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. 

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 

Disability Today

Like you no doubt I wake and reach for the newspaper. If you’re younger maybe you reach for your Twitter feed but the instinct to see what’s happened overnight beyond the cave is universal. I’m still a newspaper dude though I view them online with screen reading software. Assistive technology keeps me in the game though I don’t really believe in that term since all technology is assistive whether you’ve a disability or not and there shouldn’t be any categorical distinctions.

Reading the news with a computer generated voice is not a good aesthetic experience. Hearing that a woman has just killed her autistic son with a band saw because “she couldn’t take it anymore” is shattering no matter how you encounter the story, but there’s something about the dolorous and impersonal computer that further shivers one–as if my Mac knows something I don’t. As if the Voiceover software invented by Apple to make all their products usable by the blind has been in touch with Hal from 2001 Space Odyssey and together they know disability doom is coming.

Disability doom is a large subject. From pre-natal testing and the abortion of Down syndrome babies to a new militant rightwing hostility to the Americans with Disabilities Act there’s every reason to think there’s a war on the disabled.

As what’s left of Western democratic traditions wilts under corporatized Neo-liberalism and nationalist populism (fascism) the disabled are in the cross hairs. Everyone’s in the crosshairs: high school children, people of color, women, trans and gay people. Fascism, allowed in the mainstream, sees all difference as deviant. Yet there’s something unique about the disabled: they trigger apprehension across all cohorts of diversity. As people literally struggle to survive, it’s easy to imagine the disabled are a burden. They’re a burden at your rally, your business, and yes, on the streets.

Cries come from all directions: we must get the mentally ill back into gated institutions. If we no longer have money to build these facilities we should put them all in prison. Currently the largest mental health faculty in California is the Los Angeles county jail.

Even as I type there’s a concerted movement on Capitol Hill to roll back important parts of the ADA. Even as I type the unemployment rate for the disabled remains at close to 70%. Even as I type veterans with disabilities are being denied services or or made to wait in line for help–a line that grows longer and longer.

As a poet who’s disabled I know a thing or two about irony. When disability is talked about in political circles there’s an assumption that “they” are not “us”–as if disability is something that happens to some other tribe, as if the disabled aren’t your mother, your father, sister, brother, uncles, neighbors, children, children, children. It’s this othering strategy that scares me the most. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990 there was a strong bi-partisan sense that the disabled are us. I think there’s an erosion going on. The irony works this way: we celebrate singular disability achievements–Aimee Mullins running on her blades and wearing designer clothing for the cameras; Marlee Matlin’s acting, Stevie Wonder’s music, and yet we think of them as exceptions, even as we imagine they’re representative of a large population. You can’t have it both ways. The disabled are us. Black, white, trans, gay, women, men, oh, wait I’ve already said that.

Right now I’m on a book tour of sorts. When interviewers ask me about my experience growing up pretending I could see more than I really could, asking as though I’m unique in that regard, I say: “this is not an uncommon story” because it’s true, and also to underscore that the singularity of one blind poet shouldn’t be mistaken for an isolating and categorical representation. The disabled I know, both here in the United States and around the world are struggling to stay in the public square.

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 

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 

ADA Restoration Act Clears Hurdles

While you won’t hear much about it from the national press the “ADA Restoration Act of 2007” cleared two House committees yesterday with only one opposing vote. (I’ll have more to say on that in a minute…) 

You can read all about yesterday’s proceedings and learn a good deal about the history  of the “ADARA” at the website of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD):    

It is heartening that in a time of divisive squabbling in Washington the cause of Americans with disabilities has once again “shown the way” for true bi-partisan legislation and negotiation.

Disability is universal—it transcends race, class, gender, point of origin, sexual orientation, social status, age, fortune, and happenstance. Just so: the lives and concerns of people with disabilities are in fact the most logical point of “ethos” for a largely divided country to reassert its American values of fairness and decency.

While you wouldn’t always know it from the strident qualities of my prose I am at heart an optimist about the United States. I have lived to see kids with disabilities get a real chance in public education—when, not so long ago I was one of those “mainstreamed” kids who struggled without civil rights or appropriate educational supports. Yes, we’re a decent nation. We’ve come a long way in many areas. There’s reason for  a positive outlook. And yes, there’s also reason to stay strident. Rights and liberty are inconvenient for the ruling classes and we forget this at our peril.

“Aw, c’mon, Kuusisto, you don’t really think we have a ‘ruling class” in the United States, do you? I mean, don’t you agree that we’re a ‘classless society” etc. etc.?”

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Civil Rights for People with Disabilities vs. “The Usual Suspects”

Right now, even as we drink our coffee there are powerful forces working overtime on Capitol Hill. I like to call these forces “the usual suspects” because I love the old TV series “Dragnet” and also because it takes too long to type all the acronyms of the various business and human resources lobbying groups that have assembled to fight the “ADA Restoration Act”. Oh yes, and there are prominent corporations opposed to the full inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce.

The Usual Suspects are opposed to the legislation because it would require that employers actually make reasonable accommodations for employees who have disabilities—rather than allowing said Usual Suspects to proclaim that these accommodations are wildly unreasonable. Why, By Golly! even reassigning a disabled employee to a different but equal job is an undue burden on said Usual Suspect. Enter the extraordinary, well funded, hence powerful Allied Usual Suspects who are working like junior attorneys to “mark up” the bill.

Their aim? To do to the “ADA Restoration Act” what the Supreme Court has done to the original ADA of 1990.  In decision after decision the Supreme Court has exonerated employers from having to make workplace accommodations for disabled employees. The court has used a cynical  loophole when deciding “for” employers against disabled workers: they’ve argued that Congress, in adopting the ADA has assumed the power to regulate commerce within the respective U.S. states—in effect the conservative majority on the court has asserted that Congress doesn’t have the authority to legislate civil rights for people with disabilities—and by extension, for any other group.   

What’s the final final rationale for such a position? Why by God if you give one disabled employee an accommodation well then, by God you’ll have to give all the differently abled people accommodations and heck, that would mean living up to occupational safety and human rights standards and that’s an undue burden on capitalism which, it turns out, doesn’t always see the opportunities for new markets.

So what you do is declare the authority of Congress null and void. You do it by the process of red herring-ism, you confuse the public that the issue is about disabled people in the workplace who are always a suspect group in the view of the general public—aren’t these people faking something? Trying to get an advantage with a better parking space?

If Americans don’t demand of their Congress true accountability on behalf of our nation’s disabled citizens then they are in effect giving away the last measure of our civil rights—the stakes in this argument are really that important.

Write to your Congressman or Congresswoman; take a stand. Don’t let the “usual suspects” continue to evade social responsibility by means of obfuscation.

S.K.

LINKS:

"Permanent Link to ADA Restoration Act Blogging Round-Up, Feb 11-28 ‘08"

Who are the Political Friends of People with Disabilities?

ADA Restoration Headed to House Markup on Wednesday 
ADA Restoration Moves Forward in the House 
Disability, civil rights and employer groups are working hard to secure support for the negotiated legislated language that has been circulated on JFA and now has the support of more than 50 national and 60 state and local disability groups, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Society for Human Resource Management, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Human Resource Policy Association, and a growing list of companies, including McDonalds, General Motors and Honeywell. Lobbying on the House side for this negotiated deal began in earnest yesterday, focused on the members of the House Education and Labor Committee and the House Judiciary Committee (which also plans to mark up the bill next Wednesday).

To avoid confusion with the bill that was introduced last July, we have begun referring to the negotiated legislation as the ADA Amendments Act. In anticipation of next week’s markup, we are working to counter any efforts in either committee to attach an ADA notification requirement to the bill, a cause that was championed in prior Congresses by Representative Mark Foley of Florida and that is strongly opposed by the disability-civil rights employer coalition working to enact the ADA Amendments Act. We are also working hard to secure White House and Senate Republican support for the negotiated bill.

:::TAKE ACTION:::
At this point, it looks like the bill will receive strong bipartisan support in the committee markups in
the House. We have included a list of the members of the House Education and Labor Committee and the House Judiciary Committee below.
 

·      Contact Members on the House Education & Labor Committee and the House Judiciary Committee between now and Wednesday morning and urge them to support the bipartisan negotiated language that will become the Chairman’s mark in both committees. The names are below.

Locate the Members’ contact information online, or call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-1904 (V) / (202) 224-3091 (TTY) and ask to be connected to their offices by name. 

·      If you haven’t already, consider having your organization "sign on" to the proposed deal language by sending an email to Anne Sommers, JFA Moderator, at aapdanne@earthlink.net. Support of the deal language means you not only approve of its language and terms, but that you also agree to defend it against all attempts by Members of Congress to amend it–unless both sides agree to the amendments.

We will continue to share the list of organizational support with Members of Congress as ADA Restoration moves forward in both the House and Senate in coming weeks. 

·      Attend the markup! The House Education and Labor Markup is scheduled for Wednesday, June 18th, at 10:00 in the Rayburn building, Room 2175. Advocates are encouraged to show their support through numbers. The accessible entrance to the building is the main entrance with the horseshoe drive off South Capitol Street.

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