Ode to Professor “P”

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.

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 

Of or Pertaining to Self Approval in the Age of Airlines

Mark Twain wrote: “We can secure other people’s approval, if we do right and try hard; but our own is worth a hundred of it, and no way has been found out of securing that.”

I like this quote but think Twain got it wrong. As a disabled man I know that I cannot secure other people’s approval so long as I insist on my rights or what we like to call “equal rights” and therefore the only way I can secure self-approval is by insistence. I insist that I belong at this meeting, in this room, on this airplane, in the voting booth, in your taxi, theater, hotel, swimming pool, university, library, railway, hell, even your amusement park.

I do not get customary approval for this entreaty and that is painful, at least on the inside where the barbs from others must go. I secure my affirmation from public resistance and I’ll take my public scorn with a twist of lemon thank you very much.

Last week I had two plane flights where—despite the laws of the land—the airline wouldn’t seat me and my guide dog or “seeing-eye dog” as they’re sometimes called in a place where we could fit. In each case I cited the applicable law (the Air Carrier Transportation Act) which makes it clear that they have to put me where we can fit. And in each case I was treated with absolute disdain and then hostility. The airline was Delta but it could be any one of them.

I was angry, humiliated, and yes, embarrassed for the flight attendants were not only inhospitable they made me the problem. We call that ableism in disability circles and like racism or homophobia it’s all about the knee jerk assumption that someone different is a lesser being and can be treated as such. This is why all bigotry hurts all others. If Chic Fil-A thinks it can object to queer people on a phony religious principle, then they can also object to me and my guide dog. Disdain carries a permission index that’s portable.

The Delta airlines flight attendants not only didn’t care that I couldn’t fit in their seat, they also didn’t care about the law—which says they have to move to a place where I can fit. They did not want to be bothered. The overheated cigar tube was being crammed with passengers, the public address system was smoking with imprecations to tag your bag because the overhead bins were full, please sit your ass down, we’ve got a schedule to keep, etc.

And there I was with a big assed guide dog who couldn’t fit under my feat. I crammed her head under the seat in front of me and sat with my own feet tucked under my ass like a chic woman on a divan. Try doing that for five hours.

The story is worse than this. A woman seated next to me was rude. She didn’t like sitting next to a dog. A flight attendant appeared, (remember, they didn’t try to reseat me) and in front of me asked her if she minded sitting where she was.

I can’t get the approval of strangers and I have no idea what Mark Twain meant. But I have my own satisfaction. I tell the truth. That’s what civil rights are for.

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 

On Being Expensive, Difficult, and Lonesome in Higher Education

I feel like opening up. Some days, owing to blindness, because of my internalized “super crip” expectations (all that rococo internalized ableism) I think my job is to make being a disabled professor look easy. Alright, most days. OK. Every day. Yes daily I saddle myself with the false and unachievable supposition I’m supposed to be absolutely flawless. After all, to admit a flaw would be to succumb to vision loss. The medical model of disability IS the academy as it’s currently established. Of course I know too much to live this way. Sure. Absolutely. But the academy doesn’t care what I know. Universities have almost no interest in unpacking their nascent ableism since this would require examining a thousand years of questionable institutional exceptionalism. Alright, maybe eight hundred years. The academy is constructed entirely around the idea of the elect, the promotable, the meritocracy, the lithe and nimble of mind and body. As a professor I too must be this way. If I have merit it must mean this business of researching, writing, teaching, and serving is natural. If it comes with hard work it’s only the difficulty of ideas, the speed of a required curriculum that stands in your way, not your body or your learning style. If these are impediments you shouldn’t be within a hundred yards of the ivory tower.

I’ve been a tenured professor (lucky me) at three American universities and I was a long time adjunct at a fourth. My blindness has been a problem at all of these places—sometimes an ugliness—and now I must admit at the age of sixty four and still likely a decade away from retirement that the career—mine—has been painful, clotted, steep, and wearisome. In the faculty ranks the disabled are not naturally linked with other academic diversity initiatives. While my historically marginalized colleagues have many many problems (which I do not dismiss) they also have (at least at the institutions where I’ve worked) something like society, something like a collective voice. I am the only blind professor at Syracuse University and have been the only blind professor wherever I’ve worked. My embodiment and my accessibility needs are lonely and exhausting things.

I remember the famous poetry professor at the University of Iowa who told me when I was a graduate student that I shouldn’t be in his class. In his view, if I couldn’t read as fast as other students I was uneducable. All disabled students who read differently or communicate differently know this story. Certainly autists who type or students with learning disabilities know their very presence in college is secretly or overtly questioned by faculty and administrators. Academic ableism is the norm. It’s been the norm throughout my forty plus year career as a student, grad student, and faculty member. Wherever I’ve worked or studied I try for consistency: calling out accessibility problems and ableist attitudes. Behind this though is the pressure to appear perfect and make the “life” look easy.

Nothing could be more unachievable or hopeless. I have faculty colleagues (some of whom teach disability related courses) who don’t care a whit about the inaccessibility of websites, academic research materials, PDF documents, HR surveys, adopted computer programs, online teaching and learning portals, PowerPoint presentations at department meetings or campus events, films or video presentations—the list is long when you’re blind. I’m the outlier asking for admission to all these things and after years in higher ed I feel no closer to inclusion or admittance today than I did years ago.

The only good thing is that computers have gotten better. Tablets and phones have become more blind friendly. Apple has made my life better. Microsoft is getting on board. The technology now exists to assure colleges and universities are fully accessible to the blind. But they’re not. The ableism of bureaucracy and meritocracy holds back the blind over and over again.

Meantime I’m supposed to be (as I said above) absolutely flawless. Despite the lack of good usable assistive technologies across campus I should be a superior teacher, graceful, kind, cheer up the normal people who find disability either consternating or distressing, publish as much as my colleagues, if not more, and be a “thought leader” whatever that means.

Not long ago during the same week when I was faced for the umpteenth time with a new university web portal that was inaccessible, I was asked to participate in a campus inclusion workshop. I declined. I said I couldn’t do any more emotional lifting for the university. This was a breakthrough for me.

“What’s that?” you say, “you can’t help the able bodied faculty anymore?”

That’s right.

I’m not going to pretend at easiness anymore.

My weekdays are clogged with inaccessible features.

The built environment is consistent. I don’t belong.

I’ve spoken about these things over and over for years and my spirit is patched. It has holes. The moths of ableism have eaten my beret.

In recent weeks I’ve called on Syracuse University to make films and videos accessible to the blind.

Some people have responded positively to this. Others not so much. One faculty member went out of her way to tell me how difficult and expensive this is.

Blindness is always “difficult and expensive” whether the subject is audible traffic signals, a Braille menu, or getting screen reading software for a PC.

I’m difficult and expensive and noisy and bothersome and mostly lonely in higher education.

Empty Paths

Don’t sing to me about going down to the Crossroads—
Blind as I am, walking with a dog,
I’m always at lethal intersections.
These are countries without names.
The Devil has nothing to do with them.
Henry Ford sits on his cloud and points.

**

Read T.S. Eliot in youth.
Now when I go back
I riffle an album full of leaves.

**

After much is said and done
I made too many mistakes.
Entered strange parlors,
Uttered jokes in poor taste
Among people I didn’t know.
Ate with the wrong utensils.

**

So he went a long way a long way:
Metaphorical luggage,
Regrets, coins, pocket comb,
Dharma in memory.
Broken thread dangling from his wrist.

**

Eliot:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

Oh but this isn’t so.
The language stretches out.
On the bright side:
Language is a jacket you’re not cold in.

**

So many times I’ve fallen asleep between two winds.
Even on this street corner.

Adult on Campus

When I was a child I spake as a child but then I got my act together. If the time ever does come when I stand before my maker and speak about my life I hope to say I became a man. I do not mean the craven, self-absorbed, meretricious boy-man of my era as they’re merely children in big boy clothing. By my lights a man acknowledges his neighbors and fosters what used to be called civic standards. Call me a boy scout if you wish. But kindness, loyalty to virtues, the courage to tell the truth—even about the self—trustworthiness—and yes I know its hard to take anyone seriously who evokes the boy scouts but let’s think of them as having been liberated by their rhetoric if not by their leadership.

In this way I stand before you. I’m a 64 year old blind guy who’s spent the last thirty years fighting for what we call “inclusion” nowadays though I prefer the term civil rights. Inclusion is so clean. Civil rights are tougher to promote as they require knowledge of the law, ambition for those who’ve been marginalized, and a willingness to insist on equal treatment for all. Inclusion seems tidy—seems to suggest that equality has already been achieved and all you need is a ticket to get into the pleasant, inclusive big top. Where civil rights are concerned its best to consider the ways that human systems resist moral scales whenever it’s convenient.

The man or woman or child who insists on civil rights is inconvenient. (S)he’s likely outspoken when the moment calls for garden party politeness. Meanwhile, as Michael Eric Dyson has said: “Justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public.” The speaking can be uncomfortable to hear. Invoking an approximate analogy or metaphor, speaking truth about civil rights must necessarily be irate love. Inclusion, for me, doesn’t cut it.

Inclusion is a fine term but its subordinate to a larger expectation that civil rights, equal rights have been achieved. I’m a university professor. See me in your mind’s eye, walking across the campus with my guide dog. I struggled all morning to get an accessible version of an academic article; I argued with a dean about the needs of a learning-disabled student whose accommodations didn’t happen in a timely way; I learned that a major renovation to an audito­rium won’t be accessible to wheelchair users—these things within a single morning. Now multiply this five-hour period by 365 days per year, minus college vacations—make it 276—then again, multiply by years. Do not think me rebarbative or an agitator. I am not a bellyacher. In this instance I’m walking the agora, head up, fleet of foot, holding ambitions for every disabled learner who stands at the portcullis.

In this way I’m an adult.

The Confessions of Arnold the Ableist

Chapter One

I gave a nickel to a cripple and then I walked away. “Nickel, cripple, nickel, cripple,” I thought. I gave nothing to the blind man I met in the next street. “Nothing, blind,” I thought, “these also go together.” Then I stepped in some dog shit. I knew it was disabled people who did this.

Chapter Two

I don’t mind if a cripple sits next to me on the bus—I’m sitting in their reserved space after all and I’m “Normal” but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one. Their art is barbarous and you must admit, they smell.

Chapter Three

O rodomontade! It’s a crippley-wippley world! Look! Here comes one with some kind of breathing apparatus! I’d like to rip it right our of her mouth and take that smug look off her face! They all think they’re so “special!” Alright, yes, I admit, as a boy I used to hurt animals, but never the big ones.

Chapter Four

You wouldn’t know it, but I’m a university professor. I mean, what with my habits of dress you wouldn’t recognize me. I wear tight jeans and radical tee shirts. But it bugs the shit out of me when the namby pamby LD students and those sightless ones enroll in my classes. I get up on my fictive high horse (named “Trigger” of course) and ride wildly around the campus big top snarling at deans and admissions flunkies. I can’t decide whether the disabled or the deans are more pitiable!

Chapter Five

O dear. I broke my coccyx at a garden party when I attempted to sit on a folding chair and it collapsed beneath me. You can’t imagine the pain I’m in. I’ll tell you all about it for another gin fizz.

Fast Virgin Train, Blindness, and the Talking Toilet

If you’re blind and travel you know a good deal about the world of talking appliances which are designed by sighted people and are intended to help people with vision loss but are really rather goofy: elevators that announce “doors open” and the miserable voices of bank machines. But just this week I met the greatest talking device of them all: the speechifying toilet on the Virgin train from Liverpool to London.

Now the Virgin fast train talking toilet (hereafter known as the VF3T) wasn’t designed for blind people. She was created for morbidly depressed travelers. I call her “she” because I’ve been told her voice is that of a woman who won some kind of contest.

Imagine reading an advertisement: “Be the voice of the Talking Toilet!” and thinking it sounds like a great opportunity. You want to break into the big time, be a star of stage and screen. Surely you’ll work your way up from the crapper. (Whatever happened to being on the radio?)

Picture me in the unfamiliar swaying toilet cubicle. No Braille on any buttons. I can’t figure out how to shut the door. A passing stranger reaches in and says, “Here, I’ll press the shut button for you.”

Poof. Door shut. The toilet starts her speech.

Before saying anything more let me just ask: “who thought that giving a toilet a woman’s voice, an actual human voice was a grand idea?” Of course the answer is “a sighted person” for if you’re blind and groping in a vaguely intimidating water closet hearing the following is piercingly bad:


“Hello there! Welcome to Virgin!”

I was mortified.

Had I entered an already occupied WC?

“I hope you’re having a wonderful day!”

“Did you know there are many splendid traveling opportunities with Virgin?”

“Alright,” I thought, “she’s a toilet bragging about train service. Not a big deal.”

But she continued. She was a kind of self help guru talking up the glories of life, the virtues of moving about the world and the joys of being alive.

The VF3T wants to keep you alive.

The VF3T is designed to prevent disheartened travelers from offing themselves in the loo.

“Aren’t sighted people funny?” I thought.

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