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.

Ripeness is All

Beethoven’s violin concerto is the perfect balance of milk and milk.
Adorno’s dialectic is to body shame as money is to dialysis.
Disability studies is to ableism as crickets in August.
Wallace Stevens is to philosophy as bibles are to baking.
When poets have fun so do the tea cups.
Playing the violin burns about 170 calories per hour.

**

How close am I to becoming someone?
Of course I mean this in a moral sense.
I have the history of morals here in my cup.
Dregs of Aristotle.
Push them with my finger.
Happiness. Virtue. Work.
Remember to be a good flute player.

**

I ask so many questions.
Why do I believe I should soften death?

**

What is someone?
Is it cumulative flowers on a grave?
Even Shakespeare threw up his hands.
I joked once in a Helsinki pub:
Lear is a self help book…
“Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”

**

Thank God I have the radio for company.
Thank God for William Shakespeare, life coach:
“And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.”

**

After Ecclesiastes:

I haven’t been true to myself lately
I press my face into barberry leaves
I weep among stems
If you know me you’ll not be surprised
If you know me you too will be honest

When I Close My Eyes

Face it: its feeling drives you
No help for it
Bread sits untouched
& the country that isn’t a place
Takes you in

**

Yes I’m blind
I can still see a swan’s track
On the water

**

History calls the sleepless

**

After years
I’m not much of a talker
I prefer to drop things

**

The houses hereabouts have no special beauty
You won’t find gorgeous specificities
Strangers have sorrow smoke in their eyes

**

Up in the tree of boyhood
With a home made arrow and bow
When I close my eyes

Rainy notebook department….

“When one burns one’s bridges, what a very nice fire it makes.”

Did Dylan Thomas really mean it?

(Riding a tram in Helsinki.)

**

One likes to imagine death driven by wind—
leaves, snow, what have you…

**

Phenomenology is to the body
As the body is to a seed
Please don’t think too hard about this

**

Handel’s “Water Music” is cheerful, stately, vaguely orgiastic
Radio on a rainy morning

**

Old Folks Poem

I can’t keep up
I can’t keep up
What’s that? A frying pan?

Please don’t think too hard about this

**

One morning early, bending to trash, I saw a flash, a light not of this world. “Maybe my retina has detached,” I thought. The gold white iridescent microburst was passing strange but then it was gone and to date has never returned.

Every now and then that flash, that otherworldly color, returns in mind.

All our eyes expect to be received.

**

Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it I know not. God knows.

—Handel

Leafage

Sometimes I cry aloud
Charon does also
It’s hard work
Living moment to moment

**

Drama is crying with a script
I can’t find mine

One definition of childhood

**

The old dog bit me

**

You can discuss Helen Keller
But you can’t say what words
Perform on the inside

**

Have you seen a cormorant
Enter the sea?

That’s my Helen Keller—
That falling….

**

I sat on the sofa where the former me had been so damned sad.

**

Greek myth, Boolean algebra, Lyell’s hypothesis, Tu Fu—will they come with me?

**

“Leafage is hearsay when you’re blind, until you hear it. Today is May 27.” (Walking in a cemetery in Peterborough, New Hampshire.)

Cloud Houses

In heaven
Where coins are useless
No need for eyeballs

**

Boat rotting on the beach
Ghost still rows
What happens
Is relatively simple

**

Houses, barns, trees
Proclaim in mannered voices
Those who presided here.

**

Turns on his radio
For psychotherapy

**

Andante Favori
A dance with animals, autumn

**

“He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky, proving the sky quite useless for protection.”

—Elizabeth Bishop

Blind man with pictures in his head…

**

I make cloud houses for a living
I’m a fair singer also
**

Don’t judge my posture

**

Poor Achilles, always a mama’s boy

**

Eat more American prunes

**

Cat stares down coyote
Past lives are decisive

**

Best anagram ever: “Public relations” = “Crap built on lies”

**

Imagination had been grudging
Now it was doggish
Over there and over there

Fall Arrives in the Finger Lakes

The poets always say “if”
The mosquitoes say “now”
Exchange is a puzzle

**
Up river empty houses
Lean in the wind

**

When writing
Add footnotes—
George Washington
Spilled blood over there

**

By those birches
People tried in vain
To silence anxiety

**

Tattered maple tree
Squandering light
With its falling leaves

**

The summer has been dark as a bed

**

The poets always say “if”
As in: if the soul gets loose

**

When I close my eyes
I see Winter’s mask:
Gold animals