as the deaf.

Here’s to deans who’ve treated my demands for access both for myself and others are a sign of my problematic identity.

Here’s to the construction of shaming environments where the disabled feel more than marginalized, they are made to feel the full weight of their presence.

Here’s to the merciless stampede toward AI and autonomous systems in lieu of an abiding and conscious understanding of diversity. The latter means recognizing that people of color, queer folks, the disabled have been medicalized, tracked, and demeaned for centuries. And not much welcomed.

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