Why I Can’t Forgive John Lennon

When the Beatles were new John Lennon made fun of the cripples seated down front of whatever theater—he’d do a retard act. I’ve never forgotten this nor can I find it in myself to forgive him. I was a disabled kid and now I’m a disabled man. I have to enact patience and forgiveness daily. Ableist behavior is legion. I make it through by means of small dispensations, little pardons, absolving the bus driver who resents me, willing beneficence, handing out invisible coins of absolution to the cab driver who refuses me a ride. Lovingkindness is the Christian word for this. I try to love my oppressors.

Ableism, taken nominally, is insufficient to highlight real circumstances. Those who think themselves superior to a woman in a wheelchair or a man who walks with a stick are exceptionalists and if they’re not educable they become tacit eugenicists for social Darwinism lurks behind most disability discrimination. The fascist wants to make the world clean, wishes for a sanitized sameness in the population, argues passionately against expenditures for the care and rehabilitation of those who require assistance. Meantime the disabled muster some forbearance and get on with it. The taxi that refused you will likely be followed by one that accepts you. Yet the message is clear: disabled, you’re a problem on the street, in the airport, in the classroom, the supermarket, the hotel, health club, doctor’s office, college campus, the theater, symphony hall, and all workplaces.

“Problem” is not the right word of course—problems are solvable or at least they’re invitations to find a solution, or what I like to call “solvation” much as Jamaican people say “no problem mon!” True ableism requires an antipathy to finding disability solutions and it depends on a willful lack of irony individually and collectively. The singular ableist is someone like the junior high school principal who says “no” when a 12 year old girl with cerebral palsy wants to bring her authentic service dog to school. Collective ableism is the school board behind the principal. They say: “of course we cannot have a service dog in the classroom! Think of the children who will somehow be ruined by this!”

In order to think this you must be an inherent exceptionalist who despises intellectual and bodily difference. Such people believe not in solvation but in segregation, deportation, and even annihilation.

Lovingkindness is the hardest thing in my life. I know I’m working daily with college faculty and administrators who resent the disabled. I try thinking of how damaged they are—that they’ve been made to accept compulsory normalcy by means of many cruelties. They were always racing to get one step ahead. For them disability represents the thing they fear most: the loss of distinction, both intellectually and performatively. At the big conference cocktail party where faculty are first anointed they must “present” as having just arrived from the gym.

I find I can’t forgive John Lennon. Later he wrote a song called “Crippled Inside” which is just as offensive as his youthful face pulling. And I can’t forgive the social Darwinists around me. I’m a little worn out from all the forgiving I have to do in the customary street to forgive those whose educations and talents should prevent them from outrageous bigotry.

Disability and Faculty Self-governance in the Age of Neoliberalism

When talking to faculty, students, and staff with disabilities who work or study at America’s colleges and universities, one quickly learns that higher education is broadly disinclined to treat disability in a concerted and efficient manner, but instead engages in widespread administrative deflection. From architectural barriers to simple pedagogical modifications colleges routinely drop the ball where equal access is concerned. So ubiquitous have these stories become one can browse the web for hours reading of school after school that has violated basic civil rights protections guaranteed by the Americans With Disabilities Act. From the University of Michigan, to Penn State to Harvard, one finds dramatic instances of disability discrimination. As a disability rights activist and professor who teaches that incorporating physical difference in the village square creates powerful opportunities and advantages I’m often asked why higher education performs so poorly. For many years I imagined these failures had simply to do with a basic financial resentment of the ADA, as one hears the widespread complaint from college administrators that it’s simply an “unfunded mandate.” The idea that barriers should be removed as a matter of civil rights is represented as a violation of libertarian principle. This seemed reasonable enough until over time I realized there’s a broader delegitimization of disability in the Ivory Tower and it’s only loosely connected to money.

In a recent interview at TruthOut Henry Giroux observes of Neoliberalism:

As a form of public pedagogy and cultural politics, neoliberalism casts all dimensions of life in terms of market rationality. One consequence is that neoliberalism legitimates a culture of cruelty and harsh competitiveness and wages a war against public values and those public spheres that contest the rule and ideology of capital. It saps the democratic foundation of solidarity, degrades collaboration, and tears up all forms of social obligation.


The past quarter century has seen the American academy shift from collaborative and democratic agreements about social obligations toward an embrace of monetized aggression. During this period the ADA has been overtly ignored by colleges of every kind. The two developments are syncretic, reflecting what Giroux rightly calls the failure to contest the rule and ideology of capital. It’s relevant to note in this context that “disability” first appeared in the mid-19th century as a term for laborers who’d been rendered unfit to work. The 20th century saw sustained advances in rehabilitation and employment services for people with disabilities, improvements which culminated in the passage of the ADA in 1990.

Neoliberal pedagogy and campus politics depend on limited faculty governance, the erosion of public debate, and the establishment of a culture of severe economic competition. Disability is re-inscribed as a 19th century problem. Accommodation services are sequestered—students are “sent” to ancillary offices for accommodations which they may or may not receive; faculty are taught nothing about pedagogy and disability; basic services like sign language interpreting or accessible technology are hard to find, and sometimes non-existent. At one liberal arts college where I recently spoke, a disabled student told me, “the disability office is hidden like an asylum.” Indeed. Disability is a drain on capital. Not because it’s an unfunded mandate but because after all is said and done, neoliberal visions of success are built as Giroux rightly says on cruelty and competitiveness.

Harvard and MIT are contesting the demands of deaf students and staff that instructional videos be captioned. Harvard’s opposition is symptomatic of the neoliberal university’s war on basic public values. In terms of governance Harvard’s resistance represents perfectly the academy’s abandonment of the principles of social obligation. But institutions only arrive at such a place when faculty are deterred from self-governance by the obligation to write endless grants and compete for provenance in the marketplace of capital ideas, when teaching and idealism are considered quaint and immaterial. In turn the civil rights of academic communities are “handled” by offices that are both physically and culturally distant from the “agora” or academic life of the campus.

The neoliberal campus relies on distention of self-governance and enforces centralized administration. Moreover it thrives on factionalism. A faction, as James Madison famously wrote in essay 10 of The Federalist Papers is a group “who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Because college faculty are often divided by competing interests and since some of these divisions reflect the complications and struggles of identity, it’s difficult to forge consensus about disability and disability rights—they seem tailor made for deflection, a problem for a specialized office. In other words, disability is often viewed by academics who are already narrowly factionalized as too difficult to embrace. As Lennard Davis notes in his book Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions:

Because disability is an amorphous identity with porous boundaries, other identity groups in the United States have had difficulty incorporating it into their goals. Previously legitimized groups such as Latinos or African Americans have been reluctant to admit disability into the multicultural arena. For example, in 1996 a disabled, white assistant professor at a historically black university found that the chair of the department and the dean of the school had recommended against tenure, saying that any analogy between disability and race was both methodologically unsound and insulting to the unique history of African Americans. For them, the categories of oppression were mutually exclusive and should not be mixed. After much public outcry from the disability community, the president of the university decided to award tenure to the assistant professor. Nevertheless, the issue of an identity defined by impairment as opposed to one defined by race or ethnicity is a sticking point for some. When some faculty members at Hunter College in New York City tried to include disability studies as part of the requirement for a multicultural curriculum, they were opposed by many of the ethnic and national groups that usually make up the progressive wing of the university. Hunter ended up deciding to omit disability from the curriculum.


From a disability studies perspective one sees how sectarian infighting among faculty concerned with categories of oppression can further the work of neoliberal administration, not by embracing the neoliberal brand of governance, but by replicating its effort to de-legitimize disability as a mainstream concern. De-legitimized disability remains in the province of non-academic offices. In turn university faculty fail to understand and embrace the nation’s largest minority. Such neglect reinforces a central fact of neoliberal administration which supports deflection where accountability is concerned and it represents rather broadly a further symptom of weakening faculty self-governance.



What all Dogs Know

Steve and Vidal

Image: Steve Kuusisto with "Vidal" (a handsome yellow Labrador)–his second dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind:


I don’t want to be a celebrity. I just want to be my dog. Ipse dixit. 


When we hug dogs and smell their fur we’re fully realized. Then we drift back into reason and dogs see we’ve gone to a far room. Empathy matters then. Dogs know we’ve entered a fearful place in a crystal palace of abstractions. They touch our knees. They live only in amazement.


I don’t know as much about amazement as I should. D.H. Lawrence wrote:


They call all experience of the senses mystic, when the experience

is considered. 

So an apple becomes mystic when I taste in it 

the summer and the snows, the wild welter of earth

and the insistence of the sun. 


I understand a dog’s amazement in our company is indeed mystic but only insofar as we consider it. 


I walked up the pale green avenue—7th avenue in New York—end of day, my great guide dog working to keep us safe, working us toward the postulate of arrival, the grandest of things, a task accomplished, going where we had to go. 


I was grieving for my father who had died only a month before. Grief is impossible to maintain so we engage it in small gasps. I saw my father was on an aerial bridge, high in the fading light, the span without end. My father had nowhere to go. And outside a monolithic computer store I began weeping. And my guide dog stopped, turned, saw me stricken, rose up on her hind legs and gently washed my face. I, who could not reason clearly, was being guided in more than one way. My father’s bridge vanished. I heard his laughter. “Beauty,” says the dog, “is very strong.”


We have to let the dogs in. Consider what they know. 





Disability and the Radial Republic


US Postage stamp honoring guide dogs, picturing Morris Frank and his pioneering American guide dog Buddy, a German Shepherd. Beneath them it says: “Seeing For Me”




I haven’t been posting on my blog lately. Sometimes the limbed life of physical difference is overwhelming and one feels a temptation to lie down in the long ditch of sadness. The largest psychiatric hospital in the United States is the Los Angeles County Jail. Veterans with disabilities  since 9/11 face extraordinary obstacles to employment. Rehabilitation services for all persons with disabilities are underfunded. 70% of the disabled remain unemployed in the US. Only one quarter of matriculating college students with disabilities actually graduates. Long standing charities like guide dog schools are experiencing a general decline in philanthropic donations—Baby Boomers and their children aren’t as generous as “The Greatest Generation” it seems. 

Meanwhile the toxic and shrill bloviating of politicians like Paul Ryan (who argue social programs are the root of America’s financial problems) helps to convince Americans that generosity and fairness are nearly unpatriotic—and would this were not so—for giving hard working and ambitious people with disabilities a shot at the American Dream ought to be deeply carved on the entablatures of our public buildings. 


What do I mean by a “radial republic”? Many things of course but principally a renewal of the social contract—our American contract which has grown stronger after every war and which has assured veterans with disabilities will be properly assisted, treated, educated, and welcomed. What do I mean by a radial republic? As we nurture disabled vets we assist all Americans with disabilities. Many people know I’m a guide dog user but I’m willing to bet that most of my readers don’t know that guide dogs (or “Seeing-Eye Dogs” as they’re sometimes called in the US in homage to North America’s first guide dog school which is named “The Seeing-Eye”) are the product of rehabilitation work in Germany at the end of WW I. 


Halfway through the First World War a German physician, Dr. Gerhard Stalling introduced a blind veteran to his pet dog. The two men were in a hospital garden when Stalling was suddenly called away. When he came back the soldier whose name is now lost, was laughing as the dog licked his hands. Stalling saw dogs might be trained to guide the blind. The war had produced an astonishing number of blind veterans. The total number of wounded from the first world war remains unknown but during the four and a half years of the conflict 230 soldiers died every hour. 11% of France’s entire population was killed. The ten month Battle of Verdun in 1916 caused over a million casualties. Chlorine and mustard gas killed nearly 90,000 troops and left one and a quarter million men permanently disabled. Blindness was a common result of gas warfare and one of John Singer Sargent’s most famous paintings (“Gassed” 1919) depicts a ragged line of soldiers, their eyes bandaged, all the men walking in a line, each man’s hand on the shoulder of the man before him—with two sighted men in the lead. The sky is yellow above a field of corpses. 


Trench warfare included working dogs. Germany employed 30,000 dogs in the field and their work was divided according to need. Sentry dogs were used on patrols. They were taught to give warning when a stranger entered a secure area. Scout dogs were also used. Their job was more refined—they accompanied soldiers on reconnaissance and had to keep quiet. They could detect the enemy at a distance of a 1000 yards, “scenting” and pointing. 


Casualty or ‘Mercy’ dogs, also known as ‘Sanitatshunde’ were trained to find wounded or dying soldiers in the heat of battle. They carried medical supplies on their backs. The wounded could use the supplies if they were able, or they could count on the Mercy Dog to wait with them as they died.


Dogs also ran long distances across battle fields carrying messages, often during artillery attacks. The heroism of working dogs was well known on all sides. The Germans employed 30,000 dogs during the war. British and French forces had approximately 20,000 dogs in the field.    


The guide dog was a consequence of war. Because dogs had proved themselves capable of miraculous work under the worst battle conditions ever seen, it was clear to Stalling war dogs could be trained to help the blind navigate post-war streets which were suddenly filled with automobiles. With a small group of military dog handlers Stalling began training dogs for blind soldiers. Old photos show trainers and veterans working with German Shepherds, all the men wearing peaked hats and long wool coats. In addition to harnesses the dogs wore tunics bearing the Red Cross logo—the insignia of the battle field “mercy” dog.   


Stallings idea captivated the public’s imagination. An official guide dog school opened in in Oldenberg in 1916. The sight of veterans and dogs working in traffic was powerful and seemed natural. In popular imagination blind people had always been accompanied by dogs: a first century mural in Roman Herculaneum depicts a blind man with his dog.  A 19th century woodcut from the United States shows a blind man from Boston being lead by a dog and crossing the Commons. Such pairings were likely the products of serendipity—the blind and their dogs forged relationships by necessity. The history of blindness is filled with sorrow. Before reforms like Social Security and organized rehabilitation services were created in the 20th century, the blind often begged for food and shelter—some played musical instruments—many wandered searching for compassion. Dogs helped ease their loneliness and offered untrained navigational assistance.    


Sometimes I like to joke by saying the guide dog is the only good thing every invented by the German Army. This may be true. But what is true is that rehabilitation programs for disabled veterans impact the broader republic. Nowadays when an autist, or a deaf person is accompanied by a trained service dog we can and should give thanks to Dr. Stalling. And in turn we should be seeking with all our Republic’s strength to carry on the difficult work of lifelong optimism that disability rehabilitation and education calls for. 


I’m not fond of the term “wounded warrior” precisely because disability isn’t a wound—it may heal in some dimensions, but in others it will always be present. A commitment to people with disabilities in general and to veterans in particular means understanding the full arc of life. The radial republic means giving people with disabilities and equal shot at education, travel, vacation, family, housing, medicine, you name it. 


Making this happen benefits all.



Yes, There's a Dog in My Heart…

If there's a dog in your heart it will do no damage.

Read: Dog in Heart, an excerpt from my upcoming book, as seen on my website: StephenKuusisto.com. Then tell me, is there a dog in YOUR heart?

Professor Stephen Kuusisto is the author of Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening” and the acclaimed memoir Planet of the Blind, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”. His second collection of poems from Copper Canyon Press, “Letters to Borges has just been released. Listen to Steve read "Letter to Borges in His Parlor" in this fireside reading via YouTube. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled What a Dog Can Do. Steve speaks widely on diversity, disability, education, and public policy. www.stephenkuusisto.com, www.planet-of-the-blind.com

NPR: Unfit to Write About Disability

There’s a piece by Chana Joffee-Walt on NPR’s website entitled “Unfit for Work: the Startling Rise of Disability in America” which is so ill informed about its subject it reminds me of one of those Ronald Reagan stump speeches. Driven by anecdote rather than cultural analysis, her thesis is simple: the number of unemployed Americans receiving disability benefits has skyrocketed over the past twenty years. She intimates without fully declaring it, that there’s a vast social “scam” taking place–in the absence of good middle class jobs, and following the “end welfare as we know it” enterprise, poor people simply decline into aches and pains, thereby getting themselves declared unfit for work.

Alas, Joffee-Walt hasn’t done her homework, a matter that may be inapparent to many of NPR’s readers, just as Reagan’s audiences were unaware that behind the curtain the Gipper believed “facts were stupid things” and was untroubled by any and all of the misrepresentations of social programs that propelled his candidacy for president. Such arguments depend on pathos rather than facts. Joffee-Walt fails to address the biggest fact in the room, that disability is a social construction even more than a medical category, and in turn the artificial architectural and physical constraints marshaled against people with disabilities are both products of history and the industrial revolution. One wishes she had bothered to read Lennard J. Davis’ essay “Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century”. Disability is entirely economic and has been so since the move to industrial models of labor. Those who cannot work in the factory were labeled “disabled” and that model of human economic utility largely continues to this day. Reasonable accommodations are the solution for workers whose physical capacities decline but as any seasoned person with a disability who has managed to remain in the workforce knows, obtaining accommodations is often so difficult, so humiliating, so Kafka-esque, most people give up.

70% of the blind remain unemployed in the United States, many of whom might well be able to work with the proper accommodations but employers don’t want to provide accommodations fearing the expense, though in point of fact most workplace accommodations are relatively inexpensive. Think of a laborer, someone who is required to lift boxes. He suffers a ruptured disc. He can’t lift boxes. Perhaps he could be retrained to work with software. Most businesses resist this kind of accommodation, preferring medical and social determinations that are no more sophisticated than those the Victorians had.

Another way to say this is that a nation that believes in work is also a nation that believes in accommodations. Joffee-Waitt misses this dynamic and ongoing dialectic and fails to illuminate the true nature of disability and joblessness. 


Professor Stephen Kuusisto is the author of Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening” and the acclaimed memoir Planet of the Blind, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”. His second collection of poems from Copper Canyon Press, “Letters to Borges has just been released. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled What a Dog Can Do. Steve speaks widely on diversity, disability, education, and public policy. www.stephenkuusisto.com, www.planet-of-the-blind.com

From Welfare Queens to Disability Deadbeats



Paul Krugman’s blog post entitled “From Welfare Queens to Disabled Deadbeats” relates both the realpolitik and the rhetorical irresponsibility of our age. By “realpolitik” I mean good old fashioned preservation of power. By rhetorical irresponsibility I mean the red herring that social programs are the cause of our nation’s financial woes. Krugman writes:

If you want to understand the trouble Republicans are in, one good place to start is with the obsession the right has lately developed with the rising disability rolls. The growing number of Americans receiving disability payments has, for many on the right, become a symbol of our economic and moral decay; we’re becoming a nation of malingerers.


Now I of course (speaking as a blind person) am a professional malingerer. In fact I wake up every day wanting mints on my pillow. I want all kinds of stuff. Public transportation, solid veterans benefits, affordable housing, easy access to disability friendly technology, free wheelchairs for those who don’t have fat incomes—I’m actually something more than a malingerer Senator Elephant, I’m a believer in the good, old fashioned social contract. 

I say this having once upon a time been a recipient of Social Security Disability and Food Stamps. I also lived for a time in Section 8 housing. Why? Because I lost my adjunct teaching job largely because I was advocating too noisily for disability rights at the rinky dink college where I found myself fighting discrimination against students with disabilities. The tone deafness of the Elephant Pols has much to do with something that has nothing to do with disability and social services—it has to do with finding a new underclass to kick. Krugman writes:


What strikes me, however, isn’t just the way the right is trying to turn a reasonable development into some kind of outrage; it’s the political tone-deafness.

I mean, when Reagan ranted about welfare queens driving Cadillacs, he was inventing a fake problem — but his rant resonated with angry white voters, who understood perfectly well who Reagan was targeting. But Americans on disability as moochers? That isn’t, as far as I can tell, an especially nonwhite group — and it’s a group that is surely as likely to elicit sympathy as disdain. There’s just no way it can serve the kind of political purpose the old welfare-kicking rhetoric used to perform.

The same goes, more broadly, for the whole nation of takers thing. First of all, a lot of the “taking” involves Social Security and Medicare. And even the growth in means-tested programs is largely accounted for by the Earned Income Tax Credit — which requires and rewards work — and the expansion of Medicaid/CHIP to cover more children. Again, not the greatest of political targets.

The point, I think, is that right-wing intellectuals and politicians live in a bubble in which denunciations of those bums on disability and those greedy children getting free health care are greeted with shouts of approval — but now have to deal with a country where the same remarks come across as greedy and heartless (because they are).

And I don’t think this is a problem that can be solved with a slight change in the rhetoric.


 I don’t know what kind of bubble the elephant classes are living in. I suspect its a small bubble which is of course a matter of some substantial irony. But there are lives in the balance. I urge people with disabilities to fight back: don’t become today’s Reaganite “Welfare Queens” in Washingtonian discourse. 


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