Thirty for Thirty on the ADA” “Maybe Tomorrow”

As we near the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act I’ve decided to post thirty short essays about the law, the anniversary, and the cultural impact of #ADA @30. I’m doing this as a disabled person who’s lived half his life before the ADA. I’m reflecting on the “before and after” of the law.

Essay Eight: “Maybe Tomorrow”

Disability is everywhere once you learn to look for it. Elvis Presley had continuous high grade pain the last ten years of his life. Samuel Johnson was legally blind, suffered from seizures, and may well have had a variant of Tourette’s Syndrome. The people in my neighborhood are touched by disablement. Some show it. Others do not. Normalcy, the belief in it, the animadversion to live it or else is the most destructive fiction in the world.

What does it avail me to say so? And why do I keep saying it?

In her excellent book The Contours of Ableism (an elegant title I think) Fiona Kumari Campbell imagines the structural and attitudinal dispositions against the disabled as residing within a telos or set of illusions that maintain the non-disabled identity. When I write against disability discrimination and the privilege indexes of ableism I’m engaging in the work of all disabled activists by asserting the truth of the matter:

“Ableism refers to: a network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully human. Disability then is cast as a diminished state of being human.”

So if there are so many disabled people around why does compulsory normalization still rule the roost? The contours of ableism are protean rather than strictly geometric. Fiona Campbell writes:

“Whether it be the ‘species typical body’ (in science), the ‘normative citizen’ (in political theory), the ‘reasonable man’ (in law), all these signifiers point to a fabrication that reaches into the very soul that sweeps us into life and as such is the outcome and instrument of a political constitution: a hostage of the body.”

One of the interesting things about ableism is that whatever form it takes it occupies the future perfect. There will be time enough to make things right for the non-normals but not today. One may fair say “not today” is the motto of the thing. Non hodie in Latin. Picture a flag bearing the image of an indolent house cat. Not today will we question our assumptions about the majority of bodies on the planet. Ableism also refrains from saying “maybe tomorrow.”

As we contemplate the ADA @ 30 this is its signature, the stitching that holds the book together: “maybe tomorrow” has been retired.

We don’t say “maybe tomorrow” your disabled child can go to school.
Don’t say “maybe tomorrow” you can vote, go to a football game, go shopping.
We don’t say “you can’t attend college, not today…”
The ADA put a stake through maybe tomorrow.

This is in fact what people who hate the ADA are always most worked up about. They wanted their “maybe tomorrow” to last forever. Rather than see disabled customers and their friends and families in their shops and restaurants, small business owners banded together and cried foul—lead most notably by Clint Eastwood—we don’t need no stinkin’ ramps or accessible bathrooms in our tony little “shoppes”—sure the disabled matter, but not today, not now, not thirty years after the ADA, please. I wish I was joking. The Chamber of Commerce and its associated lobbyists have been brutal opponents of making commercial spaces accessible. Not long ago Dominos Pizza argued they didn’t have to make their website accessible to the blind. Not today. Not tomorrow. Perhaps some day. Dominos lost their case in court. They spent more fighting the blind and the ADA then it would have cost them to make a stinking website and app blind friendly. Their position was driven by raw ableism.

So the ADA says “maybe tomorrow’ has been retired.

Like racism, ableism depends on its ugly status quo. The ableist says, “I liked it when the disabled people knew their places.”

I know all the problems with the ADA. But it retired “maybe tomorrow” even though our opponents still wave it around like a discredited flag.

Thirty for Thirty on the ADA: A Largely Lonely Triumph: Disability and Contemporary Higher Education

As we near the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act I’ve decided to post thirty short essays about the law, the anniversary, and the cultural impact of #ADA @30. I’m doing this as a disabled person who’s lived half his life before the ADA. I’m reflecting on the “before and after” of the law.

Essay Six: “A Largely Lonely Triumph: Disability and Contemporary Higher Education”

I have lately been reading “Helen Keller: A Life” by Dorothy Herrmann. The following passage jumped out at me:

“It was largely a lonely triumph. As the twenty-year-old Helen soon discovered, college was not the “romantic lyceum” that she had envisioned. At Radcliffe, which had been forced to accept her as a student, she was more profoundly aware than ever before of her blindness and deafness. Only one of her classmates knew the manual finger language. Another girl had learned to write Braille, copying as a present Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, but Helen never heard from her after graduation. The other students tried to be friendly whenever they saw her at a local lunchroom, and according to Helen, “Miss Sullivan spelled their bright chatter into my hand.” But she was painfully aware of the gulf between them, even though her classmates tried to bridge the gap by such lavish, awkward gestures as buying her a Boston terrier, which she promptly named Phiz. Presumably the dog would compensate her for what they were either too timid or too busy to give and what she secretly longed for: “the warm, living touch of a friendly hand.”

And here’s another revealing passage:

“Of Helen’s professors, only one, William Allan Neilson, who later became the president of Smith College, took the time to master the manual finger language so he could communicate directly with her. As Arthur Gilman was closely associated with the college, she and Annie were politely ignored by the rest of the faculty and administration, including the autocratic Agnes Irwin, the dean of Radcliffe, and the august Dr. Charles W. Eliot, the head of Harvard.

The snub did not surprise Annie, who was still furious about the plot at the Cambridge School to separate her from Helen. “I would much prefer to have people despise me as they certainly would if they guessed how full of distrust and contempt my heart is towards my fellow beings,” she wrote to Hitz. “I know it pains you to hear me speak in this way and doubtless it will hurt you still more to have me write it: but I want you to know just how detestable I am. I find people hateful and I hate them. Mr. Gilman seemed to me a fair specimen of our noble race. . . .”

“Radcliffe did not desire Helen Keller as a student,” Dean Irwin later explained to an interviewer. “It was necessary that all instruction should reach her through Miss Sullivan, and this necessity presented difficulties. They were overcome and all went well if not easily.”

Helen was wounded whenever her classmates passed her on the stairs and in the lecture halls without a sign of acknowledgment. Most of her teachers were “impersonal as Victrolas,” she recollected years later, and “the professor is as remote as if he were talking through a telephone.”

**

I have a recurring sense that the realities of campus life for people with disabilities may not have changed much when it comes to what we nowadays call “inclusiveness” in higher education. We have laws of course, and assistive technologies, and surely we do better at providing reading materials in alternative formats. Yet for all that I think that at far too many colleges and universities in these United States one will find that where disability is concerned the faculty and administrators are still “impersonal as Victrolas”. One need only visit the web site LD Online for an overview of the struggles that students with learning disabilities have faced and continue to face as they struggle to gain accommodations in the classroom. Or one can visit the U.S. Department of Justice page and see findings against American colleges and universities. See in particular Duke University but also Chatham University or University of Michigan or Swarthmore College or Colorado College or Millikin University or University of Chicago–each of these cases of discrimination against students or staff with disabilities is fairly representative of the landscape in post-secondary education–what we might call the “Autocracy of the Victrola” if you will. And if you believe (as I surely do) that these problems start earlier, you can visit the DOJ’s web pages on school district discrimination settlements.

The issue of inclusion for people with disabilities in higher ed is a matter of culture: far too many colleges and universities fail to imagine that people with disabilities represent a cultural movement. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the powerful statistical urgencies represented by the finding that nearly 10 per cent of matriculating freshmen are self-identifying as having a disability.)
A cultural understanding of disability means at its very core that students or staff with disabilities are our children, our sisters, daughters, sons, fathers and mothers, our veterans, our colleagues. But it means more than that: an academic or curricular awareness of disability means that our nation’s institutions of higher learning will finally sense that what they “do” they do for all and with no oppositional and expensive and demeaning hand wringing. Such a position requires that disability services and academic culture–matters of curricular planning and cultural diversity be wedded as they should be.

In the meantime there are autocratic talking machines aplenty. One senses their steady banishment to the attics of history. Those of us who labor in higher education should do all we can to grease the skids.

**

The noted scholar of disability studies Lennard Davis writes in his book Bending Over Backwards a trenchant overview of the academic relativism that consigns disability to Diversity’s basement and argues for the critical importance of disability studies in higher education:

“The fact is that disability disturbs people who think of themselves as nondisabled. While most liberals and progressives would charitably toss a moral coin in the direction of the lame, the blind, or the halt, few have thought about the oppression committed in the name of upholding the concept of being “normal.” Consequently, one of the major tasks of this new field is to determine why this “fact” of disturbance exists, is accepted, and is promulgated. Disability scholars want to examine the constructed nature of concepts like “normalcy” and to defamiliarize them. David Pfeiffer writes that “normal behavior is a statistical artifact which encourages people with power and resources to label people without power and resources as abnormal.”’° Rosemarie Garland Thomson coins the term “normate” to make us think twice about using the term normal: “The term normate usefully designates the social figure through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings. Normate, then, is the constructed identity of those who, by way of the bodily configurations and cultural capital they assume, can step into a position of authority and wield the power it grants them.”’

Normates thus enforce their supposed normality by upholding some impossible standard to which all bodies must adhere. To further demystify such terms, disability activists have called attention to the routine ways in which language is used to describe people with disabilities. Such activists refer to themselves as “crips,” as in the video documentary by David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder called Vital Signs: Crip Culture Talks Back, and choose words like gimp, geek, deaf and blind over more polite euphemisms. Expressions like “confined to a wheelchair” are being replaced by the more active “wheelchair user.” And expressions that use impairments metaphorically to convey a negative sense–such as “a lame idea,” “turn a deaf ear,” or “morally blind”–are being seen as the equivalent of racial epithets. This obsession with being normal has a history, as I attempt to show in my book Enforcing Normalcy)2 The use of the word normal in reference to physical bodies appeared in English merely one hundred fifty years ago, coinciding with the birth of statistics and eugenics. Before the nineteenth century in Western culture the concept of the “ideal” was the regnant paradigm in relation to bodies, and so all bodies were less than ideal. The introduction of the concept of normality, however, created an imperative to be normal, as the eugenics movement proved by enshrining the bell curve (also known as the “normal curve”) as the umbrella under whose demanding peak we should all stand. With the introduction of the bell curve came the notion of “abnormal” bodies. And the rest is history, including the Nazis’ willing adoption of the state-of-the-art eugenics funded and developed by British and American scientists, as Martin Pernick points out in The Black Stork.13 The devastating result was the creation of procedures for exterminating deaf and disabled people, procedures which were later used on the Jews, gypsies, and other “degenerate” races. But the Nazis were only the most visible (and reviled) tip of an iceberg that continues quite effectively to drive humans into daily frenzies of consuming, reading, viewing, exercising, testing, dieting, and so on–all in pursuit of the ultimate goal of being considered normal.

Disability studies demands a shift from the ideology of normalcy, from the rule and hegemony of normates, to a vision of the body as changeable, unperfectable, unruly, and untidy. Philosopher Susan Wendell sounds a clarion call that in the end provides a rationale for the disability perspective: “Not only do physically disabled people have experiences which are not available to the able-bodied, they are in a better position to transcend cultural mythologies about the body, because they cannot do things the able-bodied feel they must do in order to be happy, ‘normal’ and sane …. If disabled people were truly heard, an explosion of knowledge of the human body and psyche would take place.”4″
–from Bending Over Backwards by Lennard J. Davis, New York University Press, p. 24

We can argue that “the body normal” is still culturally of considerable importance in administrative circles within American higher education. That disability clouds the picture is entirely understandable. Disfigurement is a terribly problematic matter if the goal on campus is simply to look good (whatever your social background).
Academic accommodations for learning disabilities, special provisions for assistive technologies or note taking or the like are still, to this very day, unconsciously imagined by many administrators and faculty as being somehow a matter of cheating the system.

That accessible facilities are not part of the cultural capital of Normates should not be surprising given the historical exclusivity of higher education. But that the problem of ADA compliance remains IS surprising especially in a time when we are seeing wounded veterans returning to colleges and universities in the greatest numbers since the years following World War II. Clearly its time for the Department of Justice to demand compliance with the ADA in higher education. And its time for regents, trustees, college presidents, and faculty senates to demand that their campuses be audited for accessibility and adopt serious plans for reaching accessibility goals.
The final question and perhaps the most important one is to ask how a college or university can be culturally inclusive for people with disabilities, a matter that if answered properly will take away the embarrassment and distress of having to ask for simple acceptance within the academic community.
 

Thirty for Thirty on the ADA: Essay Four “Among”

What do we mean when we say “thirty years since the ADA?” I think as disabled people we’re talking about a living document and not an artifact. There are three ways in which the Americans with Disabilities Act is not static and therefore keeps up with the times. One: it’s protections for people who lack the capacity to see, hear, walk, stand, speak, engage in normative modes of thinking (a phrase I detest) or who have invisible disablements (HIV, cancer, auto-immune conditions) are inclusive. AIDS patients were and are protected by the ADA though when the law was passed no one could have imagined this. Number one is connected to number two: disabilities are complex, often unforeseeable. The law makes room for this. Three: opponents may not like this, but the ADA says equal access means equal access and the law is strong enough to make it stick despite fierce and consistent objections from business groups, universities and corporations that have cried foul from the day President George H. W. Bush signed the bill into law. At thirty we can say the ADA is still very much alive and living with us. That’s the thing about civil rights laws: they have to be tough and equally imaginative. Diverse societies depend on imagination. Daily we see racist, homophobic, ableist, misogynistic, xenophobic people assert that critical thinking is for losers. This proves to be untrue in a nation of well written laws.

This leads to the sad truth that laws are not always enforced and can be subverted especially in provincial places. I recall in particular the ugly story of a blind woman in Iowa who was prevented from bringing her guide dog to a computer class “for” the blind. She filed suit in a local court which in turn saw no problem with the discrimination. I think of my late friend Bill Peace who was denied proper medical care at Yale University Hospital while attending a conference on disability. He had a heart attack. Because he was a wheel chair user they put him in a dark corner of the emergency room and left him alone for hours. I think you see where I’m headed: sectoral and isolated places still believe even thirty years after the ADA that it’s still 1910. I pick that date almost at random but it serves the purpose: the disabled were imagined to be fit only for the family’s tool shed or the asylum. In either case they were ignored. The ADA says we cannot be ignored. Plenty of people who do not currently have a disability think that having one is a monumental tragedy. When TV programs like “Dateline”feature a blind person they often say: “He was “Struck down” by blindness.” This old Victorian language still haunts every person with a disability.In his wonderful memoir “Moving Violations” John Hockenberry describes an encounter he once had with an airline hostess who, seeing that he used a wheelchair, opined that if she was in his shoes she’d probably have to kill herself. All people with disabilities can share stories like Hockenberry’s.

The ADA says our lives are worth living. Are disability lives not worth living? The long history of “abled” voices has said, and continues to say “no”–a “no” that has been complicated by pre-natal testing and divisive political rhetoric about the nature of what a qualified life really is. In 2005 the Terri Schiavo case demonstrated to disability rights activists that when it comes to protecting disability life, conservatives had more empathy and courage than neo-liberal Democrats (with the notable exception of the Rev. Jesse Jackson). The very idea that a disabled life is not a life at all depends both on the medical appropriation of curative utility (life with illness only possesses value in relation to its amelioration) and simple metaphor (disability understood as a ruined identity, see Erving Goffman). The dichotomies of spoiled identity have a long history on both sides of the Atlantic–eugenics, forced sterilizations, the “ugly laws”, institutionalization, and the Nazi “T4” mass murder of adults and children with disabilities. The pattern is one of distillation: disability, (post industrial revolution) is broadly conceived–has been conceived as economically unviable, hence lacking all capacity for the pursuit of happiness in the world of economic-biography.

The darker version of this is the resentment of social welfare (Hitler famously depicted people with disabilities as “useless eaters”). The utilitarian (Benthamite) position (Peter Singer) holds that the greater good of society must trump the needs of a minority in pain–”good” is understood as the potential for achieving pleasure. The Benthamite pleasure principle subborns life to economic life and forgoes the question of what constitutes individual autonomy when imagined outside of industrial labor. In turn it’s the right of the majority class, the “duty” of the majority class to debate the probable happiness potential and index of the minority. Many disability rights activists and scholars have pointed out the inevitable connection of Jeremy Bentham’s ideas (and Singer’s fealty to same) as the foundational principles of Nazism. There is truth to this because eugenics was driven by the principles of Bentham.)

The 21st century extension of disability as a cathexis of the utilitarian body and the medical model of physicality (that abnormality only has value in relation to its likelihood of cure) is now intensified by pre-natal testing. Mr. Singer would counsel parents to abort a fetus if its future birth would result in a child without arms and legs. In his view that child would have no likelihood of happiness and (more sinister of course) such a child would impede the greater happiness of society. Singer is no scholar of economies of scale or of their pre-history. The idea that a legless man might be a great singer or poet demands an appreciation of proto-industrial village life: the majority history of human kind. But enough of Singer.

A friend wrote me recently. She’s a young writer and a new mother of a little girl with a disability. She wrote because she’s experienced the insensitivity of her academic colleagues and friends who have opined that they couldn’t imagine raising a child with an intellectual or developmental disability. My friend has been shocked by the thuggish candor of these remarks. And by turn of the imaginative poverty of the conceptualization of a challenged life as no life at all. This is the marriage of utilitarian philosophy (absorbed through capitalism’s ubiquitous social rhetoric) and the medical model of disability which holds that physical difference without the prospect of cure is not worth enduring. We are living in creepy and reactionary times. And though I’ve been a life long liberal, I applauded the efforts of former Florida governor Jeb Bush to save the unimaginable life of Terri Schiavo. I’ve never felt any ambiguity about that. Perhaps my lifetime of nearly incomprehensible difficulty to live and stand among the able bodied has given me a strange capacity for steepened joy. Not an easy joy. Not a hot rod, drive your car fast joy, It’s the joy of living beautifully in the solitudes of challenge–something your average doctor or utilitarian philosopher can’t imagine because they don’t understand the vitality of pain.

So clearly part of our job is to help those who work in the public sphere and who have no experience of disability understand the vitality of lives that are lived in what I’m calling “the vitality of pain” because the phrase reflects rather accurately what all life is. 

Another part of our job is to make strong connections with groups and organizations that are leveraging the legislated rights of people with disabilities by insisting that states and municipalities live up to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The New Hampshire story above and recent developments in New York State offer some examples but there are more. 

The Justice Department’s recent comprehensive settlement agreement with the Commonwealth of Virginia resolved problems in the state’s system for serving people with developmental disabilities, including intellectual disabilities, and further resolved violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

Under the ADA and the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Olmstead v. L.C., individuals with disabilities have the right to receive services in the most integrated settings appropriate to their needs. The ADA and Olmstead require states to provide people with disabilities the opportunity to live and receive services in the community instead of in institutions.  

It’s clear that with sufficient stamina, persistence, and networking we can fight for the rights of people with disabilities. It is right to remember the words of Jim Ferris, a poet who often writes about disability from the experience of having a disability. He says: We are not signs,/we do not live in spite of/or because of facts,/we live with them,/ around them,/among

Among. If you are looking for a one word slogan that’s it. The ADA @30 is Among.

 

Thirty for Thirty on the ADA: Essay Three “Lyric Life”

Thirty for Thirty on the ADA

As we near the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act I’ve decided to post thirty short essays about the law, the anniversary, and the cultural impact of #ADA @30. I’m doing this as a disabled person who’s lived half his life before the ADA. I’m reflecting on the “before and after” of the law.

Essay 3: Lyric Life

I was on a playground in Durham, New Hampshire. The year was 1960 and I was five years old. I had thick glasses and was smaller than my classmates. A big kid who I’ll call Rollie, who daily taunted me and called me “Blindo” approached me with a handful of dirt which he clearly meant for me to eat.

“You will eat this,” he said.

“It looks good,” I said. “Hey Rollie, have you ever eaten an acorn?”

Rollie held his dirt before him like a little pillow.

“An acorn?” he said.

“Yeah, they’re just like peanuts, really good, that’s why squirrels like them. You want one?”

“Sure,” he said. He held out his other hand and I dropped a neatly shelled acorn into his palm.

“Go on Rollie, its yummy!”

Rollie ate it. Then he turned red, and I mean red, not beet red or fire engine red—he was red as an unkind boy with his mouth swollen shut. Acorns are among the bitterest things on earth. And of course I only knew this because I’d tried one. I was a solitary kid. Spent a lot of time in the woods. Those were the days when a boy could still go to the woods.

Rollie was incapacitated. I don’t think he ever bothered me after that.

I still recall the thrill of my discovery. That language could render an enemy harmless was rousing.

I didn’t do a little dance. Didn’t brag about the matter. But I was on the way.

A lyric life, I think, is one wherein you can access feelings and then, by turn do something productive with them.

The simplest definition of a lyric poem is a poem that expresses the writer’s feelings.
Freud said: “Life as we find it is too hard for us; it entails too much pain, too many disappointments, impossible tasks. We cannot do without palliative remedies.”

One of those palliative remedies is lyric itself. One may think of this as causative intuition, a feeling that trips a switch and makes you sing when you should properly be weeping or running for your life. Again Freud: “Man should not strive to eliminate his complexes, but to get in accord with them; they are legitimately what directs his contact in the world.”

We are getting in accord. We are beside a country road picking edible flowers in the cool of the day. We do not pick edible flowers beside highways because there are pesticides in trafficked areas.

We remove the pistils and stamens before eating.

“Hey Rollie have you ever eaten Milkweed?”

“Rollie, you can trust me this time. It tastes like green beans.”

You will laugh at me, but I think of the ADA as green beans….

I think of it as the dictionary for disability assertion.

Now bullies ye will always have with ye. Of course.

Today’s disabled kids must also endure bullies.

Even now as a grownup I still endure them.

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.

The good news is that when and if he’s discriminated against should that eventuality arise the ADA will likely protect him.

Disabled in the Faculty Ranks, a Tiresome Tale…

If you’re like me and you’ve a disability and you work in higher education you know that discrimination on the basis of physical difference is just as rampant from the left as the right. If you’re a faculty member who requires accommodations in the workplace you’re a nuisance. You might even be an embarrassment. I’ll never forget walking in a faculty procession with my guide dog and actually hearing a university trustee snicker as I passed. The chuckle wasn’t friendly and it spoke volumes. “Look! There goes our esteemed faculty! I always told you they didn’t know anything!” This happened at Syracuse University and yet it could have occurred on any campus. Disabled faculty are not the norm. Worse, we face bureaucratic delay and dismissive arguments when we bring up the inaccessibility of physical and digital spaces.   

I submit it’s hard to avoid growing bitter. It’s hard to feel the very apparent lack of interest in disability discrimination even from faculty who hail from other marginalized positions. No one wants to imagine disability as being intersectional. Diversity and inclusion generally doesn’t include the cripples. Because this is so, the loneliness of being disabled in the faculty ranks is considerable. Ableism is a machine for isolation and deprivation. When you say, well people of color also have disabilities people look at their watches. The great liberal fiction is that universities are welcoming. All of this came to the surface for me this morning when I read about two black professors at the University of Virginia who were denied tenure. The academy does not welcome bodies of difference and while I’m not a person of color I can say I’ve seen the discriminatory daily routines “up close and personal” and I’m getting pretty close to being worn out.

Not so long ago I was called an “ignoramus” by a fellow faculty member who was snotty to me and my white cane. I know, it’s hard to believe. Of course 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.

Some day, long after I’m dead colleges and universities will be welcoming places for all. And disabled folks who are people of color will thrive. And yes blind people will not be laughed at.

Old White Finn’s Homage to Black Disabled Lives Matter

Some of the most important intersectional human rights work being done in the United States comes from Black Disabled Lives Matter. This work doesn’t have analogies. Strictly speaking it’s not a slogan, only the meretricious and ill conceived parodies (Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter) are slogans, for DBLM is proleptic, it materializes objections to disabled black human rights by stating what should be true but isn’t. Blue lives already have the money and power; “all lives” means white able bodied life and we know it has the bacon.

I’m a 65 year old Finnish-American blind writer and activist. I don’t know what it’s like to be black and disabled. As a guide dog user I’ve been prevented from entering public accommodations. I’ve been denied cab rides. When I was unemployed a social worker told me I’d never find another job and I should be content to collect social security disability. I’ve been treated badly by airlines, academics, bus drivers, weirdos on the streets and even once in a church. But no one is generally out to shoot me. And because of my cheerful whiteness I’ve even been approached by cops who wanted to help me. (They thought I was lost. You know all blind people are permanently lost.)

If you’re disabled and black you’re pre-judged by systemic racism and ableism. Disability is cheating. Blackness is nascent criminality. Illness is a civic burden. Added together: the black disabled must be locked away. In public they can be tased, shot, whatever, and before you say, “why is this different from non-disabled people of color” let me add that it isn’t but disabled people of color are imagined by racist and ableist society as not ever belonging in public. They are rolling, tapping, ventilating reminders of all civil rights history. Hence they make even some black people uncomfortable. Kudos to Rev. Al Sharpton for mentioning black disabled lives at George Floyd’s funeral.

One of the best things happening is that Black Lives Matter means black disabled lives matter. BLM is amplifying the voices of black disability activists who have critically important stories to tell. Check out the Black Lives Matter page “Black, Disabled and Proud : College Students with Disabilities: https://www.blackdisabledandproud.org/black-lives-matter.html

There you can read Darnelle Moore’s excellent piece on racism as a mental health trigger. Moore writes about the horror and exhaustion of systemic racism.

Check out the Black Lives Matter Washington Disability Rights page: https://www.disabilityrightswa.org/2020/06/01/black-lives-matter/
Here you can read about BLM and disability rights where policing is concerned:

https://www.disabilityrightspa.org/newsroom/black-lives-matter-justice-in-policing/

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If you know your history you’ll remember that the Black Panther Party was a significant promoter of disability rights and inclusion. If you know your history you know that Brown vs. Board of Education opened the doors of public schools for disabled kids like me. The intersections are tight between civil rights movements. But if there’s a moment beyond history—whatever we mean by history in the making—black disabled activists are pushing for true universal rights. They speak for veterans, the elderly, those who steer their chairs with breathing tubes, the guide dog teams, the mentally ill, the homeless, the unemployed, the deaf and non-speaking.

Now being blind I’m terrible at posting videos and I even struggle with pasting links but please check out the work of Vilissa Thompson, LeRoy Moore, and this terrific article published just two days ago at The Guardian; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/09/sandra-bland-eric-garner-freddie-gray-the-toll-of-police-violence-on-disabled-americans

In creative writing circles we’re asked, all of us, the old question, “who are you writing for?” I’ve never known how to answer this. I don’t think I write for blind people only. Certainly not cis gendered white men; not ableist or racist or homophobic types. I think though that today I’m writing for an old friend who is black and trans and has a guide dog.

And yes, nothing here is exhaustive, there’s so much more to be read and said. And yes I’m in total awe of disability activists everywhere.

The poetry will heal you school…

If you need a doctor you don’t want to go to a poet unless she or he has a medical degree. And yet it amazes me how many creative writers believe that poetry heals people. My contention has always been that poetry won’t hurt you overmuch and it can turn you from depression toward fascinations. But it won’t cure depression and it won’t make you whole. Moreover, some of the most vicious and dishonest academic creative writers are the loudest purveyors of the poetry will heal you movement. This is MFA as snake oil. AWP as therapeutic massage.

The flip side of this is the Robert Bly school of thought: you must live alone and suffer like St. John of the Cross in order to be an artist. This is also bullshit. Eschewing happiness won’t make you creative. The very idea is like putting on a scourge, stuffing stones in your shoes. Bly dined out on this idea for years. Picture the average poetry audience: half believing poetry would cure their hangnails; the other half believing they needed more hangnails.

The poetry will heal you school thinks that the body is a thing to be overcome. It views the head as a lifeboat from disablement. Poetry is supposed to fix you up, and damn, here comes one of those crippled poets to mess it all up!

Sadness of the Eyes and Description of a Journey

I slept above my city and in the dream many chasms opened and expectant faces of the dead could be seen. The ordinary was wide and superfluous. Love was rising from hell. Broken hands, Dante’s missing jaw, the hoof on an ox…O dreams move fast. I rose higher and the dead-love was harder to see. Ah, said a voice not my own, this is when the soul works best.

What If No One Invented the Essay?

One morning you’re taller than usual though the circumstance is a feature of sleep—the last seconds of a dream. When you step from bed your slippers don’t fit right.

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I don’t think Montaigne invented the essay. There I’ve said it. No one invented the damned thing. It was old by the time of Plato.

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Don’t you tell me. Don’t you tell me. What did you do with my spoon?

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Protagoris, Pythagoris, the Goris Brothers Band….

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Thunka thunka, twang, Wallace Stevens caught in a clothes line.

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I envy Pentti Saarikoski his early education, reading all that Greek while outside snow fell in the impossible Helsinki darkness. It’s provincial culture and the adaptable intelligences I love.

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My mother learned to shoot a Colt revolver when she was 8. My grandfather left her alone at the farm and told her, “shoot first, ask questions later.” I come from an elaborately fucked up family.

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I still like Wallace Stevens caught in a clothesline.

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I still like silently mouthing Greek while snow falls in the far north.

Bald eagles! Bald eagles! Let us have wonders.

I was walking in my neighborhood when a woman called out, “there’s a bald eagle in my tree, there’s a bald eagle!” And I said: “wow!” Even the blind can say “wow!”

She was telling the truth. She didn’t know I was blind.

I thought what if no one in America knew the other’s identity? Wouldn’t this solve everything? I mean first appearances of course. I don’t want people to go back to the closet. And I’m not claiming there aren’t blind racists. But what if when first meeting someone you didn’t know where they came from? Maybe everyone should wear Oculus headsets that make strangers into angels. The headsets could double as coronavirus masks.

Bald eagles! Bald eagles! Let us have wonders.
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“I’ll never forget the first time I saw him, standing up on a hill, his hair blowing in the breeze — and he too proud to run and get it.”

—Jean Carroll

Great old joke….

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[Ed Ames throws a tomahawk, trying not to hit the chalk outline of a cowboy. He hits the cowboy right between his legs.] Carson: I didn’t even know you were Jewish.

Another great moment of wonder….

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Please, for the love of God, go out today and cultivate wonder.