On Being Expensive, Difficult, and Lonesome in Higher Education

I feel like opening up. Some days, owing to blindness, because of my internalized “super crip” expectations (all that rococo internalized ableism) I think my job is to make being a disabled professor look easy. Alright, most days. OK. Every day. Yes daily I saddle myself with the false and unachievable supposition I’m supposed to be absolutely flawless. After all, to admit a flaw would be to succumb to vision loss. The medical model of disability IS the academy as it’s currently established. Of course I know too much to live this way. Sure. Absolutely. But the academy doesn’t care what I know. Universities have almost no interest in unpacking their nascent ableism since this would require examining a thousand years of questionable institutional exceptionalism. Alright, maybe eight hundred years. The academy is constructed entirely around the idea of the elect, the promotable, the meritocracy, the lithe and nimble of mind and body. As a professor I too must be this way. If I have merit it must mean this business of researching, writing, teaching, and serving is natural. If it comes with hard work it’s only the difficulty of ideas, the speed of a required curriculum that stands in your way, not your body or your learning style. If these are impediments you shouldn’t be within a hundred yards of the ivory tower.

I’ve been a tenured professor (lucky me) at three American universities and I was a long time adjunct at a fourth. My blindness has been a problem at all of these places—sometimes an ugliness—and now I must admit at the age of sixty four and still likely a decade away from retirement that the career—mine—has been painful, clotted, steep, and wearisome. In the faculty ranks the disabled are not naturally linked with other academic diversity initiatives. While my historically marginalized colleagues have many many problems (which I do not dismiss) they also have (at least at the institutions where I’ve worked) something like society, something like a collective voice. I am the only blind professor at Syracuse University and have been the only blind professor wherever I’ve worked. My embodiment and my accessibility needs are lonely and exhausting things.

I remember the famous poetry professor at the University of Iowa who told me when I was a graduate student that I shouldn’t be in his class. In his view, if I couldn’t read as fast as other students I was uneducable. All disabled students who read differently or communicate differently know this story. Certainly autists who type or students with learning disabilities know their very presence in college is secretly or overtly questioned by faculty and administrators. Academic ableism is the norm. It’s been the norm throughout my forty plus year career as a student, grad student, and faculty member. Wherever I’ve worked or studied I try for consistency: calling out accessibility problems and ableist attitudes. Behind this though is the pressure to appear perfect and make the “life” look easy.

Nothing could be more unachievable or hopeless. I have faculty colleagues (some of whom teach disability related courses) who don’t care a whit about the inaccessibility of websites, academic research materials, PDF documents, HR surveys, adopted computer programs, online teaching and learning portals, PowerPoint presentations at department meetings or campus events, films or video presentations—the list is long when you’re blind. I’m the outlier asking for admission to all these things and after years in higher ed I feel no closer to inclusion or admittance today than I did years ago.

The only good thing is that computers have gotten better. Tablets and phones have become more blind friendly. Apple has made my life better. Microsoft is getting on board. The technology now exists to assure colleges and universities are fully accessible to the blind. But they’re not. The ableism of bureaucracy and meritocracy holds back the blind over and over again.

Meantime I’m supposed to be (as I said above) absolutely flawless. Despite the lack of good usable assistive technologies across campus I should be a superior teacher, graceful, kind, cheer up the normal people who find disability either consternating or distressing, publish as much as my colleagues, if not more, and be a “thought leader” whatever that means.

Not long ago during the same week when I was faced for the umpteenth time with a new university web portal that was inaccessible, I was asked to participate in a campus inclusion workshop. I declined. I said I couldn’t do any more emotional lifting for the university. This was a breakthrough for me.

“What’s that?” you say, “you can’t help the able bodied faculty anymore?”

That’s right.

I’m not going to pretend at easiness anymore.

My weekdays are clogged with inaccessible features.

The built environment is consistent. I don’t belong.

I’ve spoken about these things over and over for years and my spirit is patched. It has holes. The moths of ableism have eaten my beret.

In recent weeks I’ve called on Syracuse University to make films and videos accessible to the blind.

Some people have responded positively to this. Others not so much. One faculty member went out of her way to tell me how difficult and expensive this is.

Blindness is always “difficult and expensive” whether the subject is audible traffic signals, a Braille menu, or getting screen reading software for a PC.

I’m difficult and expensive and noisy and bothersome and mostly lonely in higher education.

Disability in the Future Perfect Tense

1.

It’s axiomatic that disability—personal or collective—is generally represented as a pure disadvantage. The word itself comes to us from the Industrial Revolution when disablement signified workers injured on the job. The term is outworn, inexact, and now itself an obstacle to people with physical differences like a bad curb cut.

The future perfect is the verb tense that expresses the idea that something will occur before another action in the future. It can also show that something will happen before a specific time in the future. Example:

By next October the Boston Red Sox will have achieved first place.

As a blind person I’ve lived my life via the future perfect. At 18 I remember saying: “By the time I’m thirty I will be a writer.” The future perfect is critical for ambition. I can and will do this.

The thread-worn term “disability” has no future perfect about it which is why disability activists have taken up the ancient word “cripple” to designate, ironically, that they’re not without capacity. A cripple can work, the disabled cannot. Parse this however you like, the issue for the disabled is how the future will stand as distinct from the past. The future perfect.

The future perfect must be concerned with diversity and center disablement as central to human experience and not as an outlier position. Strictly speaking disability is the inability to perform a major life function—standing, walking, hearing, seeing, processing information, speaking—disablement is broad. Disablement is also part and parcel of every ethnicity and community. It’s at the center of diversity.

When I worked at one of the nation’s premier guide dog schools it became apparent to me that none of the dog trainers spoke Spanish. I pushed for this but was unable to convince my superiors that multi-lingual service and outreach mattered. There are blind folks who do not know that guide dogs are available and are without cost. Blindness is also at the center of diversity.

So the future perfect where disability is concerned is about inclusion but its also about something much more generous than that term may customarily signify: it’s about us. By next October the disabled will have achieved their just place at the table.

2.

The future perfect means understanding our ways beyond the scylla and charybdis of the medical model of disability vs. the social modal. The former suggests that an incurable patient is a defeat for the physician and hence he or she becomes a problem—a living embarrassment for the medical establishment. When I spoke to a graduating class of young ophthalmologists some years ago I said the number one worst thing you can say to a patient is: “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more I can do for you.” What can an eye doctor do for a blind person? Plenty. Why? Because of the future perfect. Even as I type advanced work is happening around the globe in the fight against genetic forms of blindness. What seems incurable now will be curable tomorrow, but not for the patient who disappears and never seeks medical help again because her doctor said good riddance.

I do not argue that the blind need to be cured to be citizens. Which leads us to the social model of disability. The disabled, as evidenced by the word itself are accorded a pejorative or second class status in society. This is a 19th century idea based on the principle that the built environment (the factory world) cannot accommodate a woman without hands. (For example.)
The term reasonable accommodation means, among other things, that redesigning our work environments makes good sense. In the future perfect almost every disabled person is employable. There are a hundred reasons why this matters but let’s put an accommodating work place in a broader context: when facilities are good for the disabled they’re actually better for everyone. This is indisputable. Who, when pushing a stroller, has not been grateful for a wheelchair ramp and an alternative to a revolving door?

3.

Folks who talk about diversity often don’t think of disability as part of the matter. They think of it in purely ethnic or gendered terms. This is understandable because there’s a lot of discrimination that’s still in force and which has not been sufficiently addressed. But the disabled are part of every socially and historically marginalized group. The future perfect says that a blind person of color should have a first rate educational experience no matter where she lives and that her schoolroom should be fully inclusive from the get go.

In the future perfect disability will be understood as cross cultural competency and not as an outlier position.

In his fabulous book “Strategic Diversity Leadership” Damon Williams notes that diversity is protean, that its language changes quickly and that the best university leaders must understand that the movement of identity language has everything to do with the awakening needs of diverse communities. He writes:

“Different people use different words or names to signify membership in a particular cultural group or to define diversity on a broader level. Because these terms can be culturally specific, diversity leaders should not assume they know them. Asking members of the group their preferred term is an essential first step.”

Excerpt From: Damon A. Williams. “Strategic Diversity Leadership.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/strategic-diversity-leadership/id1032365916

The preferred term is about the future perfect. We will not be who we were when other people named us.

Williams adds:

“Strategic diversity leaders must be ready to work with individuals and among communities where once-stable terms and categories are undergoing considerable scrutiny. What matters is that these leaders work to address the profound and continuing challenges that lie beneath these terms, including equality, inclusion, and fairness.”

Excerpt From: Damon A. Williams. “Strategic Diversity Leadership.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/strategic-diversity-leadership/id1032365916

4.

In her now canonical essay “On Being a Cripple” the late poet and memoirist Nancy Mairs (who had M.S.) wrote:

“First, the matter of semantics. I am a cripple. I choose this word to name me. I choose from among several possibilities, the most common of which are “handicapped” and “disabled.” I made the choice a number of years ago, without thinking, unaware of my motives for doing so. Even now, I’m not sure what those motives are, but I recognize that they are complex and not entirely flattering. People–crippled or not–wince at the word “cripple,” as they do not at “handicapped” or “disabled.” Perhaps I want them to wince. I want them to see me as a tough customer, one to whom the fates /gods /viruses have not been kind, but who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely. As a cripple, I swagger.”

In the future perfect the disabled are central to every community and yes, they get to swagger.

Swagger is likely one of the many words first used by Shakespeare. It appears in English for the first time in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and its probably a take off on the word swag witch originally mean to sway ostentatiously. As Shakespeare uses it it means to strut in an insolent or defiant manner.

Why would swaggering matter to a cripple?

Because it’s fun. In an inclusive world everyone gets to show off.

5.

Diversity within group identity is the future perfect. The black hip hop artist Leroy Moore who started a group called Krip Hop Nation puts it this way:

“Just like hip-hop is global, hip-hop artists with disabilities are global with common experiences of discrimination inside and outside of the hip-hop arena. These opportunities and my activism during the 1980s propelled my advocacy on activism, disability, police brutality in the US and across the globe.”

In the future perfect disablement is intersectional with all aspects of multiculturalism.

But there’s much more to think about.

Dancing for instance.

Everyone recalls Emma Goldman’s famous quote: “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

Right now disability art is entering, has entered the mainstream. We’re beginning to see television and films from Hollywood make the first turn toward using disabled actors where possible. In the future perfect this will be customary.

We’re seeing more articles and essays about disability by disabled writers in publications like the New York Times.

In the future perfect disability won’t require its own section of the newspaper because it will be part of every diverse groups experience.

In the future perfect Leroy Moore has his own show on TV.

5.

A decade ago, more or less, I was sitting in a room with world class physicians and geneticists who were talking about the genes that cause congenital blindness. They were already finding ways to modify those genes as part of a future perfect plan—to restore sight in children born blind.

During the meeting one of the doctors pulled out of his pocket a brand-new device: the IPhone.

I’d no idea at that moment the iPhone and Apple Corporation would change my life profoundly.
They had the future perfect.

Today’s iPhone allows me to read anything instantly.

When I was a grad student thirty years ago the electronic scanning and reading machine in the university’s library was the size of a Maytag washing machine.

Not only will the iPhone read anything, it will take photos and then describe what’s in them.

The future perfect of disability is swagger, confidence, attainment, ease of accommodation, and respect in the public square.

The future perfect of disability will break down the biological and experiential aspects of identity formation.

The future perfect of disability will be a pure, swaggering agency.

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 

I was denied a cab ride because of my dog….

What if the adjectives in advertisements for movies were applied to the blind? “Sensational!” “Euphoric!” “Mesmerizing!” “Joyous!”

I’m not talking about inspiration pornography—the disabled as beacons of extravagant and sentimental overcoming—but I’ll take anything over the furrows of disapprobation and despond that the blind absorb daily.

As I write these words I’m awaiting a disciplinary hearing with the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission because a driver refused me a ride because of my guide dog. The refusal was bad enough. It was against the law. No question. What stood out for me was the driver’s contempt.

Contempt is the act of despising what is considered vile and worthless.

What if that driver had said to himself, “here comes an interesting and creative human being, I might learn something from him.”

What if bigots of all kinds thought such things? Trump’s raging pink crowds know so little of the world. The solution rests with understanding the very people they imagine they hate.

Alright. I’m just waxing sentimental, utopic, foolish to the core. “Why can’t people just get along?”

Diverse societies depend on imagination. Daily I see Donald Trump and his racist, homophobic, ableist, misogynistic, xenophobic supporters assert that critical thinking is for losers.

Ain’t that the truth?

A Disability Take on Mueller’s Testimony Yesterday

Watching Robert Mueller’s testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday I couldn’t escape the sense that both disability and race were twin ghosts in the room. I cannot say with certainty that Mueller has hearing loss but I know when hostile speakers are making it impossible for people to hear them accurately. Several GOP representatives engaged in high speed barking. As a person with a disability I know something about this. As for race, let’s not forget that today’s Republican Party is filled with yesterday’s Democratic southerners—a matter that’s not unimportant because it answers the question so many are asking, namely, why would the GOP not care about the proven Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and Trump’s role in securing it? The answer is simple: Republicans fear people of color entering the corridors of power and influence more than Vladimir Putin.

Yes there was a third ghost in that chamber: the spirit of illusion, best articulated by James Baldwin long ago: “And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white.”

When Donald Trump screams about fake news he’s telling us he knows he’s an illusory man.

The Confessions of Arnold the Ableist

Chapter One

I gave a nickel to a cripple and then I walked away. “Nickel, cripple, nickel, cripple,” I thought. I gave nothing to the blind man I met in the next street. “Nothing, blind,” I thought, “these also go together.” Then I stepped in some dog shit. I knew it was disabled people who did this.

Chapter Two

I don’t mind if a cripple sits next to me on the bus—I’m sitting in their reserved space after all and I’m “Normal” but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one. Their art is barbarous and you must admit, they smell.

Chapter Three

O rodomontade! It’s a crippley-wippley world! Look! Here comes one with some kind of breathing apparatus! I’d like to rip it right our of her mouth and take that smug look off her face! They all think they’re so “special!” Alright, yes, I admit, as a boy I used to hurt animals, but never the big ones.

Chapter Four

You wouldn’t know it, but I’m a university professor. I mean, what with my habits of dress you wouldn’t recognize me. I wear tight jeans and radical tee shirts. But it bugs the shit out of me when the namby pamby LD students and those sightless ones enroll in my classes. I get up on my fictive high horse (named “Trigger” of course) and ride wildly around the campus big top snarling at deans and admissions flunkies. I can’t decide whether the disabled or the deans are more pitiable!

Chapter Five

O dear. I broke my coccyx at a garden party when I attempted to sit on a folding chair and it collapsed beneath me. You can’t imagine the pain I’m in. I’ll tell you all about it for another gin fizz.

Corporate Culture and Disability Employment, or Blueberries and Battleships….

While the GOP pushes its anti-unionist “right to work” narrative I think it’s high time the disabled steal the slogan. My global village remains unemployed. The right to work should be a matter of citizenship.

In their 2005 article “Corporate Culture and the Employment of Persons with Disabilities” Lisa Schur, Douglas Krusez and Peter Blanck raised a number of vital questions about business culture and disability: “What role does corporate culture play in the employment of people with disabilities? How does it facilitate or hinder their employment and promotional opportunities, and how can corporations develop supportive cultures that benefit people with disabilities, non-disabled employees, and the organization as a whole?”

(http://disability.law.uiowa.edu/lhpdc/publications/documents/BSL_JanFeb_2005/Corporate_culture.pdf)

One thing that really caught my eye in the article is this prodigious quote:

“When individuals with disabilities attempt to gain admittance to most organizational settings, it is as if a space ship lands in the corporate boardroom and little green men from Mars ask to be employed.”
—John, a 58-year-old employed man with paraplegia.

John, who I’ve not met, is my neighbor in the global village. If, like me, you’re disabled and have a job you’re automatically exceptional though the chances are good you’ll not feel that way. That is, once inside the workplace you’re still a little green man or woman. Meanwhile 6 out of 10 disabled people of working age remain jobless in the United States.

(https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2018/07/25/only-four-out-of-ten-working-age-adults-with-disabilities-are-employed/)

The Schur, Krusez and Blanck article highlights “the taken for granted beliefs” within corporate cultures:

“These ‘‘taken-for-granted beliefs’’ usually are unspoken and often unconscious. More formally, corporate culture at this level consists of a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

The espoused values of the organization generally reflect what has worked in the past. Inviting green men and women into the community has not been a part of past practice.

**

Now the obstacles to change within organizations are considerable. Several years ago I came across a small pamphlet called Rejoicing in Diversity by Alan Weiss. The subtitle of the booklet was: “A Handbook for Managers on How to Accept and Embrace Diversity for Its Intrinsic Contribution to the Workplace”–-certainly a mouthful and perhaps not much of an advertisement. But I liked the word “rejoicing” and I also liked “intrinsic” for when you put these words side by side they speak of poetry. (The Chinese have two ideograms that stand together for poetry: a figure for “word” and a figure for “temple”). In any event, diversity in the workplace is seldom framed in ways that suggest spirit. Yet at the core of culture, spirit is all there is. Take away politics, real estate, the fighting over which end of the egg to crack and what you have left is the human wish for meaning. We tend to lose sight of this in Human Resources circles, substituting phrases like: Raising the Bar, Leadership, Assets, and the like. Talking about spirit is embarrassing. It’s like talking about the philosophers’ stone. Not even medieval historians feel comfortable talking about alchemy. You might look foolish. And we all know that the workplace should not be foolish.

I have advised many organizations on matters of disability and inclusion over the years. These opportunities came about because my first book of nonfiction was a bestseller and because for a time I was a senior administrator at one of the nation’s premier guide dog training schools. I had the opportunity to travel widely. Between 1995 and 2000 I visited 47 of the states in “the lower 48” and spoke at local, state, and federal agencies and public and private colleges. I have advised lots of blue chip organizations including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Metropolitan Museum, the Kennedy Center, even resorts and hotels. Inevitably, wherever I have spoken I’ve heard the rhetoric of middle management: “empowerment”; “equal opportunity”; “productivity”; “zero tolerance”; “bias”; “sensitivity” and the like.

There is nothing wrong with these terms but to paraphrase Bill Clinton there’s nothing right about them either. And this is because the terms have no alchemy in them. They’re just nouns. Not all nouns have spirit inside them. The word “battleship” has no spirit but the word “blueberry” does. One of the first things a poet has to learn is that not all nouns are obedient to the soul.

Well meaning organizations (and some that may not be so) rely on the rhetoric of inclusion without imagining the opportunities for soul–and I mean “soul” the way Marvin Gaye would mean it: its what’s goin’ on. The human soul is present everywhere whether management acknowledges it or not. By way of analogy one can think of management as playing “battleship” while the soul is picking berries. Human souls are looking for ways to be fed and to be happy; management is often trapped in brittle or arid pronouncements.

Alan Weiss wrote:

“I have had the rather unique experiences of providing comprehensive reports to top-level executives on the acceptance of diversity in the workplace, only to have them shout, wide-eyed, “That’s not my company you’re describing!” Yet the feedback has been based on extensive focus group and survey work. Who’s wrong?

No one is wrong. What’s happened is that the respondents have reported what they are actually experiencing, I’ve conveyed that feedback accurately, and the executives are using their own intent and strategy as their frame of reference. The psychologists would call it cognitive dissonance–fully expecting one set of circumstances, while experiencing quite another.

The phenomenon at work is what I call the “thermal layer,” which is a management layer capable of distorting communications and directives it receives, turning them into something quite different. Managers in the thermal layer are the ones who actually control resources, make daily decisions and deal with the customer. They often have strong vested interests in preserving the status quo…think they have a better way of doing things, don’t trust senior management, don’t buy-into the strategy or, for whatever reasons, have some agenda of their own. “

Alan Weiss has perfectly described the breakdown that most often creates obstacles to true diversity and inclusion–or to use the language of the soul, communal berry tasting and picking.

For many years I’ve been asking folks at the universities where I’ve taught to take ownership of disability and accessibility and I have found a deeply invested thermal layer–a phenomenon I like to call the “Campus Rope-a-Dope” to borrow from Mr. Ali. The Campus Rope-a-Dope takes advantage of highly silo-ed administrative hierarchies to in effect pass the buck where disability and accessibility are concerned. Let’s be clear: no one wants to be identified as being part of the thermal layer just as no faculty member wants to be outed for being “dead wood”–and let’s also be clear that the person who persists in calling for blueberries when everyone else wants to talk about battleships will eventually be the victim of considerable distortion.

Alan Weiss again:

“Organizations seldom if ever fail in their intent, executive direction or strategy formulation. They fail in the execution and implementation of their initiatives. Nowhere is that more true than in the accommodation of diversity.”

For my own part I’ve called for universities to provide accessible bathrooms in buildings where I’ve taught. The struggles were astonishing. At the level of departmental administration, no one knows who’s in charge of these matters. That’s because the thermal layer is in charge. And the T.L. has a hundred silos. It also has committees.

I was once upbraided at the University of Iowa by someone from the human resources department. I’d been calling for the installation of assistive technology in the classrooms where I’d been teaching for over three years. The lack of compliance and communication around the issue had been comical and my method of handling it had been to bring my own talking laptop into each classroom and manfully wired it to the projection system–sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t. My every teaching experience was therefore a kind of gamble. No one was in charge. How was I upbraided? I was told that by calling attention to my difficulties with assistive technology compliance I’d done considerable damage to my reputation with the committee that handled disability issues–the point being that I’d apparently not gone through the proper channels in my requests for accommodations. This is how the thermal layer works. The thermal layer likes to deflect by distortion. And there were no proper channels.

Alan Weiss:

“How could anyone oppose an accommodating, equal-opportunity workplace?”

“Well, we know that some people can, sometimes with malicious motives, sometimes with prejudicial judgment, and sometimes because they perceive themselves to be adversely affected by the policies. You must be constantly on the watch for thermal zone reactions and distortions. If there’s a policy or value which causes conflict in the workplace, bring it to the surface and discuss openly. If there are misconceptions about policies, resolve them. The failure to do this doesn’t make the policies go away, it simply preserves the thermal layer until, like the executives above, the key decision makers get some shocking news. The reaction to that is usually worse than any other alternative, because senior management will try to legislate change rather than help people to embrace it.”

This brings us back to blueberries vs. battleships. The spirit of diversity vs. the demeaning of diversity initiatives through the employment of thermal language.

Because no one is really in charge when it comes to planning and implementation all disability accommodations are treated reactively and not proactively.

**

Workplace culture is a misnomer. Workplaces are generally affected by habits, old ones, and the thermal layer is where old patterns reside.

The green men and women are afterthoughts.

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 

Disability Teaching in the Age of Ennui

Good morning disability peeps. It’s time. Aller se confesser. I’m making you my priests dear readers. I’ve sinned, though as is the custom let me say it’s a minor affair. Here’s the deal: I imagined after almost thirty years of the ADA, as a lodestar if not simply the law, well, I thought there’d be something like utopian éclat. I believed the disabled would burst onto the scene, collectively, shoulder to shoulder like the Red Army…or even the Salvation Army. Instead there’s been a splintering effect. Éclat in the fullest sense.

I’m writing about ageism. Move over Rover.

I taught two grad courses in disability studies a year and a half ago. One class focused on post colonialism and disability novels; the other was on disability and memoir. Because disability related courses are hard to cross list at my university I wound up with roughly six students in each class.

All went swimmingly for a time. We talked about Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell’s idea of “narrative prosthesis”—the ways in which stories are extended or dis-tended (my word) by the uninformed use of disabled characters. Think of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “All The Light We Cannot See” which makes heavy use of a blind teenaged girl who, despite Doerr’s imaginative ministrations, is unlike any blind person you’ll ever meet. She’s a genius on the inside but fully helpless so that her aged father has to bathe her. Yuck. Narrative prosthesis indeed.

Cultural appropriation department: non-disabled people “can” write disabled characters but they rarely do a good job. Notable exceptions exist. Toni Morrison’s “Shadrack” comes to mind. Some may argue but I believe Jonathan Lethem’s “Motherless Brooklyn” is reasonably good.

Both the classes unraveled on me. I’ve been teaching for thirty years. What happened? Two things. 1. The students didn’t want to do the readings. They were difficult. Novels like Ben Okri’s “The Famished Road” and “The Tin Drum” and cultural theory about literature and post-colonialism bothered these students. One actually said about halfway into the semester: “Why are we reading these books?” That was the thing—in both courses the students, most of them Ph.D. aspirants in disability studies wanted quite simply to talk about themselves. The aim of a class was (apparently) to talk about their respective feelings.

There I was, teaching like the literature professor I’ve always been. Guess what? For the first time in my teaching life I was actively disliked.

There are many ways to think about this: the readings were probative and demanding; I’m a terrible teacher; if a class is small why should we have to do real work; he’s just an old blind guy.

I gave them a lot of leeway, imagining they could do the work and talk about books. This turned out to be largely untrue.

Eclat: splinter; no child left behind; unable to read carefully; impatient; and worse, no interest in the broader global dynamics of disability figuration. “I’ve got my disability posture.”

What can we possible learn?

I’m still sorting this out.

But I felt the intolerance toward complexity and the ageism. I was just an old, inconvenient blind professor.

Why “blind” as opposed to merely professor?

Because without a sense of disability as arm in arm work, ableism still exists. What could a blind teacher possibly know?

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