On Writing Nonfiction

A few weeks ago I was speaking at Grinnell College in Iowa and I read aloud from two books of my own creative nonfiction. When I was through with the dramatic part of the presentation I encouraged the students and faculty in the audience to pepper me with questions. One young man asked me if I "minded" being identified as a "disability writer".

I had to admit that I’d never thought of myself in precisely those terms. I could add that I’ve never thought of myself as "a five foot seven inch tall writer" or "a thinning hair writer" though as identity groups these might not be so bad. (I should look up the respective heights and pate conditions of the great nonfictionists throughout history. How tall exactly was Montaigne? What kind of hair did Samuel Pepys have?)

I told the student that in all honesty I don’t think there’s a distinction to be made between literary writing and what he was calling "disability" writing since in point of fact all novels for instance are essentially in some way about the body. I mentioned Hemingway’s "The Sun Also Rises" and Melville’s "Moby Dick" as two major examples of novels that are about deformity and illness. "Can you name a novel that isn’t in some way about the life of the body?" I asked him.

Continue reading “On Writing Nonfiction”

Stop on By

If you are in the Columbus area on April 5 I urge you to stop by the campus of The Ohio State University for the event described below. Mental illness is one of the most complex disabilities and I’m a admiring fan of the self-advocacy movement that today’s college and university students have been developing across the nation.

S.K.

 

Understanding and Advocating for People with Mental Illness

Short Video and Discussion led by

OSU Counseling Center and NAMIOhio

Thursday, April 5, 2007

5:15-7:30 pm

Refreshments Provided!

Room 14 in Psychology Building

If you wish to request accommodations for a disability or

have questions regarding the student chapter of NAMI,

please E-mail Lisa at carvitti.3@osu.edu for more information.

NAMI on Campus affiliates are student-run, student-led organizations providing mental health support, education, and advocacy in a university or college setting.

Their mission is to improve the lives of students who are directly or indirectly affected by mental illness, increase the awareness and mental health services on campus, and to eliminate the stigma students with mental illness face.

Check out www.namiohio.org to see how NAMI is helping Ohio.

Welcome to the Blogosphere!

For the better part of the past twenty years Simi Linton has been one of the most influential and effective public intellectuals in the field of disability studies in the United States.  She has also been a tireless advocate for disability arts.  Her book "Claiming Disability" is a groundbreaking text in the field of disability studies and her recently published memoir,  "My Body Politic" is a captivating view of a life of engagement as a scholar and artist. Now she has entered the blogosphere and I want to urge readers to visit her site and learn more about her public workshops and her views about where things are trending in disability arts. I want to add that I’m teaching both of her books in my spring quarter graduate workshop in disability studies at The Ohio State University and I will be directing my students to her site without delay.

Welcome Simi!

Visit her blog at:

http://similinton.com/blog 

S.K.

Better yet, you can now find her on our blog roll.  "Disability Culture Watch" is her link…

School Controversy in Columbus

Some days the sheer volume of the injustices one sees either globally or locally is enough to drive one into numb silence.  The list is long and includes the fact that the U.S. routinely executes innocent people; across the United States children are battered in foster care and as if that isn’t bad enough, some forty million children are living without health insurance; our troops are fighting a war on two fronts in the Middle East and are not receiving appropriate medical care when they return home; people with disabilities remain unemployed in the U.S. in staggering numbers; people who are blind or visually impaired remain unemployed at a 70 per cent rate; the "list" as I say, is terribly long and I haven’t even gotten to the issues of U.S. sponsored terrorism and our nation’s complicity in human rights violations around the globe.  I am mindful that the "list" as I’m calling it is very long indeed.

When yesterday I read the article referenced below in the Columbus Dispatch about the anger from some deaf "alumni" of the Ohio School for the Deaf at the proposed merger of the deaf school with the state’s school for the blind I was flat out "gob smacked" into temporary silence.  I simply passed the article on with the assertion that I was trying to "count to ten" because it’s good to take thought for one’s anger and we all know this from kindergarten.

Here is the problem as I see it.  I will now stir the slum gullion with a stick:

Some deaf people do not see deafness as a disability; they see "it" as a culture.  The reasoning is sound: deafness has its corresponding and entirely original sign language.  If everybody learned sign language, the reasoning goes, then deafness wouldn’t be a disability at all.  It would just be another form of human difference like, say, being French or Latvian is a form of cultural diversity .

Proponents of the above view are as various in their temperaments and their respective emotional intelligences as any other artificially created human group–if you collected all the taxi drivers in New York City you’d have around 20,000 citizens who hail from every ethnic and national group on earth and who hold distinct views on just about any issue you could imagine.

But some of the people who hold the "deafness is a culture, not a disability" viewpoint are remarkable for their disdain both for other deaf or hard of hearing people and for people who have other kinds of disabilities.  I wish this wasn’t the case.  I am always stunned by the capacity of human beings to engage in discrimination against other human beings, whether the subject is Rawanda or a local school playground.

I believe in the broadest possible sense that in most cases "no one" should be thought of as having a disability.  If you give people the proper tools and opportunities most "disabilities" are merely structural or architectural or attitudinal.  That’s my general view of the matter.  The very word "disability" became widely used in the 19th century and was meant to designate people who were essentially injured on the job and who in turn could no longer work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution.  It will surprise no one to learn that I don’t think the "D" word is appropriate these days.

But contempt by a small group of deaf activists for their historical relationship to the "disability" word is now in many instances misdirected by those same activists toward disdain for others who have physical impairments.  One is reminded of the ranking that has taken place within other historically marginalized groups: the hierarchy of "blackness" as a social scale within the African-American community comes to mind; the initial unwillingness of "wave one" feminists to include working class or ethnic women in their cause; even today on university campuses one sees how the discussion of "diversity" in higher education often leaves out disabled people.

Contempt is generally an economic issue even before it becomes a question of religious intolerance or ethnicity.  In the film "Gandhi" starring Ben Kingsley there is a marvelous scene in which Gandhi must scold his upper class wife who does not want to do the menial labor at the ashram.  The point is that as an upper class Indian woman Gandhi’s wife finds it intolerable to be seen raking a latrine pit since such work is the labor reserved for "untouchables"–those people who are at the lowest end of the caste system.  Gandhi tells her that "everyone will rake the latrine pits" and that henceforth there is no longer a caste system.  It is, as I’ve already said, a beautiful scene.  Human freedom cannot afford a caste system.  Freedom is for everybody.

The problem isn’t that some deaf activists want to be thought of as a cultural group, a collection of people who have their own language, who are not at all disabled.  The problem is that by wanting to disassociate themselves from a historical relationship with disability these deafness advocates are overtly contemptuous of other people who would quite likely love to declare themselves no longer disabled but who find themselves genuinely struggling with serious physical and social obstacles.  I would love to say that blindness isn’t a disability but currently it is certainly a profound employment obstacle and the issues that are associated with this are both economically determined and are additionally rooted in historical attitudes that Mrs. Gandhi would likely recognize.

Contempt for the blind emerges in this instance with the force of a geyser.  The reasoning works like this: deaf people are not disabled; to put them into a facility where they would have to share space with people who really are disabled would be demeaning to deaf students.

My response to this is that specialized schools for people with disabilities should quite likely no longer be necessary if we are serious in America about making public education accessible to every student.

But let’s leave that issue for the moment.

My real feeling is that if deaf people are not disabled and are essentially a cultural group, then why should they have a school that’s funded by the public?  I think this is a fair question.  The public doesn’t fund specialized schools for kids who want to learn French or Latvian, as noble as those pursuits might be.  Why should deaf people have any public funding at all if they don’t have a disability and if they don’t even want to be seen in the same place as those who do have disabilities?

The answer to this question is that of course deafness is a disability.  You can decide later in life that you are unwilling to be a member of any group that would have you, as Groucho Marx once famously said, but that’s an adult position.  Learning sign language and alternate technologies is an important, even crucial thing for deaf children, just as learning Braille or computer skills or orientation and mobility skills is central for blind children.

In order to learn discrimination we have to foster discrimination and that’s what is so troubling to me about the rhetoric of some of the activists in the deaf community.  It’s worth pointing out that these same folks dislike partially deaf people; they don’t like people who get Cochlear Implants, they don’t even like people who aren’t fluent in sign language.

My argument for them is simple: start your own cultural organization.  Go on out and do the fund raising like other groups do.  You might find the process rather interesting.  You might have to talk to people even if it isn’t in your own language.

S.K.

Public Lecture at OSU re: Disclosure and Identity

If you happen to be in the neighborhood…

Public Lecture: Disclosure and Identity
Tuesday, April 3rd,  4:00-5:30 p.m.
Followed Poster Reception from 5:30 – 7
Pfhal Hall 140

An open session at the Seventh Annual Multiple Perspectives Conference.  Free and open to the public, no registration required! A

Robert McRuer, Associate Professor of English at George Washington University, and Steve Kuusisto, Associate Professor of English at Ohio State, will engage in a dialogue on the role of the "the coming out narrative" in disabled, gay and lesbian life stories. How is the issue of self-disclosure mediated by the complex issues of socially constructed "normative" identity and in what ways do narratives of personal disclosure resist easy compartmentalization as stories of "overcoming"? This presentation should be of wide interest to those who are interested in the issues of self-advocacy, queer theory, disability studies, "life writing," and inter-disciplinary curricular development.

Dr. McRuer’s recent book, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (2006) will be available for purchase.

Contact smith.2447@osu.edu for more information. 

This event will be ASL interpreted and captioned.  Sponsored by the Disability Studies Program, GLBT Student Services, the Department of Women’s Studies, GradQueers, the  Sexuality Studies Program, Department of English, and the ADA Coordinator’s Office.

Asphodel, That Greeny Flower

William Carlos Williams famously wrote:

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,

        like a buttercup

               upon its branching stem–

save that it’s green and wooden–

           I come, my sweet,

                   to sing to you.

By the time Bill Williams wrote the lines above he had been affected and considerably by a stroke that made it difficult for him to talk or to hold a pen.  The lines reflect the urgency of his condition and the poem, a love poem to his wife Flossie, is filled, if you will, with flowers that arrive on the page with the abiding love that has grown and been steepened in times of physical duress and fading memories.

I was thinking of Dr. Williams today because we are living in a time of keen cynicism about the life of our nation.  Such abstracted and despairing feelings come when people are drawn away from close observation of the living world around them.  The very medium of television has contributed the most deleterious effects in this area and plenty of words have been cast upon the waters of that argument so I won’t carry on about it.

But Williams, old and dying, wrote a farewell poem to his wife and said that when she came into his life:

         your dear self,

mortal as I was,

    the lily’s throat

         to the hummingbird!

By Jove, old Bill Williams! That’s the stuff!

Upon meeting his wife Williams said: the whole world became my garden…

My wife Connie’s birthday is coming up and I hope to give her the new hummingbirds and lilies and some strawberries too.

If I write poetry for another thirty years I still won’t write a poem as great as old Doc Williams but I will be steadfast with joined hands.

Let us henceforth look to the greeny flowers…

S.K. 

For Want of a Word

Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking to the South Carolina statewide Vision conference: an event hosted by a consortium of programs and agencies that serve the blind and the deaf in South Carolina.  I was asked to talk on the subject of "self-advocacy" for kids with disabilities.  Although my remarks were delivered extemporaneously I thought I might share with the blogosphere one portion of my talk since I suspect that my memory serves me after 24 hours with a modicum of accuracy.

"When I think about the subject of "self-advocacy" for people with disabilities I am reminded of an anecdote from Ronald Reagan’s presidency.  I like Ronald Reagan’s sense of humor and his capacity to get to the heart of the matter.  On this occasion President Regan was hosting for the first time Britain’s Prince Charles in the Oval Office at the White House.  They talked for about 45 minutes about world affairs, about Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, about Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.  Then, all of a sudden, Ronald Reagan looked at Prince Charles and said: "Well, Prince Charles, I notice you haven’t had any of your tea. I thought you fellows liked tea?"  Prince Charles revealed that he’d never seen a tea bag before, and since he didn’t know what to do with it he thought it best to avoid his teacup altogether.

I like this story because it offers an example about the perils of not having self advocacy skills.  You see, in that situation Prince Charles had a kind of disability: he needed that cup of tea and he didn’t know how to ask for help.  This is an example of how the failure of language skills can create a disability where otherwise no disability would exist.  And because Prince Charles didn’t know how to ask for help he had to face a late afternoon without his "cuppa" and as everyone knows, that in turn must have made the Prince grouchy.  So he probably snapped at one of his aids.  He most likely said something unkind at an embassy reception later that evening.  And all this because no one ever taught him how to ask a basic question.  It turns out that everyone needs to have "self-advocacy" skills, and not just people with disabilities.  I also think a better term for "self-advocacy" is "emotional intelligence"–the term that was made popular by Daniel Goleman a few years back…"

Poor Prince Charles.  Because he didn’t know how to handle his tea bag he had a lousy evening.  I even suspect he was short tempered with the Princess.  You see, it’s the small things that sometimes really matter.

S.K.

Have Autism, Hope to Travel Soon

A couple of weeks ago I wrote Have Autism, Will Travel, a post about Monica Moshenko, host of Disability News and Views Radio Network, and her son, Alex and their plans to sell their house and hit the road in an RV.

"The goal is to meet and greet people with disabilities,
raise the public’s awareness about the disabled — and perhaps catch a
few wrestling matches along the way."

Monica wrote the other day to tell us that her house is now on the market.  (Looking for a house in upstate New York by any chance?)  She and Alex seem very excited about their planned adventure.  I’m excited for them.  More about their planned road trip here…  Hmmm.  I see no stop planned for Columbus, OH.  I wonder what we can do about that? 

As I mentioned in my previous post, thirteen year old Alex has a radio show of his own  "Al’s
Wrestling Talk
," which airs live on the Internet every Saturday night.  Alex has a passion for wrestling and has, in fact, recently been selected as the spokesman for new fundraising event, Wrestling Autism, a "campaign to raise awareness and funds for research for the thousands of children
with autism in our country today – over 1.5 million."  According to his mother:

"Alex is no stranger to raising
awareness for autism as he has been a voice for others with autism since he was
six years old telling kids to find their gifts and talents for years. Alex has
been on TV, radio and interviewed for articles many times always sharing the
positives that kids with Autism have to embrace. Now my son is involved in
another mission to raise awareness for autism called Wrestling Autism. Alex has
been a huge wrestling fan (so is Jim Carrey)! Alex started hosting his own radio
show online about wrestling last year. Since that time his audience has grown
and especially recently because Alex has been selected to be the face/voice of
Wrestling Autism – to raise awareness for autism. My son is thrilled to be
selected to be the voice for Wrestling Autism and hopes to inspire other kids
and adults to get involved !!"

* For some reason I can’t get two of the links above to work properly.  Here they are:
http://www.alswrestlingtalk.com
http://www.wrestlingautism.org

Alex, we look forward to keeping tabs on you and your Mom as you travel about the United States!

~ Connie