Thirty for Thirty on the ADA: “Outside the Box”

Thirty for Thirty on the ADA

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

Essay Five: “Outside the Box”

If you love something, love it well even as you know its faults. I love the ADA but I also know its wishy washy like an uncle who ignores bigotry right in front of the kids because it’s a hard life.
I know you know what I mean. The ADA hasn’t exactly delivered on jobs for the disabled though it’s not really the old fella’s fault and tomorrow’s another day.

While we don’t really know how many disabled people remain unemployed a generally accepted statistic holds that the figure is around 70%. Now you might ask “70 % of what?” and then you might be surprised to learn that no one knows how many people with disabilities there are in the United States. We have to estimate. The estimate says the number is one in five Americans. The estimation game goes on: we judge two thirds of this phantasmal number are people over 65. Remember, we don’t know this. We’re guessing. I first learned about the imprecision statistic business when I tried to find out how many blind people there are in the US. The number is fungible, inexact, made up. Census takers went door to door in Baltimore and asked people if they could read a standard newspaper. From this a number was hatched. In turn that guess became a national model. Voila. There were one million blind people in the United States. Two thirds were over 65. Believe it or not these numbers are still often cited. They come from the old game: “how many fingers am I holding up?”

With a tip of the hat to Arthur James Balfour there are three kinds of falsehoods: “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But there’s a fourth: the guesstimate. Now before you imagine I’m going to argue for a national database of the disabled let me be clear that disability is your own business and laws protecting privacy are essential in a free society. In other words, not knowing how many disabled people there are is not a bad thing. And yet, thirty years after the ADA it’s still the case that the disabled are horribly underrepresented in the work force. The ADA has not solved the fear among employers that greets every disabled job seeker.

As the old saying goes: “you can’t legislate morality.” Certainly getting people to do the right thing when they’re afraid is daunting. In her 2017 article on the obstacles to disability employment Megan Purdy wrote about the fact that disabled job applicants seldom get interviews:

“Hiring managers and HR pros worry that candidates with disabilities might burden the company in some way, or just make them and their colleagues uncomfortable. “There’s a lot of discomfort with people with disabilities. I think Oh, geez, someone with a spinal cord injury, I’m not sure they’re going to fit in here.””

She continues:

“In short, the lower response rate observed for candidates with disabilities is due to ignorance and prejudice. These are not challenges candidates can simply overcome with a great resume or interview, they’re bone deep and systematic biases that aren’t quickly eliminated by good data or better training. They’re driven by the sense that employing people with disabilities is somehow more difficult and costly than employing people without disabilities, and even more fundamentally, that people with disabilities are a burden.”

(Here I must interpolate: we don’t have good data and we certainly don’t have good HR training.)

The ADA opened the door for employment by introducing the concept of “reasonable accommodations” and the truth is that most disability related accommodations are inexpensive. Still, rationality doesn’t triumph over able bodied people’s fears about disablement. What if it’s catching? What if that wheelchair person needs me to help him with the bathroom? What if sign language is something I’ll have to learn? I’m afraid of blind people. I’m really uncomfortable with deaf people. Autism is just too hard for me to think about. I know we should have accessible websites but it’s too difficult to think about right now. (A common thing at universities.)

The ADA can’t erase stigma. No civil rights law can do this.

It can only say that discrimination is illegal.

Employers who are afraid of disability all say the same thing: “I’m sorry, we just filled that job.”

Back to Megan Purdy:

“PBS interviewed leaders at accounting firm EY, who are working to dramatically increase the number of people on the autism spectrum. While executives could cite logical reasons for the program – the unique skills that neurodiverse people brought to the team and the boost they provide to the company’s bottom line – their respect for their employees and belief in the program was also clear. They believe in their hiring plan and they value the contributions of all their employees. They have taken the time to do diversity training, not so they can check off that box, so that they can be better managers of people with disabilities. They bought in, understanding the problem, working to root out bias in their company culture, and diversifying their workforce.”

This is the advantage of the ADA: diversity includes disability and America, slowly, ever so slowly is learning how the disabled contribute in positive ways to the workforce. As a friend of mine, a blind attorney once said in an employment interview: “dude, my whole life is outside the box!”

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

Thirty for Thirty on the ADA

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

Essay 3: Lyric Life

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

“You will eat this,” he said.

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

Rollie held his dirt before him like a little pillow.

“An acorn?” he said.

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

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

“Go on Rollie, its yummy!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We remove the pistils and stamens before eating.

“Hey Rollie have you ever eaten Milkweed?”

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

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

I think of it as the dictionary for disability assertion.

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

Today’s disabled kids must also endure bullies.

Even now as a grownup I still endure them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thirty for Thirty on the ADA: “Coming out of the Dark”

Thirty for Thirty on the ADA

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

Essay 2: “Coming out of the Dark”

“Get out of your comfort zone.” “Think outside the box.” You’ve heard the phrases. Disabled people are ironic counterpoints to both of these sayings—we’re not in the comfort zone and we don’t have to be told to think imaginatively—all our rendezvous with “normal” require fresh thinking.

The ADA was signed in the year of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and if you’re a fan of cognitive dissonance you’ll recall the disabled “did” start the fire—Viet Nam veterans, advocates for the mentally ill, Baby Boom cripples who wanted lives and careers from main street to Wall Street—these men and women started a fire with their identification papers. They also crawled up the steps of the US Capitol, disrupted political conventions, and occupied hundreds of hostile public spaces.

This thirty year old landmark civil rights law didn’t happen overnight. You can read about the groundbreaking work to launch the ADA in Enabling Acts by Lennard Davis. He tells how pioneering disability activists like Judy Heumann, Ed Roberts, Pat Wright, Bob Funk, Arlene Mayerson, Mary Lou Breslin made the difficult journey from California to Washington DC in 1980. The back story of the ADA is remarkable for its grass roots, its sophisticated, its doggedness, its faith and tireless optimism.

The fuel for the fire was pure, unadulterated inaccessibility. If you were a wheelchair user you couldn’t take public transportation, couldn’t get into civic offices, businesses, take a taxicab; if you were blind you could get a guide dog or a stick but you had no rights to education. If you were mentally ill or neuro-divergent you could count on being a shut in or a patient in a ward. If you were born after the ADA you might not know how bad it was unless you’ve taken a disability history course. It was bad.

While Judy Heumann and so many others were descending on Washington I was in Iowa City, blind, trying to get a grad degree and finding the university was hostile to the disabled. I didn’t have disability pals. I internalized the disdain of others and suffered. I was abject.

The only thing I knew how to do in 1980 was dream. Dreaming is good. But there were fighters out there in the bigger world who were and remain my allies though I didn’t know about them back then.

In 1980 I didn’t have the knowledge as a blind person about how to travel safely.

My memoir Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey in part relives that era:

I’d worked all my life—had actually choreographed it—so I could travel to small and secure places without a white stick. I’d attended college at Hobart and William Smith in Geneva, New York, where my father was the president. I knew every inch of the campus. I learned in a private, ill-favored way how to walk mnemonically. It was eight steps down from the English Department to the sidewalk; seventeen steps to a funny break in that same sidewalk which somehow never got repaired; thirty steps between the post office entrance and my mailbox. I wandered by rote. At a school with only 1,600 students I could pretend to see. When I couldn’t manage it, I’d say I had vision problems. Anything sounded better than blindness. I had “vision issues.” I needed extra time to complete reading assignments. One of my eyes drifted. But still, seeing me move with intention from place to place, many friends and faculty had no idea how all encompassing my charade really was.

When I decided to attend graduate school at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop I flew to Iowa City three months early and walked the town like a crime-scene investigator. I walked in little grids. I moved haltingly up and down dozens of streets. When I thought no one was watching I drew a telescope from my pocket and read the street signs. I hiked in the stifling summer heat and worried about people marking me as deviant.

Far away from Iowa smart activists were challenging everything I was struggling with. Disability would no longer be deviant.

Today I teach at Syracuse University and work on interdisciplinary disability teaching and research in the Burton Blatt Institute.

Burton Blatt was also a pioneer of disability rights. The BBI website notes he was “an advocate of deinstitutionalization, and he helped initiate community living programs and family support services. In his clinical work he emphasized the provision of education to children with severe disabilities, those whom he called “clinically homeless.” As a national leader in special education, he called for programs to integrate students with disabilities into public schools and worked to promote a more open society for them.”

Thirty years after the ADA was signed that work continues. Inclusion means opening the doors for non-speaking people, making certain the clinically homeless are part of the community, standing for accessible design, pushing for self determination, fighting for ecological justice, black disabled lives, inclusive education—and this is only a partial list.

Another great song from 1990 was Gloria Estefan’s “Coming Out of the Dark.” Perfect.

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 

Thirty for Thirty on the ADA 

 

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

Essay 1:

“Bicycle-Blind & Belabored”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

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

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

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

Black Stone Lying On A White Stone

I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,

on some day I can already remember.

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

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

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

these lines, I have put my upper arm bones on 

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

with all the road ahead of me, alone.

   César Vallejo is dead.  Everyone beat him

although he never does anything to them;

they beat him hard with a stick and hard also

   with a rope.  These are the witnesses:

the Thursdays, and the bones of my arms,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is much on my mind. 

Disabled in the Faculty Ranks, A Tiresome Tale…

If you’re like me and you’ve a disability and you work in higher education you know that discrimination on the basis of physical difference is just as rampant from the left as the right. If you’re a faculty member who requires accommodations in the workplace you’re a nuisance. You might even be an embarrassment. I’ll never forget walking in a faculty procession with my guide dog and actually hearing a university trustee snicker as I passed. The chuckle wasn’t friendly and it spoke volumes. “Look! There goes our esteemed faculty! I always told you they didn’t know anything!” This happened at Syracuse University and yet it could have occurred on any campus. Disabled faculty are not the norm. Worse, we face bureaucratic delay and dismissive arguments when we bring up the inaccessibility of physical and digital spaces.   

I submit it’s hard to avoid growing bitter. It’s hard to feel the very apparent lack of interest in disability discrimination even from faculty who hail from other marginalized positions. No one wants to imagine disability as being intersectional. Diversity and inclusion generally doesn’t include the cripples. Because this is so, the loneliness of being disabled in the faculty ranks is considerable. Ableism is a machine for isolation and deprivation. When you say, well people of color also have disabilities people look at their watches. The great liberal fiction is that universities are welcoming. All of this came to the surface for me this morning when I read about two black professors at the University of Virginia who were denied tenure. The academy does not welcome bodies of difference and while I’m not a person of color I can say I’ve seen the discriminatory daily routines “up close and personal” and I’m getting pretty close to being worn out. 

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

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

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

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

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

Some day, long after I’m dead colleges and universities will be welcoming places for all. And disabled folks who are people of color will thrive. And yes blind people will not be laughed at. 

Kwame Appiah, We Hardly Knew Ye

Some months ago I wrote a blog post about the complications of identity politics. In a nutshell I suggested the powerful self affirmations of identity engagement also carry limitations. I’m a disability activist. I don’t see the world entirely through my disability since, for instance, I care about single mothers in poverty who do not have disabilities and whose children do not have disabilities. Strict identity politics can become exclusionary if we allow it.

In my post I quoted from Kwame Anthony Appiah who has written probingly about the pros and cons of identity politics. I didn’t know he’s an ableist who believes the disabled are burdensome, but yes, that’s what he thinks according to his advice column in the NY Times.

Briefly, he writes a fatuous advice column for the Times where he offers advice to the ethically unwashed. Think of Dear Abbey for people who imagine they should have something like a conscience but understand they don’t.

In summary Appiah said that the prospect of dating a disabled person may carry the further prospect of a burden and hence it’s OK to not date a cripple.

The term in rhetoric for the anticipation of objections during an argument is prolepsis. I can reckon you’re argument against me and prepare for it. That all dating or marriages are a proleptic exercise is lost on Appiah who imagines there are non-obstructive relationships instead of complicated ones. One imagines he must also believe in the tooth fairy.

People get sick. They get well. They require help. They don’t require help. But you’ll never know if you think there’s a prospect of trouble on the horizon and avoid humanity. My wife who is not blind married me. I’m blind. She didn’t have to think twice.

Dear Kwame: don’t think twice babe, it’s alright.

Peace: A Noble and Complete Action

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

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

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

I do not underestimate centuries of oppression and rage.

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

On Going Maskless and Disability

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Floating Barrels in Virus Time

In Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” which I consider to be his greatest accomplishment (for it is Twain as scholar, essayist, and social psychologist) he describes a crew of riverboat men who think they’re being followed by a floating barrel of supernatural origin:

“Everybody was sober and down in the mouth all day. I don’t mean the kind of sober that comes of leaving liquor alone—not that. They was quiet, but they all drunk more than usual—not together—but each man sidled off and took it private, by himself.”

Now a barrel is just a barrel and a virus is just what it is. The virus does’t care about your mood and while you can use war metaphors all you like it is not your enemy. This is why Donald Trump’s press conferences are so dreadful. Dr. Fauci recognizes the virus is just what it is and needs to be confronted with reason. Trump turns it into a figure of sinister foreign origins or a hoax or a political cudgel.

^^

I carried around with me for years a tattered copy of the “Oxford Book of Superstitions” and I think I still have it somewhere. In Scotland it was believed as late as the 18th century that upon leaving the house if a man or woman met a blind person they would go blind UNLESS they went to the woods and located a tree with two trunks—a tree with a crotch filled with water. They had to gather that water and, as they say in cookbooks, put it aside. Then they had to find a black cat and burn it. Retrieve the water and mix it with the cat ash. Rub this fetid unguent in your eyes. The “Oxford Book of Superstitions” does not say where this apothecary and alchemical nonsense originated.

**

I hope you’re too wise for superstition. If you’re American I have my doubts of course. In general the great migrations of the late 19th century brought plenty of evil eyes and hats on the beds to the good old USA. My Finnish grandmother once shook hands with Richard Nixon and she didn’t wash her hand for a whole month. Imagine.

I’m guessing my good old Finnish grandmother thought Nixon’s handshake a harbinger of luck. She’d have been better off hanging a golden horseshoe above her door.

Did you know the Romans used to hang horseshoes above their doors to ward of plague?

**

Americans also like to “knock on wood” and cross their fingers.

My favorite widely believed contemporary superstition is “the itchy palm”:

There are many variations on this superstition. But the idea of having an itchy palm generally refers to someone who is greedy or has an insatiable desire for money.

In Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Brutus says, “Let me tell you, Cassius, you yourself are much condemned to have an itching palm.”

Some believe that if the right palm itches you will meet someone new, while an itchy left palm means that money is coming.

Others say that an itchy right palm means money coming in and a left-handed itch foretells money going out.

The superstition warns you not to scratch your palm unless you want to counteract the effect. The only way to scratch it without stopping the effect is to use lucky wood or brass.

https://www.everydayhealth.com/healthy-living/10-common-superstitions/

**

The disabled are thought to bring bad luck and if you think I’m joking just look at the ableist narratives going around. Our lives are deemed in many quarters to be sacrificial.