I Just Lost My Civil Rights Thanks to the GOP

Yesterday, February 15, 2018 the U.S. House of Representatives voted 225-192 to gut the Americans with Disabilities Act.   The bill known as “The ADA Education and Reform Act, or H.R. 620” is designed, so its proponents argue, to prevent frivolous “drive-by lawsuits” brought by lawyers who see inaccessible businesses and want to capitalize on the problem. The bill requires those filing against businesses for violating the ADA to first give business owners 60 days to describe how they’ll fix the problem. Then they have another 120 days to implement the changes. Sounds reasonable right? But the bill is actually designed to make the problem of lawsuits go away and does not put any onus on businesses to actually make changes.

As the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities correctly notes: “H.R. 620 would create significant obstacles for people with disabilities to enforce their rights under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to access public accommodations, and would impede their ability to engage in daily activities and participate in the mainstream of society. Rather, the burden of protecting the right to access a public place is shifted to the person with the disability, who first has to be denied access; then must determine that violations of the law have occurred; then must provide the business with specific notice of which provisions of the law were violated and when; and finally, the aggrieved person with the disability must afford the business a lengthy period to correct the problem.”

The “lengthy period” is a red herring as the bill’s supporters know. Again from the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities: “We know of no other law that outlaws discrimination but permits entities to discriminate with impunity until victims experience that discrimination and educate the entities perpetrating it about their obligations not to discriminate. Such a regime is absurd, and would make people with disabilities second-class citizens.”

As of this morning my civil rights and the rights of over 50 million Americans are now in jeopardy. Like thousands in the disability community I’ve watched with growing alarm as a well organized largely Republican lead coalition both in state and federal government has moved aggressively to weaken or even eliminate the rights of the disabled. Betsy DeVos has instructed the Department of Education to look the other way when matters of equal access for students with disabilities are on the table. Congress and the Trump administration are cutting Medicate.

These are outrageous developments.

Imagine this scenario if you are not disabled. One day you decide to go to a commonplace establishment. A popular eatery or coffee joint. When you get there the owner says, “Well, I don’t like serving  people with cartoon character tee shirts.” Then he adds: “Mickey Mouse violates my decor. And I don’t have time or resources to change my decor” You’re turned away.

Do you think this analogy is fatuous? I admit it seems ludicrous. But the principle is the same. The shop owner has made a decision, rather consciously, that there’s a type of customer he doesn’t want. Rather than admit his prejudice he complains that resolving the issue will likely cost him plenty. He tells you to go away.

Imagine that you then had to explain through lengthy filings why your rights were violated. Then further imagine that the owner has almost unlimited opportunities to do nothing.

How does that grab you?

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 ADA is Under Attack

The ADA is under attack.  Next week, the House will be voting on a bill, H.R. 620 that would undermine the protections of the ADA and take away the rights of people with disabilities.  Please call your Representative and ask them to #VoteNo and #ProtectTheADA

Here are talking points:
·         HR 620 will take away the civil rights of people with disabilities

·         It will make people with disabilities wait for up to 180 days for services that other people have immediate access to

·         The wait may be even longer than 180 days because a business that is making “substantial progress” toward fixing a problem can take even longer than 180 days

·         HR 620 will eliminate the need for businesses to be accessible until a complaint is received; there will be no need to make a business accessible until someone complains; that will mean many groups building new buildings, renovating buildings, opening new businesses will not make their services accessible

·         HR 620 shifts the burden of accessibility from those who offer services to the person with a disability; no other group needs to prove their right to access to publically offered services

·         We should not be gutting the rights of people with disabilities; if there is a problem, we should be limiting the actions of a small number of lawyers who are bad actors

·         HR 620 will take away the civil rights of people with disabilities; would we ever think about eliminating the rights of any other group of Americans? This is disgraceful.

And here is a fact sheet from our colleagues at Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) about the myths and realities of this bill.

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.

Delta: Leave the Blind Alone

As a blind traveler who uses a guide dog I’ve flown a lot of places. My professionally trained dog lies under my feet and never stirs, no matter how long the flight. I’ve had four such dogs and all of them were trained by a top notch school in New York called Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Although going places with a disability isn’t always easy its generally achievable because protective laws are in place that guarantee the disabled rights of passage. In the United States both state laws—known as “white cane laws”—and federal laws, including the ADA and the Air Carriers Transportation Act have made it possible for blind people and their exemplary dogs to go anywhere the public goes.

In the world of service animals guide dogs are the gold standard. Trained to guide the blind through heavy traffic, watch for low hanging branches, take evasive measures when cars or bicycles run red lights, watch for stairs—even prevent their partners from stepping off subway platforms, everyone can agree that they’re the “few, the proud” just like the Marines. Yes, and they’re also trained to stay quiet and unobtrusive in restaurants and when using public transportation.

This canine professionalism is possible because guide dog schools spend tens of thousands of dollars breeding, raising, and training each and every dog. In turn guide dog teams have earned the respect and admiration of the public here in the United States and around the world.

Recently Delta Airlines, in an effort to curtail the appearance of fake service dogs on airplanes has issued a new requirement that actually hurts the blind. Delta is demanding that service dog users upload veterinary health certificates to their website 48 hours prior to flying. This is essentially a stumbling block—an obstacle designed to impede the blind while doing very little to halt illegitimate or phony service dogs from boarding flights. As a blind person who uses a tasing computer I can tell you that navigating websites and uploading documents isn’t easy. In fact its often ridiculously hard.

The blind and their amazing dogs are not the problem for Delta or other airlines. Fraudulent service dogs are a problem for sure, but really, do they think dishonest people who are already passing off their pets as professionally trained dogs will be unable to attach rabies certificates on a website? For sighted people this is a snap.

All guide dog users carry ID cards issued by the guide dog schools, certifying that the dog team pictured is legitimate and has graduated from a real service dog training program.

I don’t know what to do about the sharp increase in fake service animals on airlines, but I do know Delta and other carriers should leave the blind alone. We’ve earned our passage.

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 professorship in the Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Just Pete Seeger and his Banjo

Late morning, winter, dancing alone in the kitchen

Solo entertainment of a grown child

Just now he shucks off his cruel father

Who taunted him for being blind

A wind blows his torso dips

The father ghost retreats

To its covert—and his raving mother

She follows, carried by shadows

Dancing alone, not a poem,

Nothing literary about it

George Will and Yale’s Indians

There’s nothing like the prospect of overreaching do-gooders in higher education to stir the dormant juices of conservative pundits. In today’s Washington Post one finds George F. Will’s starchy prose condemning liberal insensibility at Yale University: “Yale Saves Fragile Students from a Carving of a Musket”–a bromide that’s so nearly insensible I wonder about Will’s civic future as it’s obvious he’s forgoing the potential value and goodness of human beings.

Will is incensed that administrators at Yale are concerned about the placement of an altogether remnant and ugly bas relief on the facade of Sterling Memorial Library. In truth it’s a hideous thing, a carving of a thick lipped Indian and a gnashing pilgrim, each clutching their cliched weapon—a bow and arrow and a musket. Make no mistake, they’re in combat, and no love is lost in this stupid, rebarbative vignette. George Will thinks it’s art, or at least, something to be cherished. You wouldn’t know that when the carving was made the curriculum at Yale (and elsewhere) centered on “the white man’s burden” and featured a heaping helping of Social Darwinism. Will cannot imagine that this mise en abyme has an untoward semiotic history. He’s chosen to read discomfort with the stone cartoon as a pean to the contemporary (perceived) coddling of emotionally needy college students, a link that’s about as sensible as saying wolves often dress up as grandmothers and this is why union wages are declining.

Poor Yale students! Poor babies! They can’t take a racist carving! Look! They require campus counseling services because they have mental illnesses! What weaklings! How permissive college administrators are! Will offer us the usual suspects—permissive parents, dewy eyed faculty, and a general decline in our nation’s moral fiber. You’d never know that the sculpture in question is actually quite despicable.

Detestable or ignominious art always lacks scruple and nuance. It’s purpose is to cement common opinion. Both the left and the right can create repellent art. I’d like Will better if he simply said: “Ugly art ye will always have with ye, and get over it.” That might be a defensible position but of course we know who’s paying for Will’s lunch and it’s not the art historians. The basic conservative tenet is this: “racism’s in the past, get over it. They’re just statues, dude.”

Trouble is (as theologian John Lamb Lash puts it) “You can die from kitsch. And we’re close to it.”  And you can certainly die on Native American reservations where healthcare is third rate and poverty is numbingly omnipresent. And images depicting old race wars are provably malign.

No. In Will’s stifling mental pup tent the problem is today’s students have permissive mommies.

Disability and Faculty Self-governance in the Age of Neoliberalism

When talking to faculty, students, and staff with disabilities who work or study at America’s colleges and universities, one quickly learns that higher education is broadly disinclined to treat disability in a concerted and efficient manner, but instead engages in widespread administrative deflection. From architectural barriers to simple pedagogical modifications colleges routinely drop the ball where equal access is concerned. So ubiquitous have these stories become one can browse the web for hours reading of school after school that has violated basic civil rights protections guaranteed by the Americans With Disabilities Act. From the University of Michigan, to Penn State to Harvard, one finds dramatic instances of disability discrimination. As a disability rights activist and professor who teaches that incorporating physical difference in the village square creates powerful opportunities and advantages I’m often asked why higher education performs so poorly. For many years I imagined these failures had simply to do with a basic financial resentment of the ADA, as one hears the widespread complaint from college administrators that it’s simply an “unfunded mandate.” The idea that barriers should be removed as a matter of civil rights is represented as a violation of libertarian principle. This seemed reasonable enough until over time I realized there’s a broader delegitimization of disability in the Ivory Tower and it’s only loosely connected to money.

In a recent interview at TruthOut Henry Giroux observes of Neoliberalism:

As a form of public pedagogy and cultural politics, neoliberalism casts all dimensions of life in terms of market rationality. One consequence is that neoliberalism legitimates a culture of cruelty and harsh competitiveness and wages a war against public values and those public spheres that contest the rule and ideology of capital. It saps the democratic foundation of solidarity, degrades collaboration, and tears up all forms of social obligation.

 

The past quarter century has seen the American academy shift from collaborative and democratic agreements about social obligations toward an embrace of monetized aggression. During this period the ADA has been overtly ignored by colleges of every kind. The two developments are syncretic, reflecting what Giroux rightly calls the failure to contest the rule and ideology of capital. It’s relevant to note in this context that “disability” first appeared in the mid-19th century as a term for laborers who’d been rendered unfit to work. The 20th century saw sustained advances in rehabilitation and employment services for people with disabilities, improvements which culminated in the passage of the ADA in 1990.

Neoliberal pedagogy and campus politics depend on limited faculty governance, the erosion of public debate, and the establishment of a culture of severe economic competition. Disability is re-inscribed as a 19th century problem. Accommodation services are sequestered—students are “sent” to ancillary offices for accommodations which they may or may not receive; faculty are taught nothing about pedagogy and disability; basic services like sign language interpreting or accessible technology are hard to find, and sometimes non-existent. At one liberal arts college where I recently spoke, a disabled student told me, “the disability office is hidden like an asylum.” Indeed. Disability is a drain on capital. Not because it’s an unfunded mandate but because after all is said and done, neoliberal visions of success are built as Giroux rightly says on cruelty and competitiveness.

Harvard and MIT are contesting the demands of deaf students and staff that instructional videos be captioned. Harvard’s opposition is symptomatic of the neoliberal university’s war on basic public values. In terms of governance Harvard’s resistance represents perfectly the academy’s abandonment of the principles of social obligation. But institutions only arrive at such a place when faculty are deterred from self-governance by the obligation to write endless grants and compete for provenance in the marketplace of capital ideas, when teaching and idealism are considered quaint and immaterial. In turn the civil rights of academic communities are “handled” by offices that are both physically and culturally distant from the “agora” or academic life of the campus.

The neoliberal campus relies on distention of self-governance and enforces centralized administration. Moreover it thrives on factionalism. A faction, as James Madison famously wrote in essay 10 of The Federalist Papers is a group “who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Because college faculty are often divided by competing interests and since some of these divisions reflect the complications and struggles of identity, it’s difficult to forge consensus about disability and disability rights—they seem tailor made for deflection, a problem for a specialized office. In other words, disability is often viewed by academics who are already narrowly factionalized as too difficult to embrace. As Lennard Davis notes in his book Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions:

Because disability is an amorphous identity with porous boundaries, other identity groups in the United States have had difficulty incorporating it into their goals. Previously legitimized groups such as Latinos or African Americans have been reluctant to admit disability into the multicultural arena. For example, in 1996 a disabled, white assistant professor at a historically black university found that the chair of the department and the dean of the school had recommended against tenure, saying that any analogy between disability and race was both methodologically unsound and insulting to the unique history of African Americans. For them, the categories of oppression were mutually exclusive and should not be mixed. After much public outcry from the disability community, the president of the university decided to award tenure to the assistant professor. Nevertheless, the issue of an identity defined by impairment as opposed to one defined by race or ethnicity is a sticking point for some. When some faculty members at Hunter College in New York City tried to include disability studies as part of the requirement for a multicultural curriculum, they were opposed by many of the ethnic and national groups that usually make up the progressive wing of the university. Hunter ended up deciding to omit disability from the curriculum.

 

From a disability studies perspective one sees how sectarian infighting among faculty concerned with categories of oppression can further the work of neoliberal administration, not by embracing the neoliberal brand of governance, but by replicating its effort to de-legitimize disability as a mainstream concern. De-legitimized disability remains in the province of non-academic offices. In turn university faculty fail to understand and embrace the nation’s largest minority. Such neglect reinforces a central fact of neoliberal administration which supports deflection where accountability is concerned and it represents rather broadly a further symptom of weakening faculty self-governance.

 

 

Me Before You, Benedict Arnold…

If disability is pictured as a thermometer one sees at the very top of the mercury scale “Courage” and at the bottom “Cowardice”—a register of willfulness or mind over matter which represents disablement as being entirely a state of mind rather than physical or neurological reality. How often does one have to endure the slogan: “the only disability is a bad attitude?”

Quite often it turns out. Courage is an easy word to bandy about. Whenever the first “c” word is used in media representations of the disabled, it’s invidious twin is suggested, as if living a crippled life is a stark affair when you roll down the street or follow your dog. You’re either heroic or you’re some kind of attitudinal traitor, a Benedict Arnold of the spirit.

Of course temporarily abled people don’t live this way. They’re not heroic in the supermarket, not cowardly when they shake their fists at drivers in front of them. The emo-thermometer is reserved solely for the cripple. I’ve lived with this fictitiousness all my life and if you’re one of my crippled readers I’m certain you have too.

Lately there’s been much consternation and outrage among disabled activists and their extended supporters about the film “Me Before You” as it depicts a paralyzed man’s decision to end his life, not merely because his disability is insupportable, but because he doesn’t want to burden the abled woman who loves him. The film is creepy, inauthentic, and ugly. What interests me however is it’s emo-thermometer reading: “Courage” becomes “Cowardice” or subsumes it in a way that suggests “the only bad attitude is a disability”—a twist that’s chilling and should alarm even the most seasoned viewers of films and television programs. Living with disability is presented in “Me Before You” as a traitorous act, a betrayal of love.

Love is presented as light while disability is dark and overshadows life. Now, ahem, life itself doesn’t work this way. In life trains arrive and depart, sunlight strikes the telephone wires, groceries are purchased, lawns are clipped—which is to say, life, living it, is, as any bird will tell you, simply a matter of the daily worm. Moreover living is essentially the hard thing, dying is easy.

This is what’s so objectionable about the film. Dying is easy. Disabled life is presented as a bad choice, a bad attitude if you will. “Me Before You” turns the standard (and already crappy) disability emo-thermometer upside down.

Ugh.