Nice People, Disability, and the Neoliberal Campus

“Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than “politics.” They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.”

― Naomi Shulman

As a disabled person I’ve never had luck with “nice people” since they tend to employ saccharine batting—their spun candy—as a shield of manners the aim of which is suffocation of cripples. One knows the type: a school administrator who, seeing a child with a wheelchair says: “We’re so lucky to have you here,” and then, two weeks later, tries to prevent that child from bringing her service dog to school.

You learn to get around it, fashioning your own brand of insistence, arguing for the rights of the blind, deaf, non-speaking, mobility challenged, neurodiversity inclusion—yes, though you despise the word “inclusion” since you know it comes from the 17th century by way of Latin inclusio(n-), from includere ‘shut in.’ In general one distrusts nouns  descending from verbs. Meanwhile “inclusion” is a choice word for neoliberals as it advertises “a place at the table” while it reinforces the system of separations embedded in the old verb. The “nice people” continue chattering. The university adopts inaccessible software for all it’s employees. Refuses to admit it. Gets pushed and pushed to fix the problem. Fixes the problem and publishes a news story about how they were interested in full inclusivity from the very start. Everyone is so nice nice. BTW: if there’s a word I dislike more than “includere” it’s “inclusivity” which has about it the whiff of the country club. ‘Inclusivity” means, “we’ve let you in, an we deserve some damn good press for having done it grudgingly.”

As I say, I’ve not had much luck with the nice folks. They reveal themselves. They flat out don’t like disability, the disabled, the lame and halt, and in their tricked out neoliberal meeting they’ll use disability as metaphor just as quickly as a vicious shop owner who doesn’t want your business because you have one of those damned disability dogs.

In university circles the myth is that the disabled are “complicated” or expensive. Forget the cripples pay as much for college as the apparently unencumbered. Forget that the disabled and their families have been estimated to have over 70 billion in discretionary income. (Oh dear, am I slipping from nice? I swear I’m trying to use the language of neoliberalism…) The cripples are complicated because they won’t stay “includere” and while we talk of inclusion we don’t want to make a habit of it.

And that’s the thing: neoliberal administrators at America’s colleges and universities think the world will “go back” to a former time if they just strangle the people and resources of the agora. We will “nice them to death” and get rid of faculty, problematic students, the humanities, the arts, oh, and disability services. We’ll do it by degrees. Because we’re nice. We’re incredibly nice.

 

Good Morning, Mr. and Mrs. Benevolence

Purgatory, from purge: “an abrupt or violent removal of a group of people from an organization or place.”

Purgatory, in Roman Catholic doctrine: “a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating their sins before going to heaven.”

“Well that’s it,” said Aunt Benevolence, “the good times are over. It’s time to send the lame and the halt straight back to the dirty boulevard.”

Uncle Benevolence wasn’t so sure. He scratched his purple wen. “I don’t believe, my dear, that there IS a dirty boulevard anymore. It’s been replaced by a heated, closed to traffic, “promenade” with decent shopping.”

“Well,” said Auntie, “we’re going to have to send them somewhere. Once there’s no Medicaid to speak of, and no health insurance for the knock kneed elders and the scoliatics, etc..”

“Well I hear North Dakota is empty,” Uncle said. “It’s mostly empty, anyway.”

“How will we get them there on the cheap?”

“Everyone knows boxcars are cheap.”

They sat for a time side by side in silence.

“It was easier on the old days to just take care of people,” Auntie said after a little while.

“Yes,” said Uncle, “but they’ve gone Pagan now. You know, Horace and shit. The best days are the first to go.”

“When did they forget Jesus?” Auntie asked.

“In America?” Uncle asked.

“Yeah,” Auntie said, “you know, Christian’s bundle, noblesse oblige, shit, even just a minimal sense of national regard for appearances…”

“It was never a Christian nation,” Uncle said. “And the Devil loves a vacuum.”

Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, or, Traveling with a Guide Dog

When, as I do, you travel everywhere with a guide dog public space becomes a confessional of sorts. It’s a rare day when a stranger doesn’t approach to say, “I had a dog like that once, but he died,” or, “Labradors, they’re the best dogs in the world, but mine’s dead.” The first time this happened I was a newbie guide dog user, alone, in the Pittsburgh airport, and a woman said, “I had a dog like that once, but someone poisoned it.” She had an overpowering minty odor and kept snapping her fingers. My dog and I ran away from her.

It took some time but I began to see these encounters as having nothing to do with dogs. Or the dog was simply a calling card. My guide dog Corky meant in the eyes of passersby that I was approachable and might well have a heart. A more sinister variant was that being blind they might believe I couldn’t escape—like a hapless passenger on the Greyhound. I chose not to believe the latter. I am, essentially, a boy scout, (OK, not really) but I do believe in kindness and I’m as naive as the next man, or woman, and what the Hell, I thought, it costs me next to nothing to talk to wounded, anomalous weirdoes.

Of course “next to nothing” is just faux metaphysics—it did cost me. You can’t absorb the griefs of subway riders and ballpark fans without grinding your bearings. Three years into guide dog life I understood that the village square is filled with Tennessee Williams characters, lots of Blanches and Stanleys whose hearts are so broken they’ll think nothing about approaching a blind man to talk about the deaths of their pets. And I saw that behind the stories of doggie demise were divorces, run away children, job losses, car accidents, so that I wanted to weep for our strangeness. This is a high gravity world.

As a poet this wasn’t big news to me. About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters. Not only is it always occurring, but we’re invited to look away. Unless, that is, you go absolutely every place with a dog. On the airplane. In the shopping mall. Riding escalators. Then all bets are off. A guide dog user becomes a mark. In effect I became a walking minister. A circuit rider. My Finnish grandfather was a Lutheran pastor who preached to immigrant congregations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I saw Corky was my Model T Ford. The common street was our patch of souls.

I’m an irreverent fellow. But I couldn’t laugh at the unbidden, constant sadnesses of happenstance people. And I couldn’t let them dominate me as the price of listening. Nor could I let them ruin my days. Her dog had been poisoned. His dog lived to be fifteen but succumbed to joint disease. Her dog got stolen. His was shot by hunters. You’re sipping coffee. You’re sitting on a bench. The sorrowing come to you like birds.

The trick as I saw it, was to abandon belief in fairy tales. The guide dog schools like to say that with a dog the blind have newfound horizons, freedoms, opportunities, etc. They’re right. But one aspect of freedom is that you’ve become a citizen like anyone, and yes, because of your dog you’re interesting. I listened. Still listen. Just enough. Then I say, “I’ve got to get back to reading,” and put on my headphones. Or tap my talking watch, then say, “nice talking, but Ive got to go.”

My guide dog brought me love. It cuts both ways: I’ll be your confessor, I’ll be on my way.

On Blogging, Ten Years Worth

I started this blog ten years ago. In 2007 I didn’t know what I was getting into but I was mindful of Samuel Johnson’s dictum—via Boswell—”No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” “Would blogging,” I wondered, “be vanity and/or a waste of time?”

It’s both and neither. But it can be wonderfully egotistical.. Here’s one of my early posts:

I watched part of the Tony Blair-George W. Bush news conference and was reminded of the old folk story about the turtle on a fence post.  Here were two men who know that their respective places in history will be circumscribed by the course of events in Iraq.  They can’t imagine how this turtle got on top of that fence post.  And so of course they talked about courage and they spoke about the hard decisions that leaders must make and they spoke affirmingly of their corresponding strength of purpose.

The trouble is that for George W. Bush the war in Iraq was always meant to be nothing more than a theatrical production.  It was supposed to be easy.  It was never meant to be a war on terror.  Iraq was nothing more than an extravaganza.  And when it quickly became a civil war with a swift infusion of real terrorists Bush failed to put enough troops on the ground to manage the situation.  We don’t have to wait for history to know these things.

I am certain that our nation’s current course of action is utterly wrong.  No rational person inside or outside the military believes that we should keep our troops in a civil war.

But courage in this instance requires more than the social semiotics of the turtle on the fence post.  Iraq is not the front line in the “war on terror”–it’s a blunder  that looks and smells like imperialist occupation and the sooner the U.S. gets out the sooner we can work toward peaceful solutions for the many conflicts that are heating up across the Middle East.

Such a move will look at first like defeat.  But it won’t be.  History assures us of that.

Why was I egotistical? You can probably guess. It’s the last sentence. History offers no assurances about abandoning war, nor does it give examples of military withdrawals in the service of statecraft. Wars end badly. What was I thinking?

C.S. Lewis: “If a man thinks he is not conceited, he is very conceited indeed.”

Well there’s nothing like looking at old blog posts to bring one down a peg.

One has to ask, “Isn’t blogging after all just an ego trip?”

Of course it is. Being a blogger is like imitating those dudes who give away poems on the street in Haight Ashbury. The only difference is the street poets sometimes get paid.

So the glib immediacy of web writing is both its attraction—no editors, no delays, just my words emblazoned across the digi-sphere—and it’s greatest peril. You’re guaranteed to make an ass of yourself at least part of the time.

But it’s the other moments I’m attracted to and that keep me going. The immediacy gives you a chance to say some necessary, even righteous things in Kerouac style—first thought best thought—and if, like me, you come from a historically marginalized position this is all to the good. Example:

Disability in the Morning

Why am I such a sad man? Oh I’m funny alright. I can talk Dolphin like Robin Williams and imitate a medieval jester’s lavish chicken bone dance, but I’m sad. Some days I think it’s because of disability—a “dis-life” is a daily struggle and there’s no use pretending otherwise. If the attitudes of the able bodied don’t get you, the built environment will. Every cripple knows it.

My friend Bill Peace (who is paralyzed) and I often talk about the moments when, early in the morning, we sense respectively we don’t want to leave our houses. The spirit flags. Bill can see it coming: the ugly encounters with parking lot bullies who steal the handicapped parking; the smarmy waitress who says, “I don’t think I could live if I was in your situation.” These things really do occur almost daily. Blind? There are all sorts of miscreants waiting for you. “You can’t come in here with that dog.” “We don’t have time to make our software accessible.”

Whatever. And then one has to imagine the possibility that sadness precedes this life. We bring it with us. Born crying. We die crying, most of us. In the middle we’re supposed to smile.

Don’t get me wrong. I love smiling. I’m not against a good grin. 

Sadness, conditional, part of mortality, is exacerbated by disability and there’s no way around it.

The politics of disability struggle keep me awake, literally, for I think about all the disabled who don’t have jobs. They don’t have jobs because there’s profound discrimination in HR circles. If you don’t think so, try this:

Apply for a job. When they call you, tell them you’re blind. You’ll be astonished at what happens next.

Longfellow said: “Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.”

A consolation I think: few will call me cold.

There’s something about the instantaneous element of web writing that produces a nurtured confessionalism, at least for me. Pushing myself to write quickly I throw caution aside. It’s not a barbaric yawp but it’s principled and necessary—I need to get something emotional out. Sometimes this need is sparked by nothing more than a new day:

Many Happy Returns to You and Your Shadow

The year is new—hypo allergenic like certain poodles—and you can feel lucky or dreadful but the year (like a poodle) will have none of you, for the year is high strung and indifferent as years must be. I won’t go on with the simile. I’m sorry. Perhaps you love your poodle. I’m sincere. I don’t wish to offend “poodlers”. No one can live without sentiment. Capitalism as its now bruited will do anything to rob you of your last ounce of sentiment. I’m sorry I kicked your poodle. But whatever I say, the year will have only indifference like the stars. 

 

When I think about the virgin year I’m mindful of just how provisional and difficult the lives of people with disabilities remain worldwide. If you want to know about cruelty and “ranking” (in the crudest sociological sense) than look to disability. Look to it here at home in the United States and you’ll see how the police in Maryland killed a young man with Down Syndrome; see how a blind man and his guide dog were kicked off a US Air flight; see how the liberal press (Chris Hedges, Democracy Now, Alternet, etc.) actively rooted for a disabled American veteran of the Iraq war to kill himself—just so they could pin it on Bush and Cheney. These examples are from the US. When you look at disability globally things are no better. A UNICEF Report on the state of the world’s children highlights the plight of kids with disabilities across the planet—ill clothed, unschooled, without health care, denied food. The virgin year indeed. Don’t let the new year rob you of your heart’s renewal. If you’re an able bodied person I suggest you write your Senator and demand passage of the UN Charter on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 

 

A friend sent me a poem in which he calculates how far William Wordsworth walked in his lifetime and in turn, calculates the poet’s mileage per line of verse. I love this idea. What if instead of watching vulgar automobile commercials (as most Americans will do today, especially if they watch college football—for every sporting event is now sponsored by Lexus, BMW, Audi, and Mercedes Benz. Gone are the days of shaving cream, Schlitz, and Aqua Velva)—what if instead of vulgar car advertisements Americans were challenged to imagine their human and social productivity per mile? Emerson would have championed this. Why I think even Teddy Roosevelt would have endorsed such a plan. Our new year dawns on a nation more politically immune to suffering and the true calling of our souls than at any time in its history. I take no pleasure saying so. 

 

Here’s wishing you long walks, walks with ideas, chance meetings with wise and kind strangers. And triumphs of the spirit. I’m wishing you those. 

 

I think we gave away too much when we abandoned Freud and Jung, preferring pills and “big pharma” to the hard work—the acknowledgment—that the unconscious has lots of darkness. America is a nation of terrifying smiles. I can’t find the quote right now, but Alice Munro said recently the most frightening people are the do gooders (paraphrase mine). I tend to think we’re in Fascist times and its proper and necessary both to say it aloud and to know who you’re looking at—whether on television or in a board room or on a street corner. As World War II commenced the poet W.H. Auden wrote the following poem. It strikes an eerie chord, or if not a chord precisely, maybe some thermemin music

 

 

Blessed Event

 

Round the three actors in any blessed event

Is always standing an invisible audience of four,

The double twins, the fallen natures of man.

 

On the Left they remember difficult childhoods,

On the Right they have forgotten why they were so happy,

Above sit the best decisive people,

Below they must kneel all day so as not to be governed. 

 

Four voices just audible in the hush of any Christmas:

Accept my friendship or die.

I shall keep order and not very much will happen.

Bring me luck and of course I’ll support you.

I smell blood and an era of prominent madmen.

 

But the Three hear nothing and are blind even to the landscape 

With its towns and rivers and pretty pieces of nonsense.

He, all father, repenting their animal nights,

Cries: Why did she have to be tortured? It is all my fault.

Once more a virgin, She whispers: The Future shall never suffer.

And the New Life awkwardly touches its home, beginning to fumble

About in the Truth for the straight successful Way

Which will always appear to end in some dreadful defeat.

 

**

 

Yes. The Wise Men, poor dears, have walked into a story “in medias res” and damned if every human actor isn’t two actors—one smiling, the other stricken by guilt. What a dramatis personnae. Cue that Theremin music indeed. 

 

And the new year with its pretty pieces of nonsense is here. 

 

So if ostensibly I write to you about a clean slate, look behind me to see what my shadow is up to. 

 

I know for certain, owing to dreams, my shadow is very upset about the children of war. 

 

Happy new year. Small letters. Happy straight successful Way. Capital “W” for will and work.

 

   

I think blogging has turned me, made me warmer to readers. And also more ironic about my own peccadilloes and motives. My shadow is upset and yours is too. We can see our shadows dancing.

When I was twenty and wildly in love with poetry I admired indirection and complexity in writing. And though I still do (who can give up on Wallace Stevens?) I’ve grown to demand fewer refinements from myself. It’s not that I want to blab about my tennis shoes, but really, one can’t be finicky and openly contrarian at the same time. If being an awakened disabled person has taught me anything it’s that delay and deferral have no place in advocacy. Say what’s on your mind. Example:

Why “Nothing About Us Without Us” Should Be Required Reading for Everyone in Higher Education

In his groundbreaking book Nothing About Us Without Us, published in 1998, James Charlton declared the disabled have a culture, an extensive one, and that time is up for able bodied people to be making decisions about the disabled without their input. In one of my favorite passages Charlton writes about the imperatives behind his book:

““Nothing About Us Without Us” requires people with disabilities to recognize their need to control and take responsibility for their own lives. It also forces political-economic and cultural systems to incorporate people with disabilities into the decision-making process and to recognize that the experiential knowledge of these people is pivotal in making decisions that affect their lives. Third, while the number of people affected by this epistemological breakthrough is relatively small, a movement has emerged. The disability rights movement has developed its own ideology and politics. It is a liberation movement that is confronting the realpolitik of the world at large. The demand “Nothing About Us Without Us” is a demand for self-determination and a necessary precedent to liberation. Fourth, the philosophy and organization that the international DRM {Disability Rights Movement} embraces includes independence and integration, empowerment and human rights, and self-help and self-determination. The demand “Nothing About Us Without Us” affirms the essence of these principles. Finally, the DRM is one of many emerging movements in which new attitudes and world views are being created. Through its struggle comes a vision that requires a fundamental reordering of priorities and resources.”

Excerpt From: James I. Charlton. “Nothing About Us Without Us.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/gEPDU.l

Nowadays self-determination for the disabled has grown from a nascent concept to a global movement. From Africa to Asia, Finland to the Middle East, disability activists are not merely calling for their rights but are living their lives in accord with the best principles of independence and empowerment—educating others, assisting their sisters and brothers, demanding opportunities for children, health care, freedom to travel…just to name the basics.

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 helped create international opportunities for dialogue between the disabled and served to incite a worldwide confrontation with what Charlton calls “realpolitik” but I’m calling “business as usual” because—why not?

What does “business as usual” mean where disability is concerned? Historically the disabled have been segregated, locked up, hidden, euthanized, sterilized, denied educational opportunities, kept out of public spaces, and perhaps worst of all—they’ve been talked over. Their lives are narrated (and mediated) by medicine and rehabilitation programs that always fortify pejorative meanings about disability—not disability as it’s actually lived, but instead reinforcing how it’s understood by the public. Biz as Usual pushes a medical model of disability which designates imperfect bodies, ill bodies, “incurable” bodies as outlier corporealities, things not devoutly to be wished—they become failed patients, abnormalities. Accordingly the abnormal must be farmed out to “special” places which stand at the edge of the fairground where normal people remain happily assembled. Consider the average college campus. Disability is “dealt with” “managed” “serviced” “accommodated” by underfunded offices that in many instances are hard to locate both physically and administratively. I’ve been to many universities where the disability services office is in the basement of a building—reachable only by elevator, or on the top floor of a building, reachable only by elevator—where in the event of fire there’s no way out. I’ve been to campuses where renovations to facilities have left out necessary improvements to make auditoriums accessible; classrooms usable; technology approachable; where there’s minimal or entirely unacceptable transportation for disabled people. These examples are legion and not exceptions. In Biz as Usual disability is conceived as a marginal issue, something that must be grudgingly acknowledged because of the Rehab Act of 1974 and the ADA of 1990, but not as a matter of culture, inclusion, communication, or respect. When college administrations make decisions about the physical or digital agora they seldom if ever consult with the disability communities on their campuses. “Nothing About Us Without Us” should be required reading for administrators, staff, and faculty in higher ed. Of course in 99% of the cases, there’s no required reading for the aforementioned. Faculty know next to nothing about disability, relying on the hidden “special” unit to solve whatever student accommodation request comes their way—and note, accommodation is always narrated as a problem. And so the disabled student is a problem. He or she is defective and trying to get into the happy tent. Faculty Member A resents having to think about this. “Doesn’t someone else handle this?” The disabled must be “handled” —the imagery is perfect given our histories, we’re straight jacketed and dragged away.

At Syracuse we offered the first disability studies courses in the country. We understand disability is part of our diversity and inclusion aspirations. But still we have problems. All too many students, staff, and faculty with disabilities feel left out of important conversations. And we have real problems. Unfortunately, raising them, we’re often made to feel like oppositional figures, malcontents, stylized figures with megaphones, waving our crutches. This should be easy to solve. Invite the disability community “in”—ask them what they think. Employ what I like to call the Ed Koch gambit—“How am I doing?” If the question is sincere it will come after listening. And then we will take positive, culturally engaged action.

Back to James Charlton whose book remains indispensable.

“Life itself is a series of struggles—some won, some lost. Resistance for most people with disabilities is a necessity for survival. The DRM should never lose sight of this. Throughout the course of this project, I have been impressed with how many of the stories and experiences of politically active people with disabilities reflect this proposition. We have begun to speak for ourselves, to make demands, to organize, and to educate others. ”

Excerpt From: James I. Charlton. “Nothing About Us Without Us.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/gEPDU.l

In the coming years “best practices” in every human endeavor must acknowledge the experiences of the marginalized and embrace the opportunities for education diversity offers.

I think colleges and universities do a lousy job with disability. Administrators believe listening to disabled students and staff is a mistake and look for ways to avoid it. Those of us for whom this matters feel the contempt.

What has blogging done for me, or done to me, as a poet? Ha! I won’t presume to tell. If you don’t honor poetry by asserting her essential mystery you’ll be in trouble. But I can say I’m less finicky. I don’t throw paint at the walls but I’m less cautious than I used to be. I used to think I had to feel a certain way to write a poem. I can’t describe that feeling but it was moody, self-abnegating, even obsessive. My pencils had to be lined up like boy scouts. Not a one could be crooked.

Blogging has led me to writing prose poems like this:

Hydra and Cricket: A Micro Memoir

Always I write about the boy, not out of innocence, but because he is me and not me and the not me is where the advantages of irony can be found. I like knowing this. The boy always loved hieroglyphs. Once the boy spent a day believing he was an Ibis. In school they made fun of him for being blind. The Ibis was better. People who dismiss mythology probably don’t understand the nature of personal suffering. Hercules and the Hydra together make a child. The clear sunlight and the boy searching for mushrooms. He was all alone in the woods. He did not play with toy soldiers. He played with the life around him, the miniature “up close” creatures that let him in. “They are me and not me,” he thought. “That also means I am not me.” Long before there was a disability rights movement he knew he wasn’t any one thing. Later in college he read Emerson and he admired “Self Reliance” and: “Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for.” Secrets came to him then. He lay face down on the frozen pond and knew there was ice under the ice but the fish could move there. And there were private crickets inside his sleeves. He could talk sideways to living things. That boy is me and not me. The man cannot spend his day face down with the ice fish though often he would like to do this. The poor man must workaday workaday in the steep hours feeling the tensile struggle to retain his innocence and curiosity. If he has irony its in the service of protection. The boy ran away; the man carries the woods with him. And the man knows why this isn’t sentimental at all. He also rescues crickets whenever he can.

What else?

A blogger can cry with affection:

Lately as spring arrives and the days grow longer I’ve found myself dreaming of the dead–though not the abstrract chalky missing, but rather those who I have loved and who I still miss though my days are filled with bus schedules and the nearly private gamesmanship  of getting by in the political world.

I miss John Lydenberg, Professor of English at Hobart and William Smith Colleges who taught me how to read Herman Melville. I deeply miss his sharp, unsentimental humor and his unapologetic leftist politics which he learned at Harvard in the years before the second world war when pacifism and idealism weren’t yet sullied by all that’s come since. I especially miss his game of cutting out funny, overlooked newspaper headlines: “Young Couple Happy on Small Newspaper” was particuarly good. I thought of him the other day when I read: “Pope’s Condom-stance Under Fire” .

I miss my father who died on Easter Sunday 2000. One doesn’t need a reason to miss one’s father but today I miss him because I’ve been  reading William Manchester’s “The LastLion” about Winston Churchill and I know that he would have very interesting things to say both about Manchester as a historian and about Sir Winston. I miss my dad’s voice. I miss the way he used to sing to the dog.

14 years ago today I arrived home in Ithaca, New York with my first guide dog “Corky” who

changed my life in a thousand ways. How I miss her! I could start crying right now.

So I love the odd, innocent, half-shy silliness of the Bloomsbury crowd. Tonight I want to wear a turban with a sapphire pinned to the front. I want to carry on a bit with my gorgeous and beloved dead and feel them touching my hair.

I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

  

The Washington Post’s Distorted View of Rural Disability

The Washington Post has published an article that purports to examine a steady increase in disability Social Security claims by poor families. Under the heading “Disabled America” the headline bellows: “One Family, Four generations of disability benefits. Will it continue?” If you’re disabled like me and you’ve a sense of disability history you have to shudder since the half-rhetorical question evokes an edict by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who infamously wrote: “three generations of imbeciles are enough” in Buck vs. Bell, a 1927 ruling that upheld the right of Virginia to sterilize “mental defectives” without their consent. (You can read more about the case here.) In short, the Post’s headline raises the specter of eugenics whether the writer or editor knows it or not. Either way its fair to say “shame on them.”

Shame also for committing the journalistic equivalent of what I call “Betsyism” for Betsy DeVos who presides loudly over our education system without experience, knowledge, or curiosity. Only Betsyism, the willful extrusion of facts for ideological purposes explains the Post’s perfervid and ill informed article. Why is it ill informed? Because like other mainstream media forays into the subject of disability and Social Security there’s only a singular narrative: the US is filled with fake cripples who are stealing from good old you and me–a story that received considerable traction two years ago when the redoubtable radio hipster Ira Glass rebroadcast (without journalistic fact checking) a spurious story from Planet Money asserting phony social security disability claims are officially out of control in America. The provenance of the story hardly mattered to Glass, who, when confronted with its falsehoods simply declared himself a journalist and shrugged. It mattered not at all to the doyen of “This American Life” that the tale was largely the dream child of a notorious rightwing think tank, or that the outright falsehoods contained in the broadcast might do tremendous damage to the disabled. Falsehoods about the powerless play well.

One also remember’s NPR’s broader foray into this terrain when Chana Joffee-Walt launched a blockbuster series of stories about disability benefits. Her stories argued there’s a massive fraud taking place, that the number of people claiming disability benefits has gone up alarmingly. What’s of interest from a disability studies perspective is that Joffee-Walt offered (as a means of laying the foundation for her story) that there’s no medical diagnosis for disability–a matter that she found shocking.

Disability isn’t a medical condition for obvious reasons: the limitation of function that renders a person “disabled” depends on multiple factors–some have etiologies, some have a great deal to do with structural and social barriers. This is why scholars who study disability do so through both medical and social analyses. A Betsey-esque analysis lacks this sophistication and suggests poor people with disabilities should be held as suspect for not being–well, rich. Or as Herman Melville put it: “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well- warmed, and well-fed.”

The Post’s article (which I won’t summarize) argues that poor people beget intellectually disabled children—actually pray to have them—for kids with bi-polar disorder or who are on the so-called autism spectrum are trailer park cash cows. A la Betsyism if you want people to believe an elitist narrative, startle them with the nefariousness of poverty as Reagan did with his mythological story about a welfare cheat who owned several Cadillacs. If you want readers to evince a collective moue of disgust tell them about real life hillbillies who are just like the characters in Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love—circus performers who’ll do anything they can to have crippled and deformed children—this is the insidious face of American poverty. Don’t tell your readers that impoverishment increases the likelihood of illness, that the lack of access to prenatal care and education increases the probability of childhood disability. Don’t tell them that the absence of accommodations in pre-school and all subsequent schooling assures failure for children with intellectual disabilities. Don’t tell them. Just insinuate the poor are up to dirty tricks. Don’t remind your readers that Adolf Hitler called the disabled “useless eaters.”

I Have Written a Dog Book and I May Be a Better Person For It

I have written a dog book. What a strange sentence!

Why is this strange? Well for one thing, I owe my life to successive guide dogs who, each and every one, was brilliant and mysterious. As I began the book I imagined with all due humility that writing about guide dogs might be beyond me.

Yes, I’ve written a dog book. I had to grow in order to manage it.

The book, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster next April is called Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey with an Exceptional Labrador

Why did I have to grow?

Because like many memoirists I’m pretty good talking about myself but weak when it comes to understanding others. And then, well, what do you do when “the other” is a dog?

What do you do when your teacher is a dog?

First: admit your teacher is a dog.

Next: recognize dogs don’t think like us. They’re loving and instinctive, patient but sweetly detached from our cloying egos.

My first guide dog Corky, a yellow Lab smiled a lot. She smiled whenever strangers approached, even the vaguely medieval ones who had superstition on their minds.

From the book:

The two of us were unconditionally stirring to strangers. Sometimes we were approached by doe eyed holy roller types—people who’d grown up watching Jerry Lewis telethons, who’d absorbed a thousand sermons about the blind, who need the grace of God—wanting to touch us, pray for us, or at the very least, tell us how uplifting we were. Riding a bus from Ithaca to Geneva, and feeling good, Corky tucked under the seat, a woman seated across from us said: “You and your dog just gave me some Jesus!” I was crippled Tim, a vision of Christ’s mercy. 

These benedictions occurred so often I started worrying about it. When would it occur? On a bus in Ithaca a woman said loudly: “Can I pray for you?” I couldn’t help myself and replied: “Yes, Madam, you may pray for me, but only if together, you and I, raise our prayers for all the good people on this bus who have trouble brewing inside, their cancers aborning even as we speak, whose children have gone astray through substance abuse, people who even now feel lost in a sea of troubles, let us pray, all together for our universal salvation.” I clutched her arm with feverish intensity. The bus pulled to a routine stop and she jumped out the door. Passengers applauded. “Don’t take it personally,” a woman said to me then. I smiled. But how else to take it?

I asked Edward, an Episcopal priest who I met in a coffee shop what he thought of the public Jesus complex as I’d come to call it. We sat on a park bench drinking coffee out of paper cups, Corky chewing on a bone at our feet.

“Many Christians don’t like the body,” he said. “That’s how they understand the crucifixion. They think the body is the throw away part of Christ. And of course that’s entirely wrong: the body of Jesus is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: the living temple of God and of the new humanity.

“In effect,” he said, “every body is the body of Jesus. Which means each body, broken or not is a true body, imbued with spirit, and not a sign of want. There’s a beauty to the diversity in the body of Christ.”

“So why do I meet so many predatory prayer slingers who want to mumble over me?” I asked.

“The insecure ye will always have with ye…” Edward said.

 

When she first entered my life I knew Corky would help me in traffic but I had no idea she’d teach me to be kind in an open and ironic way. By this I mean she gave me distance from whatever it is we mean by the self. With a service dog by my side 24-7 I learned to drift above the two of us in disembodied fancies—I could look down on whatever scene we found ourselves in and often, because of this altered state I would become larger than my habitual persona.

From the book:

I walked into a mega-computer store on Sixth Avenue. I wanted to purchase a laptop pc. As we pushed through the door a security guard put his hand on my chest. “You no come in, no dog,” he said. 

I pressed forward and the guard stepped back. “Stop! Stop!” he shouted and waved his arms. Customers stared. 

My civil rights and the security guard’s dignity were equally delicate. I didn’t know where the guard came from, but his accent sounded East African. How could he possibly know anything about guide dogs? The store’s managers hadn’t given him information. All he knew was “no dogs allowed” and there I was with a big assed dog. As we stood in the doorway I figured it would be my job to foster dignity for both of us. They hadn’t taught me this at Guiding Eyes; they’d given me a booklet with access laws—a useful thing–I had the right to go anywhere the public went—but no one had mentioned emotional intelligence or how to engage in public mediation. 

I made Corky sit. “Listen,” I said, softly, “get the manager. This will be okay.” “This is a special dog for the blind.” I wanted to turn our misunderstanding into something respectful. 

The manager was one of those guys you see all the time in big city stores: sadder than his customers, red faced and put upon. He had a scoured toughness. He approached and began shouting at the guard. “Its a seeing-eye dog for god’s sake!” “Let him in!” “Sorry, sorry!” 

 

My fight or flee rush was subsiding—I wanted all three of us to experience kindness.   

I was in a Manhattan electronics store and dignity was in peril. It would have been easy to say “fuck it” and look out for myself alone. I’d gotten into the store. I was angry. I could have pitched a fit. But I didn’t feel like doing that. The guard’s name was Ekwueme. My name was Stephen. The manager’s name was Phil. “Listen,” I said, “dogs for the blind are not common, you don’t see them every day. This is Corky. She’s very smart.” I let my voice become soft. Ekwueme and Phil both petted Corky. A customer approached, said: “I’ve raised puppies for the guide dog school! Best dogs in the world!” Phil seemed suddenly pleased, as if he too was philanthropic, or could be some day. Ekwueme admitted he loved dogs.

Outside with a computer under my arm I reckoned life with Corky was more complex than just a story of freedom. Ekwueme and Phil would become legion in my travels but I didn’t know it yet. What I did know was reflected in a quote I’d always liked from Martin Luther King: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

I sensed that having a service dog meant something more than honoring my own rights.  

“Take the first step in faith,” said Dr. King. “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” 

When you travel all the time with a dog you are changed by the experience. I became more patient, deliberative, not perfect, but slower to burn, better able to think without the baggage of my former life, the one without the dog, the life when I was without a curious and engaging intelligence beside me always.

From the book:

In a diner on lower Broadway, a man, disheveled and clattering, someone the locals seemed to know, wandered from table to table interrupting breakfasters, pressing into each person’s space, piercing the brains of strangers. He called a cop “Porky” and an elderly woman “Grandma” as he lurched steadily toward me. “Oh Doggy!” he said. “Doggy doggy doggy!”

Then he said, “What kind of fucking person are you?”

I tried my best Robert deNiro impression: “Are you talking to ME?”

He wasn’t amused.

“A prisoner!” he shouted, for the whole diner was his stage. “This dog’s a prisoner!”

For a moment I felt the rising heat of embarrassment and rejection. Then, as he repeated my dog was a slave, I softened. In a moment of probable combat I stepped far back inside myself, not because I had to, but how to say it? Corky was unruffled. She actually nuzzled my leg. The nuzzle went up my torso, passed through my neck, went straight for the amygdala.

I smiled then. I said, “You’re right. And I’m a prisoner too.”

I don’t know if it was my smile, or agreement that did the trick, but he backed up, turned, and walked out the door. Strangers applauded.

I’d beaten a lifetime of bad habits. I hadn’t fallen into panic, or rage, or felt a demand to flee.

I sat at the counter, tucked Corky safely out of the way of walking customers, and ordered some eggs. I daydreamed over coffee.

When I was eleven years old I fell onto a pricker bush. It’s hard to say how I did it, but I was impaled on hundreds of thorns. My sister who was six at the time, and my cousin Jim who was maybe nine, fell to the ground laughing as if they might die. I begged them for help which of course only made them laugh all the harder. I remember tears welling in my eyes and their insensible joy. I also knew in that moment they were right to laugh—that I was the older kid, was a bit bossy, disability be damned. I was the one who told my sister and cousin what to do. Now I was getting mine. My just deserts. In the end I tore myself from the monster shrub and stormed into the house. I sulked while they continued laughing outside.

Perhaps I thought, there in the diner, I could live in a new and more flexible way.

“Is it as simple as this?” I thought. “One simply decides to breathe differently.”

I saw, in a way, it was that simple.

Saw also how a dog can be your teacher. And while eating wheat toast I thought of the Buddha’s words from the Dhammapada:

Live in Joy, In love,

Even among those who hate.

Live in joy, In health,

Even among the afflicted.

Live in joy, In peace,

Even among the troubled.

Look within. Be still.

Free from fear and attachment,

Know the sweet joy of living in the way.

 

   

Anderson Cooper and Sanctioned Scorn

The tide of Fascist contempt (evinced by Donald Trump’s sordid campaign for the Presidency)  has turned quickly to sanctioned scorn, something far worse than “blowing off steam” or simple exultation. Two days ago a hijab wearing woman was pushed down subway stairs in Manhattan; swastikas now appear everywhere from the University of Iowa’s library to a Jewish cemetery in upstate, New York. These are hate crimes. Moreover under the emerging administration they’re going to be business as usual.

I’ve been shivering. I recently experienced my own first bit of hate when a cab driver, (also the owner of the company) refused to give me a ride because of my guide dog. That refusal quickly became a matter of putting me in my place in the new “order” for he invoked Trump when I said this would become a news story, when I said I’m a writer and have written for many publications including the New York Times. “Trump is taking care of you people,” he said. He also said, “now I suppose you’re going to whine about your rights.”

In his canonical book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich William Shirer described Hitler’s first meeting with Germany’s industrialists.

“Hitler began a long speech with a sop to the industrialists. “Private enterprise,” he said, “cannot be maintained in the age of democracy; it is conceivable only if the people have a sound idea of authority and personality… All the worldly goods we possess we owe to the struggle of the chosen… We must not forget that all the benefits of culture must be introduced more or less with an iron fist.” He promised the businessmen that he would “eliminate” the Marxists and restore the Wehrmacht (the latter was of special interest to such industries as Krupp, United Steel and I. G. Farben, which stood to gain the most from rearmament). “Now we stand before the last election,” Hitler concluded, and he promised his listeners that “regardless of the outcome, there will be no retreat.””

A sound idea of authority and personality. The struggle of the chosen—by which Hitler meant the people sitting in that room. The population at large? They’ll get what they get when we say so. Others—those who resist—will be eliminated.

Now in America it will be hard to directly eliminate opponents. Of course it will. But the broadcasting houses, the churches, the state governments, all can be turned toward the immediate work of reinforcing a narrow view of private enterprise, a slim view of acceptable citizenry, and certainly the cult of personality. My cab driver said so. He said it plainly. My people are now being taken care of by Trump.

On Sunday evening CBS ran a vicious piece about the Americans with Disabilities Act, essentially portraying it as a profound impediment to business. Lainey Feingold, a noted disability rights attorney writes at her website how 60 Minutes filmed a piece about the 25th anniversary of the ADA many months ago, a story which highlighted breakthroughs in technology and employment for the disabled. They never ran that story. Instead, Feingold writes, they ran an entirely oppositional piece:

Why would 60 Minutes decide to run a negative story about the Americans with Disabilities Act now, eighteen months after filming? Why craft a story that left out hours of film and interviews about effective ADA advocacy. There can be only one explanation. Someone at 60 Minutes wanted an anti-ADA piece to support Donald Trump’s anti-regulatory, anti-ADA, and anti-disability agenda.

When television networks air such programing they’re of course doing the work of a rightward galloping administration which already, even before it takes office is overtly engineering a collective rollback of civil rights.

Yes my people are now being “taken care of” by Mr. Trump. Except they aren’t, they’re being shoved to the side, slopped and hogwashed by complicit journalism. Anderson Cooper should be ashamed of himself, though one supposes he lives in such a perfect bubble he’s beyond social irony. Or perhaps he’s a single issue politician. Maybe.

Now you can bank on what’s to come: elimination of more voting rights, destruction of women’s rights, piece by piece, deportations and unlawful arrests, a significant boost to the school to prison pipeline, toxic water and air—the list is too long for a customary sentence in the English language.