On University Constructions of Shaming Environments

I should come clean and straight off: I regret having been a disabled professor. Regret follows me from room to room and there’s no help for it. I’m considered less capable, less collegial, more of a nuisance than any of my colleagues. There are too few like me in the faculty ranks to be of consequence. I’ve been tenured at three major universities and been accorded more misery than I care to relate for it gets soggy and yet, without a cadre of disabled faculty I can tell only you that talking back to dismissive and ableist faculty and administrators who don’t like your relentless call for accessible websites and buildings earns one the reputation for being a malcontent. What keeps me going?

Sheer stubbornness. I’m of Finnish. descent. My people are granitic and quite stoical. I’m not happy with suffering but I recognize it as one of the effects of gravity. This means despite the fact that I’m a poet I’m also discerning. Why should academics be more tolerant of the disabled than any other group? Higher education is predicated on the unspoken notion that everyone is for herself or himself and they’re in a race against others. Everyone knows the story of the graduate student who finds the important pages razored out of the books on reserve. This is the way of it.

Here’s to the colleagues who haven’t joined me in calling for visual presentations to be fully accessible to the blind as well as the deaf.

Here’s to deans who’ve treated my demands for access both for myself and others are a sign of my problematic identity.

Here’s to the construction of shaming environments where the disabled feel more than marginalized, they are made to feel the full weight of their presence.

Here’s to the merciless stampede toward AI and autonomous systems in lieu of an abiding and conscious understanding of diversity. The latter means recognizing that people of color, queer folks, the disabled have been medicalized, tracked, and demeaned for centuries. And not much welcomed.

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 

Ode to Professor “P”

Not long ago I was called an “ignoramus” by a fellow faculty member at Syracuse University where I teach and run a program devoted to disability research. It is never appropriate to call anyone an ignoramus in an educational setting for the term’s antonym s are “brain “ and “genius” and its synonyms include: airhead, birdbrain, blockhead, bonehead, bubblehead, chowderhead, chucklehead, clodpoll (or clodpole), clot [British], cluck, clunk, cretin, cuddy (or cuddie) [British dialect], deadhead, dim bulb [slang], dimwit, dip, dodo, dolt, donkey, doofus [slang], dope, dork [slang], dullard, dum-dum, dumbbell, dumbhead, dummkopf, dummy, dunce, dunderhead, fathead, gander, golem, goof, goon, half-wit, hammerhead, hardhead, idiot, imbecile, jackass, know-nothing, knucklehead, lamebrain, loggerhead [chiefly dialect], loon, lump, lunkhead, meathead, mome [archaic], moron, mug [chiefly British], mutt, natural, nimrod [slang], nincompoop, ninny, ninnyhammer, nit [chiefly British], nitwit, noddy, noodle, numskull (or numbskull), oaf, pinhead, prat [British], ratbag [chiefly Australian], saphead, schlub (also shlub) [slang], schnook [slang], simpleton, stock, stupe, stupid, thickhead, turkey, woodenhead, yahoo, yo-yo…

As a disabled person I know full well what the delegitimizing effects of language can do to anyone who hails from a historically marginalized background but where disability is concerned the labeling I’ve described has a particularly specious and ugly history. Idiot, moron, half-wit, dolt, cretin are all familiar to the disabled. One would expect relief from these terms at a university. What’s particularly galling is that the subject I was discussing with the professor in question was ableism—namely that I’d said hello to him on an elevator, I, a blind man with a white cane, and he simply stared at me. No acknowledgement. When two students got on the elevator he lit up and talked breezily about how he hates snow. I followed him to his office and said that by not acknowledging a blind person he creates a social dynamic that feels off-putting and I wanted to discuss the matter. He became instantly contemptuous.

Now of course that’s because of the synonyms above. In this man’s antediluvian world view the disabled really shouldn’t be in the academy. Ableism is not only more pervasive than people generally understand its also more consistent at universities than is commonly recognized.

As for me, I’m an ignorant man to professor “p” for that’s what I’m calling him. “P” for privileged.

He doesn’t know it yet, but incapacities likely await him.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Of or Pertaining to Self Approval in the Age of Airlines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

On Being Expensive, Difficult, and Lonesome in Higher Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s right.

I’m not going to pretend at easiness anymore.

My weekdays are clogged with inaccessible features.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shame on Domino’s Pizza

Unless you’re blind or a friend of someone who is you probably haven’t been following the story about Domino’s Pizza’s Supreme Court case. Briefly, Domino’s is fighting the rulings in federal courts that affirm accessibility of websites for the disabled is required by law.

Domino’s has been sued by a blind man because the corporate giant’s website is inaccessible to screen reading software for the blind.

Retro-fitting a website isn’t expensive and in fact Domino’s is spending far more money contesting accessibility before the Supreme Court than any reasonable group of men and women would chose to. Why?

This simple and clearest answer has to do with umbrage that the ADA exists at all.
The prevailing view from this sector holds that all accessibility lawsuits are frivolous.
Domino’s wants to be the corporate slayer of the ADA.

Because the Americans with Disabilities Act was adopted before the web became a global and commercial reality it says nothing about cyber-space.

But federal rulings about inaccessible websites—commercial, academic, governmental, what have you, is that they are an extension of public space and are therefore required to be accessible.

Domino’s opposition to a simple accessibility fix for a blind customer—perhaps millions of blind customers, is cynical, corrupt, and ultimately about contempt for the ADA and the disabled. Behind Domino’s stands the Chamber of Commerce which has been overtly hostile to the ADA from the beginning. See this article by Robert Barnes at the Washington Post for a good overview. You don’t have to accept my word on this.

This is a very critical moment for disabled customers, students, and yes, citizens. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Domino’s they’ll have created a new “separate but equal” code for the digital age.

What really kills me is that the disabled and their families have plenty of disposable income. Why wouldn’t the Chamber of Commerce want their money?

I guess they already have plenty of dough to go around.

The Confessions of Arnold the Ableist

Chapter One

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

Chapter Two

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

Chapter Three

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

Chapter Four

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

Chapter Five

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

Disabled and Alone on Campus

I’m a blind professor and the other faculty don’t know me. Oh they recognize me alright but that’s a different matter. One may acknowledge any sign—a traffic cone or ceremonial ribbon—they’re designed for limited provenance. “Stop!” “Go!” “Ignore!” My blindness (and that of each visually impaired student I know) is a sign to be ignored.

An icon is a sign that calls for reflection: the Statue of Liberty or the holy cross. Unfortunately the disability access signs one sees in parking lots and alongside electric doors are not icons. They designate “access” which means “here’s how you get in” but nothing more. For the non-disabled faculty these signs mean: “You’re here. Now don’t ask me to think about you.”

When a sign is just a sign it allows for habitual overlooking. Scofflaws know this. I’ll never forget a rough edged student at the University of Iowa who told me speed bumps had no meaning to him. (He wasn’t speaking metaphorically.)

In higher education disability access signs are advertisements to the faculty to ignore the disabled.

Consider my story (such as it is): I teach now at Syracuse University where I hold a prestigious professorship. I’ve been tenured at the University of Iowa and The Ohio State University. I am, by all measures, “having” a distinguished career in academe.

What’s ironic as hell is that these institutions have not been hospitable, though I’ll give a shout out to Ohio State because they’ve a progressive and talented ADA Coordinator named Scott Lissner who was always there to help me and all other disabled solve accessibility dilemmas.

But this has not been the case elsewhere and over the past few weeks I’ve struggled to get accessible job related documents just as I’ve struggled almost every month over the course of my nearly eight years at Syracuse University.

One of the ironies at Syracuse is that the university was in the forefront establishing the field of Disability Studies some thirty years ago.

When I tell faculty (who are largely without disabilities, or at least none they’ve publicly declared) about my problems I’m mostly greeted with shrugs. Sometimes I get a note saying “that’s too bad.”

And these are the progressive faculty who should care.

Silence means that accommodation signs are just there to be ignored.

Moreover, as every disabled person involved in higher education knows, if you keep speaking up about inaccessibility you’ll be labeled a malcontent.

Pejorative labeling attaches to accessibility signs like lamprey eels to fish. “She can’t get accessible materials because she’s difficult somehow. We all know that.”

Inaccessible software; inaccessible PDF documents; inaccessible handouts in meetings; inaccessible video conferencing and presentations; building after building without accessible directories; a bureaucracy without a system for resolving these issues….these are the daily realities for the blind in higher education almost everywhere.

The silence of faculty around the nation about disability is a direct reflection of the privilege most have—not needing accommodations themselves they’re free to overlook the signs on buildings. They’re just signs, not icons.