Please Mister, Stop Appropriating the Poor Cripples, Or, “The Blind Girl’s Sponge”

1.

A new novel appears; gets lots of praise; about a man who suffers a facial deformity and whatever passes for his inner life is destroyed. You guessed it: the author isn’t disabled. But he’s used a tried and true formula: deform a character and you can cover up your own literary deficiencies. Or nearly. Kafka understood this but his grotesqueries were about capitalism and not about individuals.

2.

In the airports, train stations, public byways, strangers approach and say unbidden things to me owing to my blindness. “I had a dog once,” they’ll say. Or: “I knew a blind girl once.” When I”m feeling charitable I think of their loneliness and let the intrusive moment go. When I’m more vituperative I’ll say anything to get out of the situation. “What dog?” I’ll say. Or: “I don’t like blind people.”

3.

You can only appropriate people you don’t understand. Notice I didn’t say, “insufficiently understand” because even maladroit and speculative thinking is better than incurious meddling. And that’s what ableist appropriation of disability is. Anthony Doerr has written a wholly fraudulent disabled character in his award winning novel “All the Light We Cannot See” (a title so stupid “that” alone should have killed it.) His charming blind girl can’t bathe herself though she’s something like fourteen. Her father (who is the author of course) has to help her. I think Doerr should have called the novel “The Blind Girl’s Sponge.”

4.

Now women writers do their own incurious meddling. There’s currently a very popular woman poet who writes of “grotesques” with enough whimsey to satisfy the ableist appetites of the creative writing academy. While I”m at it, let’s be clear that writers who hail from every kind of background write ableist junk. Feeling unimaginative? Just throw in a cripple or two. Two cripples will always be better than one. Beckett understood.

5.

“What’s the problem?” you say? “They’re just books.” You’re right. And Philip Larkin was right: “books are a load of crap.” And there’s more than one problem anyway. But Robinson Crusoe and Friday represent the unassailable comfort of appropriative culture. Novels are seldom progressivist. If you can get away with it, have three cripples in your coffee table book.

6.

In her new book “Believing in Shakespeare: Studies in Longing” Claire McEachern writes: “Even among person, plot, and place there exist differing expectations with respect to believability.” Her premise is that believing in characters is essentially a sacramental act. Read her book. It’s excellent. She writes:

“Persons are also found in nature as well as art; we can believe in each other, as well as in literary characters, the former suggesting the trust we confer on another ’ s purpose, the latter trust in an author ’ s conjuration. Sociobiology, anthropomorphism, and the sciences of empathy all suggest that humans are especially susceptible to each other; as philanthropic organizations know, a cause with a face is more difficult to shrug off than one without. 3 Prosopopoeia has long been the rhetorical figure employed to supernatural or political abstractions, endowing them with human-sized motive properties. Stories whose ultimate concern may be systemic or institutional identities or corporate fortunes (e.g., the fate of a nation, a race, or a culture) typically phrase their exempla in the unit of the individual. There is something particular about the person. Perhaps it is easier to believe in a literary person because less belief is required. People are people persons.”

7.

Prosopopoeia is just the thing, the ingredient you need if you want to turn real people into cartoons. Where disability is concerned Shakespeare was also a cultural appropriator. Caliban’s deformities come from Montaigne’s imagined ugly cannibals but no matter, you’ve got stock characters who will obediently and without controversy represent whatever imperial disdain you need to employ.

It has always been my contention that the first fully realized disabled character in Western literature is Melville’s Ahab. And though he’s not likable, he’s complex and understandable.

Which brings me back to my original point: the average ableist writer doesn’t need to know Ahab at all. He or she watches the cartoons.

Disability Poetics: Essay Number Four

I peel off my skin, hair, toss away my eyes, walk around with veins exposed, all the while “me” in a hanging blood gout. You can tell it’s Kuusisto: his heart ticks like hot metal.
“It’s me! It’s me!” says the heart. The bones stick out. And he waves his poems like a child begging attention from adults.

“The first and perhaps most obvious literary representation of disability is that in which it acts as some form of ethical background to the actions of other characters, or as a means of testing or enhancing their moral standing. Martha Stoddard Holmes (2002, 228) refers to this kind of representation as “critical null sets, convenient containers for the essential human emotions required by the nondisabled characters around them.” ”

(Ato Quayson. “Aesthetic Nervousness.”)

Ah but the crippled poet has given up on the moral standing of others.

Nevertheless she, he, they, them, naked, slick, drifting, refinds the solitudes from which we’re born.

Disability Poetics, Essay Two

After the usual greetings….

Let’s talk about the up river blues, terror capitalism, how to live and what to do against a backdrop of Bram Stoker dread…I often imagine I’m closer to the gothic than many of my friends. Because I might die today stepping into traffic, blind, but with a dog for company. And I could die tomorrow in a strange hotel on my hands and knees trying to plug in an electric fan, dead too soon like Merton. And one must think about letting go slick phantasms in the buying and selling laundromat that is America, let go of the gruel thin lingo of political talk. Give away the early text books. Yes up river. Yes the blues. Yes a song or two about catfish.

Disability Poetics: Essay Number One

Critical disability studies and crip studies seek to destabilize traditional modes of body analysis and affirm (perhaps an ableist trope) a post-static and unreferenced sense of bodies. I sometimes think of classic, normative bodies as vanishing before our eyes like Brigadoon. In this way I relish what Lennard J. Davis calls the end of normalcy. I like to say (because I’m a poet) that I’m not a blind man at all but instead a rider of dragons. The smoke I leave behind is poetry. It suits me. This is disability as epistemological fancy. This also suits me.

John Ruskin wrote: “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” I’m not so naive as to agree but where the spirit is concerned I’ll take it. Poetry and disability are snug together in the mysterious, rich, daily toil toward newer potentialities. If Ezra Pound was right and poetry is news that stays news one might say crippled poetry is the news which also invites you to turn the page. I’ll say the disabled are different over the course of the day. All disability is protean. We work with it and against it and we adopt multiple accommodations and no one knows more than the crips we’re not static bodies at all. By day’s end my dragon might be a gila monster. And I might be inapparent as twilight comes. Maybe all you’ll see of me are my pin prick glowing spider’s eyes—you know, those eyes that scare children on camping trips.

When I got my first guide dog back in 1994 the guide dog school made me sign a paper that said, among other things, that I wouldn’t use my guide dog for the purpose of begging. Imagine the back stories. I went home and wrote the following poem:

To a Blind Man Selling Pencils: New York City

And then, others arrived:
Eyes first, surveyors, important men,
Men who wore the flag—runners,
Who fill the streets in every town.
They carried sacks like thieves.
Every day such men feel their blood rise:
It uses them, returns them to the avenues
And I alone discovered them, one by one.
I was of the provinces. I was reflected
In their eyes like a fire.
Some men possess the color of origin—
The blind man is amaranth, aman-word of sorts,
A word that will be mistaken on earth.
Still I saluted the closed world
Without its consent,
Crossed the water of streets
And raised a sign
Unreadable as the moon.
My plea had the whiteness
Of things that have no use in life
And the words were Nothing more than a scar
That someone must have given me.
Why then did your name appear
Like the marks of a wheel
In this unyielding light?

What was I after? For one thing a reader response confusion between the able bodied starer and the thing stared at. Abjection is currency and it is exchanged to the detriment of both parties. Sighted people protect themselves from this by imagining they’ve not been changed by their acts of half conscious charity—but fear and beneficence are a losing hand for they suggest poverty and neglect are the yardsticks by which all people must be judged. Another way to say it is: if the disabled must represent society’s failures then you the apparently abled observer must be more than half in love with sufferance. The most often employed phrase for this is “there but for the grace of God go I.”

How many scars can the able bodied give the disabled? None if we say so.

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.

On Being the Only Cripple at the Arts Colony

Over a number of years I’ve had the fortune to be housed and fed at places that are devoted to promoting the arts and one should acknowledge fortune is a neutral word for anything that occurs is a matter of luck for good or ill. I’m not the bite the hand that feeds me type. My work has been assisted greatly by residencies at arts colonies both well known and up and coming places. This past summer I spent four and a half weeks at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a beautiful and legendary place for artists of all kinds. It was my fourth visit to the colony and I will never say a bad thing about the work of MacDowell or its extraordinary-staff.


But something happened to me while I was housed at MacDowell that’s left me pondering what it means to be a disabled artist. Frankly I felt more and more alone. I was the blind guy with the lovely dog. The important conversations were about diversity and while these dinner dialogues were good, I found whenever I suggested the disabled are intersectional figures where issues of identity and human rights are concerned I was treated as a quaint and colorful tinker who makes quirky shoes.

Now being lonesome at an arts colony is an interesting thing. After all you’re not there to be a gadfly and getting your work done in a quiet and nurturing space is what the whole thing is about. I got work done. I wrote in my woodland cabin. I took thoughtful walks with my dog.

I felt like a curiosity rather than a figure of acceptance. I was the only disabled artist there. I’m often the only disabled person in a whole variety of settings. Why was this summer at MacDowell different?

The casual ableism of the other artists was part of the problem. Blindness and deafness and intellectual disability turned up frequently as pejorative terms in casual conversations. I lost my temper one evening explaining to a young writer that the “r” word isn’t acceptable when talking about people with intellectual disabilities.

What was different is my age. I’m too old for ableist nonsense and too tired to care that I’m the outlier.

But wouldn’t it be nice of the best arts colonies actually had disability months? Frankly I could use dome creative and progressive conversation about embodiment and imagination.

And yes, a few ripping good laughs.