Disabled and Alone on Campus

I’m a blind professor and the other faculty don’t know me. Oh they recognize me alright but that’s a different matter. One may acknowledge any sign—a traffic cone or ceremonial ribbon—they’re designed for limited provenance. “Stop!” “Go!” “Ignore!” My blindness (and that of each visually impaired student I know) is a sign to be ignored.

An icon is a sign that calls for reflection: the Statue of Liberty or the holy cross. Unfortunately the disability access signs one sees in parking lots and alongside electric doors are not icons. They designate “access” which means “here’s how you get in” but nothing more. For the non-disabled faculty these signs mean: “You’re here. Now don’t ask me to think about you.”

When a sign is just a sign it allows for habitual overlooking. Scofflaws know this. I’ll never forget a rough edged student at the University of Iowa who told me speed bumps had no meaning to him. (He wasn’t speaking metaphorically.)

In higher education disability access signs are advertisements to the faculty to ignore the disabled.

Consider my story (such as it is): I teach now at Syracuse University where I hold a prestigious professorship. I’ve been tenured at the University of Iowa and The Ohio State University. I am, by all measures, “having” a distinguished career in academe.

What’s ironic as hell is that these institutions have not been hospitable, though I’ll give a shout out to Ohio State because they’ve a progressive and talented ADA Coordinator named Scott Lissner who was always there to help me and all other disabled solve accessibility dilemmas.

But this has not been the case elsewhere and over the past few weeks I’ve struggled to get accessible job related documents just as I’ve struggled almost every month over the course of my nearly eight years at Syracuse University.

One of the ironies at Syracuse is that the university was in the forefront establishing the field of Disability Studies some thirty years ago.

When I tell faculty (who are largely without disabilities, or at least none they’ve publicly declared) about my problems I’m mostly greeted with shrugs. Sometimes I get a note saying “that’s too bad.”

And these are the progressive faculty who should care.

Silence means that accommodation signs are just there to be ignored.

Moreover, as every disabled person involved in higher education knows, if you keep speaking up about inaccessibility you’ll be labeled a malcontent.

Pejorative labeling attaches to accessibility signs like lamprey eels to fish. “She can’t get accessible materials because she’s difficult somehow. We all know that.”

Inaccessible software; inaccessible PDF documents; inaccessible handouts in meetings; inaccessible video conferencing and presentations; building after building without accessible directories; a bureaucracy without a system for resolving these issues….these are the daily realities for the blind in higher education almost everywhere.

The silence of faculty around the nation about disability is a direct reflection of the privilege most have—not needing accommodations themselves they’re free to overlook the signs on buildings. They’re just signs, not icons.

What the Imagination is For: Reflections on Boyhood Cruelty

I make jokes like most people. When I was young I made some cruel jokes as I was bullied for my disability and I looked for children more vulnerable than I was in order to humiliate them and gain a modicum of status. Status is a fragile thing when you’re twelve years old. Having it or not depends on the temporary love of brutish schoolmates and in my case gaining this required art. I remain ashamed of the story I’m about to tell. I make no excuses. If being a blind kid in public school was rough, if I was pushed down stairs, if my glasses were stolen, if I was targeted with nicknames, well so what? I was clever and desperate.

I picked out a kid who sat next to me in math class. His name was Norman and that was bad enough. But he was also gangly, awkward, ill at ease in his skin–just like me. Talk about Carl Jung’s “shadow”–I saw in him everything I hated about myself. He wore maladjusted spectacles and had uncombable hair. There was really nothing wrong with him. It didn’t matter. I could see he was defenseless. He stammered slightly. He was shy. He became my target.

What did I do, you ask? I made him legendary. I drew cartoons depicting him as an ostrich boy with a bird’s body, a periscope neck and a wide grinning face and I named this creature “Normanure.” I even made fun of his stammer with a cartoon bubble that said “Duh!” Though I could scarcely see I could draw serviceably and quickly. I plastered Normanure all over the school. This ugly episode lasted about a week before a school official caught me sticking a cartoon on a bulletin board. But here’s what I recall most vividly. Before being apprehended for assholery Norman himself accosted me and rather than punching me out he asked the most basic and fair question anyone can ask his tormentor: “Why are you doing this?”

I couldn’t answer him. I slunk away. I had no language to describe the starved mice eating my nervous system or my shame at being blind or my terror when thinking about how I might live. I was dehumanizing a perfectly good person.

That was fifty years ago. I remain sorry to this day. And the terrible ugliness of online trolling; the name calling spurred on by the current putative president; the sorrows of people with disabilities who are still largely unemployed and unappreciated–these are never far from my thoughts. And no, I can’t expiate my miniature “Lord of the Flies” moment with a blog post. Nor can I tell you that nowadays I’m an exemplary man. But I do believe in emotional candor and ethics of care. I’m alarmed by all the big bodied twelve year olds I see in the public square. But I’m alarmed also by the knowledge that my insecurities can produce cruelty. It is altogether proper to know what the imagination is really for.

The Planet That Would Have Me

It was Auden broke my heart then put it back together. Caruso followed with a love song from Naples. By the age of 8 I could read poems and listen alone to gramophone records. Blind I’d little street life though I pretended I belonged well enough in open air. Like most people who come from provinces I was happiest in my privacies, my attic with scratchy records and grey books. Though I could scarcely read that’s the world that would have me.

The ugliness of school was both a matter of being bullied for my disability and a curricular austerity. School never let me share what I was learning while alone. As a university professor these past thirty years I think of this. What do the students before me bring to the room? What can provinces teach us?

Provincial culture means the one we must create. Yeats couldn’t be Tennyson and though there were Irish poets before him, he had to be both cognizant of his inner life and the outward world. If he was going to be Irish-provincial he’d have to do it in a dual way. Its a matter of accomplishment that Yeats doesn’t quite fit anywhere. His planet doesn’t exist. Yet its apparent.

Is it a bit silly to invoke Yeats next to a kid with a large print book and a Victrola? I don’t think so. The inner life is Romanticism and strength of mind and each must find it in her or his way. You don’t have to be a poet to need your planet. More and more contemporary fiction and memoirs seek to find planets that will have us. Everyone hails from some version of my childhood attic.

I’m guilty of reductionism here. What I’m after is emergence not life alone with some arias. The planet that will have us is a made place and not granted. What is it made of? Yeats wrote:

By the help of an image
I call to my own opposite, summon all
That I have handled least, least looked upon.

The planet that will have you won’t look like you. Yeats knew and if we’re lucky we also learn it.

Yes when I go walking the world does not resemble my stride, my frame, nor, despite my yearnings for mysticism does the world answer my longings. The world simply is and not what I say of it.

Typing Mister Roberts

As a ten year old who though he’d become a writer I attempted a novel. My model was “Mister Roberts” which meant that I was writing about the Navy and imagining the doings of grown men at sea. How I wish I had those pages now and could see what a blind kid thought the maritime world of wholly fictive adults would be like. I suspect I imagined an adult world that was honorable as a distinction to my grade school life of constant bullying. As a disabled child in public school I was a target for physical and emotional abuse. The novel “Mister Roberts” and the film based upon it suggested shipboard life was decent.

I think of this now because I know better. As Wallace Stevens famously wrote: “the world is ugly and the people are sad”—and while that may not be a life’s goal, that is, to live in wantoness and depression—these are factors in the reality principle. The Navy may have honorable men and women but their stories and presences aren’t always probable. We’ve a land of permanent wars and poverty and bigotries of every kind. And the grade school bullying I once endured still goes on for children everywhere and I even experience adult forms of it in the workplace.

It’s the utopian hope of writing that’s so compelling to me. When I write I clean streaked windows with vinegar. Animals come. Some eat from my hands. Strangers come to understand each other. And these things are not entirely of imagination Wallace Stevens notwithstanding.

Yesterday I took an Uber ride. My driver spoke very little English. He was from Central America. He loved my guide dog Caitlyn, a yellow Labrador. Suddenly he said in his halting English: “I wish her long life!”

The world is ugly but people still have love. In turn I’m not certain I’m all that different from my ten year old self. That kid was insisting on decency.

His grown up variant still does.

The Identity Pluck

My identity needs water. My identity is a dried turd. A 16th century one. Identity from “idem” to be the same. I’m the same as you. I’m not without my qualities but they’re significant only insofar as someone else also has them. My identity is troubled by this. It scratches and moans at all hours of the night. I’ve never met anyone like me. If I claim an identity aren’t I by the very act claiming a fantasy?

Well yes. Oscar Wilde said it: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Given what Wilde endured in the name of originality who’d want to go beyond mere identity?

This is, in effect, what a free thinking human being should strive for: life beyond identity, not a sameness, a politburo, a glee club, a political party. This is scary. Institutions are against it. Churches, universities, corporations….Who dares to be naked?

Rousseau said: “I am not made like any of those I have seen. I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, at least I am different.”

Different frightens every school child. It scares the pants off of me. I want desperately to look like you.

Disability is interesting in this regard since no two people experience any disabling condition the same way. No. Two. People. In this way disability is not an identity. Disability is an enforcement.

Einstein wrote: “We experience ourselves our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.”

Consciousness is predisposed to a sea sickness—staggering between separateness as ideation and the desire for sameness in the name of affection. Disability identity is enforced separateness (the social construction of normalcy) and a longing for others like us.

But no matter your disability there’s no one like you.

A disability by any other name would smell as sweet.

In this way I can’t be scripted by disablement. The name can’t help. The affections for likeness are fictive.

Audre Lorde, one of my favorite poets wrote: “I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self.”

Claiming Identity and the Disability Rain Check

I claim my disability identity. I’m proud to be disabled. Out of my way you! I’ll whack you with my cane! (I’ve done so, poking dopey dudes with my stick.) What else? I claimed my difference but I’m still damaged goods on the customary street; in the ordinary shop; the classroom; airport…

My “claim” is like a rain check. I went to the ball game but the game didn’t happen. Pride at being disabled is critically important to my self esteem. But the game, that inclusive, engaging, pastime—the American pastime—it doesn’t get played. I have a ticket. That’s all.

The ADA is my ticket. It is a beautiful ticket. I carry it with me like the letter from the eye doctor when I was in graduate school—the one that said I needed extra time for reading. Some people read that letter and understood it. Others were dismissive. Sherman Paul, a once upon a time famous professor of avant garde poetry at the University of Iowa told me I shouldn’t be in his class if I took longer to read.

I claim my disability identity. There’s always a Sherman Paul just waiting to tell me to screw myself. I wave my ADA ticket. But the ballgame doesn’t happen.

I long for something greater than my identity vs. yours. I want a collective push for human rights. What a Marxist nostalgia I have!

Identity claim check in hand I wait for the other identity groups to say I belong.

As I get older I realize I won’t live to see the progressive coalition I imagined.

But the day I claimed my identity was a beautiful one. The wine was good. The music was loud. The weather was very fine.

At least I was on the street.

Disability by Any Other Name

I’ve been disabled all my life and I hate the term. Beneath it, like Poe’s tell tale heart, is the pulse of loss. The “d” word is Karl Marx’s term: a 19th century mark for injured workers. It originally meant the lack of utility or earning power owing to a broken body. I prefer to be called a citizen.

That I’m a blind citizen should matter not at all. Did you know that blindness is nothing more than being born left handed? Disability is a false name which pulses underneath us and continues to cause human beings with diverse bodies terrible harm.

Of course there are cutesy efforts to fix the d word like putting the “dis” in parentheses to emphasize ability. This has always seemed to me like putting antlers on a cat. Diversions are seldom more than gestures and unless you’re using sign language gestures don’t mean much. Most if not all disabled will agree we’ve had enough of gestures.

The d word can’t describe me or the hundreds of d people I know. My band is made up of practical men, women, and children who have imaginations, wisdoms, loves, sorrows, tastes, and ambitions. For them the d is a horse collar—outdated, heavy. No one needs a horse collar anymore. Blind I’m disabled by the idea I’ve nothing to give. Disabled I’m doubly blind—not seeing becomes figurative worthlessness.

Citizen is better. I’d like my value to be understood as a matter of the hive. And yes, “value” is another tell tale heart. Value for whom? What does value mean? Why should the tax payer pay for a kid with Down syndrome to go to school?

Hitler called the disabled “useless eaters” to suggest the state shouldn’t support the unproductive. The presumption of competence, that the disabled have potential can’t co-exist in a purely industrial and essentialized vision of human bodies. It’s a terrifying vision. The d word is outworn, dangerous, and like the horse collar above, unsuited to a century when work itself is being reexamined.

I believe the future of work will involve more and more autonomous systems—robotics, driverless cars, supply chains that are fully automated. What will work mean for humans? It’s possible that deconstructing the d word will be important for everyone. Or it already is.