On the Probable Death of Empathy

Empathy is an engrossing word. While it means the capacity to understand and share the feelings of others, its Greek origin suggests entering into the emotions of others. The Greeks thought empatheia was sacred. In dramatic terms its absence was viewed as a tragic flaw. With the advent of literacy (“book learnin’” as Huck Finn called it) empathy was reckoned as the ability to imagine what someone feels, a difference, as the Greeks didn’t fully believe in imagination in these terms instead viewing it as a divine prerogative only available to the best minds.

In the modern world (which for argument’s sake starts with Shakespeare) empathy as imagination has been a responsibility of sorts. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Whitman, George Eliot, Grace Paley, Eudora Welty—a long list—each of these writers shouldered a duty to bring forward the buzz and confusion in the minds of outsiders. Beginning with the Elizabethans literary writing is understood as an obligation to reach beyond the self.

With the altogether exciting rise of singular voices in literary publishing, those who speak from singularities—disability, blackness, Native American experience, LGBTQ lives, Asian-American experiences, regionalisms of all kinds—literary empathy is often recast as “cultural appropriation.” It is asserted that no one “not of your neighborhood” should ever ever imagine your life for you. There’ve been many brouhahas recently about writers who are believed to be transgressors, who willfully seized the interiority of human beings not of their own neighborhoods.

As one who hails from a historically marginalized position I believe this febrile, literary neighborhood watch is both understandable and fatal.

I’m a blind poet and I loathe Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr presents a blind teenager, a girl, as helpless to the point of needing to be bathed by her father. Since Doerr makes her blindness vaguely interesting, allowing some flashes from her point of view many non-disabled readers flipped for the book.

From a disability POV Doerr extends damaging stereotypes—her inability to bathe, her half- prophetic intelligence—are junk. Many in the disability community have cited the book for “cultural appropriation” a position I fully grasp. Doerr uses blindness as a literary device to advance his plot, Within the field of Disability Studies this is called “narrative prosthesis.”

Does the novel really do damage to the blind? Who knows. The blind are 70% unemployed in the United States. We’re imagined as quasi-helpless, burdensome. Doerr plays into this. He does present her as having an inner life. Big whoop! I’m citing him for a failure of empathy. He cannot steal my culture.

This is the crux of the matter: talented writers can enter effectively into the lives of others, even people who aren’t situated precisely next door. For my money one of the most effective portrayals of disability in all of literature was written by Toni Morrison. In her novel Sula she puts readers inside the head of Shadrack, a World War I veteran suffers from PTSD and has been released prematurely from a veterans hospital. He can’t order his mind or control his hands. He’s seen brains flying in the air. She writes at first of his experience in the ward:

“When Shadrack opened his eyes he was propped up in a small bed. Before him on a tray was a large tin plate divided into three triangles. In one triangle was rice, in another meat, and in the third stewed tomatoes. A small round depression held a cup of whitish liquid. Shadrack stared at the soft colors that filled these triangles: the lumpy whiteness of rice, the quivering blood tomatoes, the grayish-brown meat. All their repugnance was contained in the neat balance of the triangles—a balance that soothed him, transferred some of its equilibrium to him. Thus reassured that the white, the red and the brown would stay where they were—would not explode or burst forth from their restricted zones—he suddenly felt hungry and looked around for his hands. His glance was cautious at first, for he had to be very careful—anything could be anywhere. Then he noticed two lumps beneath the beige blanket on either side of his hips. With extreme care he lifted one arm and was relieved to find his hand attached to his wrist. He tried the other and found it also. Slowly he directed one hand toward the cup and, just as he was about to spread his fingers, they began to grow in higgledy-piggledy fashion like Jack’s beanstalk all over the tray and the bed. With a shriek he closed his eyes and thrust his huge growing hands under the covers. Once out of sight they seemed to shrink back to their normal size. But the yell had brought a male nurse.

“Private? We’re not going to have any trouble today, are we? Are we, Private?””

Later, out in the world, alone, without assistance, we see him on a country road:

“Once on the road, he headed west. The long stay in the hospital had left him weak—too weak to walk steadily on the gravel shoulders of the road. He shuffled, grew dizzy, stopped for breath, started again, stumbling and sweating but refusing to wipe his temples, still afraid to look at his hands. Passengers in dark, square cars shuttered their eyes at what they took to be a drunken man.

The sun was already directly over his head when he came to a town. A few blocks of shaded streets and he was already at its heart—a pretty, quietly regulated downtown.

Exhausted, his feet clotted with pain, he sat down at the curbside to take off his shoes. He closed his eyes to avoid seeing his hands and fumbled with the laces of the heavy high-topped shoes. The nurse had tied them into a double knot, the way one does for children, and Shadrack, long unaccustomed to the manipulation of intricate things, could not get them loose. Uncoordinated, his fingernails tore away at the knots. He fought a rising hysteria that was not merely anxiety to free his aching feet; his very life depended on the release of the knots. Suddenly without raising his eyelids, he began to cry. Twenty-two years old, weak, hot, frightened, not daring to acknowledge the fact that he didn’t even know who or what he was…with no past, no language, no tribe, no source, no address book, no comb, no pencil, no clock, no pocket handkerchief, no rug, no bed, no can opener, no faded postcard, no soap, no key, no tobacco pouch, no soiled underwear and nothing nothing nothing to do…he was sure of one thing only: the unchecked monstrosity of his hands. He cried soundlessly at the curbside of a small Midwestern town wondering where the window was, and the river, and the soft voices just outside the door…

Through his tears he saw the fingers joining the laces, tentatively at first, then rapidly. The four fingers of each hand fused into the fabric, knotted themselves and zigzagged in and out of the tiny eyeholes.

By the time the police drove up, Shadrack was suffering from a blinding headache, which was not abated by the comfort he felt when the policemen pulled his hands away from what he thought was a permanent entanglement with his shoelaces. They took him to jail, booked him for vagrancy and intoxication, and locked him in a cell. Lying on a cot, Shadrack could only stare helplessly at the wall, so paralyzing was the pain in his head. He lay in this agony for a long while and then realized he was staring at the painted-over letters of a command to fuck himself. He studied the phrase as the pain in his head subsided.”

Morrison’s portrayal of Shadrack is pure empathy and is a demonstration of literary writing at its finest. I won’t quibble about a non-disabled writer entering into the thoughts and torments of a wounded veteran. I can’t. The disabled need all the allies they can get. When a novelist as talented as Morrison turns her attention to a man with shell shock, who has no language for his experience, who cannot control his hands, then she is employing art in the service of a greater appreciation of tragedy and difference for every reader. This is empathy at its best. Its stunning.

I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. I think non disabled writers can write brilliantly about disability experience. They need to do their homework—talk to real blind people, true cripples, what have you.

The term cultural appropriation must never detract writers from the brilliant art of literary empathy.

I don’t want to live in the age when empathy died.

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 

The Ableist Shrug at Licorice University

Ableism: I’m the problem. I didn’t get cured. Didn’t stand up. Couldn’t read the books with my peepers. “Jeepers Creepers, where’d you get those peepers?” 

Good eyes are productive, produce results; bad eyes, get cured baby! 

Ableism: a term no one likes. Like licorice. (No one really likes licorice. Studies have shown this to be true.) 

What if I substitute “licorice” for ableism? Would it be easier to talk about? 

Licorice: a set of beliefs that hold everyone must like licorice. All licorice eaters are equal but some are more equal than others. If you don’t favor Glycyrrhiza glabra you can’t sit at the table. The great big licorice table. 

Note: too much licorice will poison animals and humans. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t whole cities of licorice. 

Side note; when I was a boy in Finland, licorice candies were sold in bite sized pieces, wrapped in wax paper featuring a cartoon of a little black child. 

Licorice is not innocence. 

Ableism: a predominant belief that discrimination against the disabled is just a matter of innocence. E.g. “We really care about disabled people. What’s that? You can’t get basic accommodations? Oh dear. That MUST be awful! I’m sorry you feel that way!”

Ableism: the disabled have ungoverned feelings. That’s their problem. Really. It is their problem not ours. 

I call the example just above “the ableist shrug”—universities are especially good at this. 

Back to licorice: “So Billy, you don’t like licorice? Then you can’t be in our club house!”

Ableism is infantile. 

The shrug is privilege. It’s not convenient to think about those people today. Perhaps we will get to them tomorrow. 

I’m sorry you feel that way.

Candy can represent hegemony. Finnish candy. 

The shrug: we are good people. We care about you. But your accommodation is way down on our list of priorities, because, well, how do I say this? You’re not in our budget. Not in our plans, not convenient, yes, that’s it! You’re really really really not convenient. We love convenience here at Licorice University. We may talk big about being the best! Frankly, business as usual is just fine. We especially like the Licorice Clubhouse. 

Shrug:  the word comes from Late Middle English and it originally meant “to fidget”—and fidget is an early Modern English word meaning “uneasy”—the shrug, the licorice ableist shrug signifies that disability makes the ableist both uneasy and vexed. Having to think about disability is nettlesome. 

When the disabled bring up their problems—lack of access to buildings, bathrooms, educational materials, transportation, zero dignity in the village square, the shrug works this way: 

  • We personalize the problem. 
  • It’s the disabled person’s difficulty not ours.
  • All disabled people are just failed medical patients. 
  • If you can’t be cured, you’re a failure as a human being.
  • While the disabled are talking, we look at our iPhones.
  • We all know there’s something wrong with the disabled, it’s below the surface, like icebergs.
  • You can’t see it, but below the waterline they’ve got bad attitudes. 
  • If the disabled just had better attitudes. 
  • When the disabled say, “we really hate it here” you say: “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
  • Which means the problems are not about accessibility and inclusion but all about the individualized disabled person.

If you were the right kind of disabled, (Tiny Tim for example) you’d be grateful for the little we’ve given you. “I know it’s a dinky crutch, hand made by your impoverished father, but it’s yours Tiny. It’s yours!”

 

 

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 

Structural Inequality at Syracuse Can Change….

Things are going badly at my university where diversity is concerned. In fact this is an understatement. The racist, ableist, homophobic, misogynistic videos from a fraternity party are chilling. Syracuse U didn’t make these videos happen; didn’t instruct fraternity boys to unleash hatred. I give the university a pass on coercion. Yet our civic space, or “agora” has long been exclusionary, toxic, and even cruel to historically marginalized students, staff, and faculty. 

Right now there’s a lot of talk about systematic change. Committees are being called. Grievance meetings are being held. They are good first steps. 

Syracuse University cannot succeed unless her administrators, staff, students and faculty have a collective and shared intellectual experience that examines bigotry in all its institutional and hegemonic ways. 

Disabled as I am, I have seen first hand how senior administrators have shrugged their shoulders when told that accommodations and access for disabled students, staff, visitors, and faculty are not easy to obtain and are often lacking altogether. 

This isn’t a new experience for me. I’ve been teaching here for 7 years and have been ignored for much of that time. Course management software not accessible? Thanks for telling us Prof. K. Ho Hum. You know of a student who failed a course because she didn’t get note taking accommodations in a timely way? Thanks for telling us Prof. K. Ho Hum. What? You can’t get access to teaching materials in accessible formats? Thanks again. Ho Ho Hum. 

7 years is a long long time to be waiting for action. Now, because of the horrid videos mentioned above the university is talking about changing its culture. 

My argument, such as it is, is that ableism is rife in the academy. Most scholars believe that education is a race and it goes to the fittest. They believe disabled people are only on campus because of the sufferance imposed by disability rights laws. How many students have come to me over the last few years sharing tales of faculty who don’t want to provide them with reasonable accommodations—extra time on tests, the ability to record lectures because they’re blind, sneering at them because owing to autism they wear noise reduction headphones in class—the list of faculty misdeeds is a long one. Then there are the senior administrators, deans, provosts, associate vice presidents, who think disability accommodations are best left to a later day. Who say to themselves, “We’ll get to that next year.” Who believe disabled students and faculty are malcontents. I know because I’ve been labeled as such. 

Ableism is built into the very buttresses of higher education. Higher Ed is a seat of privilege, merit, exceptionalism; it’s a race that goes to the swift; maybe the good looking; if you need any kind off academic help you shouldn’t be here. Unless you’re a star athlete of course. Ho Hum. I mention the athletic support system not to denigrate it, but to point out that the cost of helping disabled students isn’t the real issue—ableism assures us that the appearance of helping the disabled presents the image of a college or university with undeserving students. 

I’m not wrong about this. In his new book Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education Jay Dolmage writes: “basically, academia exhibits and perpetuates a form of structural ableism.”Then he adds, and I think this is key: 

“I borrow to a certain degree from the notion of structural racism, defined by the Aspen Institute as follows:

A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist. (n.p.)

Likewise, ableism has to be seen as a series of entrenched structures—not just the action of an individual or of individuals. We have to understand that because of these pervasive structures, we live in a society that resists efforts to ameliorate or get rid of ableism. As scholar and activist Daniel Freeman writes, “Able-bodied people all have things that they fall short with, skills or tasks that they will never master. But when disabled folks say, ‘These are the things I need in order to do my very best,’ it is labeled as an ‘accommodation.’ . . . The language itself is ableist in nature, bringing into focus the reality of how disabled bodies are seen as barriers to able-bodied life” (n.p.). Accommodation is thought of as something that always needs to be created, something that has a cost. ”

Excerpt From: Jay Dolmage. “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education.” iBooks. 

Until the administration at Syracuse understands the structural dynamics of intersectional and pervasive delimitation the problems experienced by people who hail form historically marginalized backgrounds will persist. Let us point out that disabled students and all other minority students are paying for the opportunity to get an education. Or as one disabled student said to me yesterday, “paying for the opportunity to be treated badly.”

Moreover Syracuse can’t get better so long as its public rhetoric about disability is steeped in the lingo of 1970. Take the following passage from the School of Education’s web site on accessibility: 

Syracuse University and the School of Education are dedicated in their mission to fully include persons with disabilities and special needs. In compliance with Section 508 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Syracuse University and the School of Education are committed to ensure that “no otherwise qualified individual with a disability…shall, solely by reason of disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity.”

Special needs is a term that should be tossed into the dust bin of history. As for stating the university is in compliance, that’s simply not true. Hasn’t been true. Not as long as I’ve been teaching here. 

On the matter of “special needs” I like what activist Erin Human has to say:

Every time someone says “special needs,” they reinforce the false notion that disabled people are asking for “extras” when we require accommodations, modifications, and/or support to access the same things that non-disabled people are able to access, such as education, public spaces, community involvement, and so on. 

That’s the first problem, because access is not “special” for disabled people. It’s our right. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protects disabled Americans from discrimination, requires us to be accommodated in the workplace, and grants us equal access to public spaces and institutions. Other countries have laws in place to protect disability rights in similar ways.

The second problem is, the phrase “special needs” flies in the face of the social model of disability. The social model says, the disabled person’s inability to access things is due not to the disabled person’s failings, flaws, or deficits, but on the environment’s failure to provide access to the things. For example, a Blind person is not disabled because they can’t see, they are disabled because the world was set up by seeing people for seeing people and is made of many things that are inaccessible to non-seeing people.

To make a metaphor of it, imagine taking a brand new car and submerging it in a lake. The car is disabled; there’s nothing wrong with the car itself, it still does everything it’s designed to do, but it cannot operate in its current environment. If were in an environment well suited to its needs and purposes, like say a road, it would be able to do all the things a car does.

The current environment at Syracuse University, ironically the first college in the United States to offer a disability studies program needs to change for everyone to operate, not merely suited to his or her or they needs and purposes, but with dignity. 

Disabling Your Enemy is Terrorism

During the past month of demonstrations along the border between Gaza and Israel, at least 17 Palestinians have suffered gunshot wounds that ultimately cost them their legs, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza.

The Washington Post

Lest it’s lost on anyone the purpose of warfare is not to destroy enemy combatants but to shatter their village square. Disablement is a strategy, rape is a policy, affecting civilian casualties, all are matters of policy.

Disablement isn’t an unfortunate side effect of protests in Gaza as the Israeli Defense Force’s argument has it. Disabling civilians is overtly designed to shatter not just legs but the human will to freedom and dignity. What is the best semiotic for imprisonment and despair? Disability of course. Disability as a practice of war is criminal. It doesn’t matter who is producing the disablement. Disabling your enemy is an act of terror.

Terrorism is defined in Title 22 Chapter 38 U.S. Code § 2656f as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”

Nations that paralyze their enemies should be forced to pay for their health care.

Think how quickly that would put a stop to war.

Yeah. That’s what I think.

Two days ago I took an Uber ride. My driver was from Iraq. He told me that his wife has a master’s degree, he has a master’s, his children are in college in the US.

I told him how angry and ashamed I am that the United States has killed one million civilians in his land.

He got out of the car and we hugged. We stood there, uneasily on the street, my guide dog looking on. Who provides guide dogs to Iraqi children? No one.

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 

The Blind Guy Persisted….

Because racism, ableism, homophobia, misgogyny are rampant right now at Syracuse University (the story broadly told) I feel unwelcome on campus. I’m blind and have struggled to get basic accommodations as a faculty member for seven years. When I speak about this I’m largely treated to double talk. It’s too hard for this university to make books and articles accessible in a timely way. It’s too hard to assure that sighted support is available to the blind. I’ve been told these things and if I’m hearing them I can only imagine what disabled students are experiencing. Except I don’t have to imagine. They tell me. They tell me over and over what a mean spirited place SU really is.

Yesterday I was told to be quiet. My mistake? I posted a cris de coeur about these problems on a departmental listserv. I was told that my opinions offended people.

That’s of course how ableism works. It offends the ableists to know they’re part of a structural system. They think themselves liberal, progressive, tolerant. Blaming the disabled for calling attention to the problem is Ableism 101.

I said I’d never post to the departmental listserv again.

But I won’t stop talking about the ugliness of higher education and disability discrimination. I won’t.

I love the fact that Syracuse was the first university in the US to formally launch a disability studies program. I’m proud to be an activist faculty member who insists on human rights and who, like my faculty colleagues in many areas of study speaks about the hegemony of discrimination and the role of institutions in the creation of second class status for so many, including the disabled.

Closing, here’s a poem I wrote in the manner of Allen Ginsberg:

America with your history of eugenics.
With your hostility to the global charter on disability rights.
With your jails, stocked with psychiatric patients—worse than the Soviet Union. We are Gulag Los Angeles; Gulag Rikers Island; Gulag Five Points in Upstate New York.
America with your young Doctor Mengeles.
With your broken VA.
With your war on food stamps and infant nutrition.
With your terror of autism and lack of empathy for those who have it.
With your 80% unemployment rate for people with disabilites.
With your pity parties—inspiration porn—Billy was broken until we gave him a puppy.
With your sanctimonious low drivel disguised as empathy.
With your terror of reasonable accommodations.
With your NPR essays about fake disability fraud, which is derision of the poor and elderly.
With your disa-phobia—I wouldn’t want one of them to sit next to me on a bus.
America when will you admit you have a hernia?
When will you admit you’re a lousy driver?
Admit you miss the days of those segregated schools, hospitals, residential facilities—just keep them out of sight.
When will you apologize for your ugly laws?
When will you make Ron Kovic’s book irrelevant?
America, you threatened Allen Ginsberg with lobotomy.
Ameica you medicated a generation of teenagers for bi-polar depression when all they were feeling was old fashioned fear.
When will you protect wheelchairs on airlines?
When will you admit you’re terrified of luck?

–Stephen Kuusisto

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 

Hate at the University

The trouble with haters is they force you to think about hate. Whatever passes for immunity to the virus of bigotry breaks down. You have a head cold suddenly. You can’t think about the beauty of spring. You’re too busy thinking about the Neo-Nazis or the hateful videos produced by the fraternity at your university, or the anti-Muslim graffiti sprayed on a mosque. The birds are singing real pretty but you’re sealed up. At a remove from joy.

This is how I’m feeling as a member of the Syracuse University community. Thousands of us who study or work at SU are feeling this. No matter your background you have to be deeply disturbed by the hatred that has leaked out around us.

Now I’m an old hand at hate. Disabled, bullied in childhood, discriminated against in education and employment, I’ve lived a long time in hate-ville. Here’s the thing: able bodied white people don’t understand that if you’re from a historically marginalized background you have to put yourself together anew every day. I don’t mean putting on your makeup or shaving. I mean a full scale, internal, hot to the touch assembly of hope, aspiration, belief in the future, and a reserve of irony—you’ll meet people who don’t get you all day long and you’ll manage them with humor, forceful insistence, passion, and compensatory self-regard. Able-bodied white people don’t need to do any of this. The worst thing they can imagine is a bad day in junior high.

A robin is walking across the top of a hedge outside my window. And I’m having to think, to engage with hate. “Big deal,” I say, “it’s nothing new.”

So here, frat boys, ableist staff and administrators, smug warriors of privilege, I’m handing back your hate. Look. I’ve put it in a little basket, like the one Moses floated in. It has a little blanket on top. When you bring it ashore and look inside you’ll find nothing at all. That’s what your hate is. It’s just moist, empty air.

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 

Syracuse University is in a Jam

Like all of us at Syracuse University I’ve been stunned by the ugly events that have unfolded over the past week. As a disabled faculty member, and therefore someone from a historically marginalized community, I believe the racism, homophobia, anti-semitism, misogyny and ableism in the Theta Tau videos display intersectional bigotry. While we can say the videos are not truly representative of Syracuse they are certainly a “wake up call” and this is what I want to focus on.

This morning walking my guide dog I thought “maybe a more representative motto for the university should be “Buildings Over People” as opposed to our current motto “knowledge crowns those who seek her”?” We’re great at putting up buildings that show us in the best light. We have “Ernie Davis Hall” but guess what? Ernie Davis’s developmentally disabled son was rejected from SU. We have a multi-million dollar Institute for Veterans and Military Families going up on the site of the former Disability Studies Program’s building. We dispersed the disability faculty across campus without a place to meet. Meanwhile veteran-students have related to me their disappointment at SU, remarking that the campus is an unwelcoming place. This is what I think is most central to our dilemma and which only the Board of Trustees can address: SU is not and I repeat “not” a welcoming institution for veterans, the disabled, people of color, LGBTQ students and staff, foreign students, women, it’s a long list.

Buildings over people is the proper latinate maxim for us. I believe the Trustees bear more than a little responsibility for this situation. So keen are they to cut budgets and put the university on a strict business model management system they’ve forgotten that the buildings don’t mean a thing if the people feel disparaged, maligned, under served, ignored, and of little value.

I’m a disability rights activist among other things and I’ve been asked by students and faculty to weigh in on what’s going on here and I’m trying hard to be measured. Syracuse is a good university with lots of great people. We must reaffirm what’s good here and resist what’s deleterious about our community. We need to do this with brave leadership and a true commitment to change. Buildings and heated sidewalks and underfunded resources in community services and academic programs won’t cut it, as they say in the vernacular.

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:
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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