Wind Me Up

I recently discovered the Victor Victrola Homepagewhile browsing and I want to thank its creator Paul Edie for his selfless love of old phonographs bearing the Victor name and also point out that he is a supporter of Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic otherwise known as RFB&D.

In my memoir Eavesdropping I describe my early childhood experiences playing alone in my grandmother’s attic in New Hampshire where I listened to a Victrola and discovered the voice of Enrico Caruso. Later in the book I relate how I made my way to Ocean City in Brooklyn to visit the The Enrico Caruso Museum of America.

There are subrosa worlds  of collectors in every sphere of life but I think true lovers of the manual, pre-electric gramophone  are more than mere collectors or habitues of private guilds: we are believers in a remarkable sound, the sound of the human voice captured without electric microphones or any kind of sophisticated wizardry. Because all of Enrico Caruso’s recordings were made for the phonograph and were recorded before the invention of the electric microphone there is a three dimensional quality to the sound of Caruso’s voice that no digital or analog recording of later tenors has ever achieved.

For my money the greatest high C ever sung occurs in Caruso’s recording of the aria Salut Demeure chaste et pure  from Faust.

Thank you Mr. Edie for your devotion to the Victrola and for supporting Recording for the   Blind and Dyslexic.

Both have made great portions of my inner life possible.

Even if you’re not interested in wind up gramophones I think you will find Mr. Edie’s site well worth visiting.



Ableism Casts A Library Pallor Yet Again

Over at James Wolcott’s blog one can read an assessment of Michael Hoffman’s review of the Robert Lowell-Elizabeth Bishop  letters at Poetry magazine. Mr. Wolcott’s view, which echoes Mr. Hoffman’s is that Lowell was a clumsy, plodding reader of literature–a fact that’s according to Wolcott even reflected in the poet’s graniticand dull face. In turn Wolcott quotes at length from the respective letters  of the two poets revealing that Bishop was more adventurous both in her reading and in her travels. By comparison Lowell appears more provincial to be sure. His quotidian reading is that of a well educated schoolboy at Choate .

Michael Hoffman writing in the January issue of Poetry compares Mr. Lowell to a houseplant when his reading habits and prose are considered alongside Bishop’s broader and livelier epistolary persona.

Both Wolcott and Hoffman fail to take any note of the fact that Mr. Lowell was profoundly, nay, severely disabled and in turn his lifelong struggle with mental illness kept him constatnly in a state of quasi-supervised and medicated agony.

Perhaps this is funny stuff, a privileged absentia of empathy rendered as aesthetic judgment. Any excuse for a skewering of a once relevant and widely read poet is apparently fair game in an era when erudite literary criticism is hard to find. Why not attack a disabled human being for the sheer easy decadence of the  enterprise? Why its hardly work at all.

I like these two writers but I should say here without reservation that ableism is still widely practiced in  literature departments and in the press. The idea that progressive thinkers might be more sensitive to disability is fictional–most of the progressive cast remains poorly exposed to disability or disability history as a matter of cultural and political concern.

My friend Lennard Davis who is one of the leading scholars in the area of Disability Studies has observed that the diversity minded folks in higher education are often opposed to including disability as a form of human diversity in academic culture. Lenny explains this peculiar circumstance in his book Bending Over Backwards, a collection of essays about disability and culture. Here’s a quote:

“Indeed, in multicultural curriculum discussions, disability is often struck off the list of required alterities because it is seen as degrading or watering down the integrity of identities. While most faculty would vote for a requirement that African American or Latino or Asian American novels should be read in the university, few would mandate the reading of novels about people with disabilities. A cursory glance at books on diversity and identity shows an almost total absence of disability issues. The extent to which people with disabilities are excluded from the progressive academic agenda is sobering, and the use of ableist language on the part of critics and scholars who routinely turn a “deaf ear” or find a point “lame” or a political act “crippling” is shocking to anyone who is even vaguely aware of the way language is implicated in discrimination and exclusion.”

This is just the point: both Wolcott and Hoffman deride Lowell for his symptoms and do so with a bonhomie that’s essentially inexcusable.

I like Poetry magazine. Why golly one of my poems is even included in their “best of” anthology that’s culled from their first  75years of publishing. But ableism is real, all too easy, and alas its just where Lenny Davis says it is: in our midst.


Steve Kuusisto

Professor of Literature

The University of Iowa

My Last Conversation with My Dad


Lance Mannionis writing a post today (or so he tells me, the rascal) which explains that everything he knows about the great depression comes from having watched The Three Stooges (presumably in childhood, but you never know with Lance, I mean he “did” go to graduate school in English so one can’t assume anything about his viewing habits).

This reminds me that my last phone call with my dad produced the revelation that when he was in high school he lied to his mother, asserting that he was going to the public library when in fact he snuck off to a vaudeville theater to see a live show starring The Three Stooges.

This was all the more delightful for me because my dad was a college president and a Harvard Ph.D. and as if that wasn’t enough he was a pastor’s kid having grown up with his devout Finnish parents who in turn devoted their lives to preaching and shoring up the Finnish Lutheran church.

The news that my dad had snuck off to see Moe, Curly and Larry conking one another over the heads in a dingy Boston music hall was entirely wonderful. I felt such a sense of kinship with him just then.

The subject of “The Stooges” had come up because I was telling my dad  about my meager domestic threat to introduce my stepson Ross to “the Stooges’ work” if my wife Connie didn’t acede to  some paltry household opinion or other. Connie would always say: “You wouldn’t do such a thing would you? I thought I’d married a good man, etc.”


Okay, Now It Is Clear to Me

I get it at last. The decline of American newspapers and the failure of department stores are the same auto-destructive principle. If you’re a newspaper you cover less and less news by hiring no reporters. Hence: there’s nothing to read. If you’re the local Sears you hire no staff so customers can’t actually find or buy anything.

“Ah,” say the HR types. “We cant afford their wages.”

Well can the HR industry afford a bread line? A soup kitchen? How about more prisons?

Does anyone remember the era of the department store floor walker? Does anyone recall the days of serious local news reporting?

Still Thinking of You Pal

Not so very long ago Connie and I said goodbye to our beloved black Labrador Roscoe who is pictured here in his 13th year enjoying his view of Lake Winnipesaukee.

Roscoe was bred by Guiding Eyes for the Blind to become a guide dog but although his   intelligence was keen his sweet sensitivity made him a poor candidate for guiding a blind person in traffic.

Roscoe was essentially a loving bull in a china shop whose myriad barks of greeting and playfulness were unlike those of any creature I’ve met before or since.

We miss you pal.



Obama and Old Harry Reid

As the President-elect heads to Washington one can see that his avowed bi-partisanship is less a matter to be honored in the House and more a problem of the senate. For all her faults (and they are many) Nancy Pelosi presides over a house chamber that is sufficiently partisan to achieve something like Democratic consensus at least on most days.

The senate is a different story. Harry Reid may once have been a boxer but he’s oddly without any scrap left in him. His tenure as the majority leader has been marked by a singular avoidance of confrontation with the G.O.P. That’s good news for Obama you might say but in fact the opposite is more precisely the case: the Republicans who believe that all government programs designed to save the banking system or the auto industry are socialism pure and simple are never going to be persuaded that an ambitious stimulus package is worth supporting.

Enter Harry Reid who is 9 times out of 10 unwilling to allow his slim Democratic majority to stand independently. Watching his stewardship of the Democratic party it is hard to remember why Senator Reid’s party was given majority status in the first place. Opposition to the war in Iraq? Job creation? The voters’ disgust over the misuse of power by the executive branch?

Yes Barack Obama promised to unify the red states and the blue but if the principle of unity is achieved at the expense of serious change then the new president will himself resemble old Harry. Bi-partisanship is a fair principle and it is not to be treated lightly as the Bush administration has managed to do with disastrous consequences. But neither should it be a monolithic totem of sacrifice before which the duly elected Democrats squander their opportunity to save the nation as F.D.R. once did by promising a new deal for Americans.

Not offending the hard right is not bi-partisanship though Harry Reid may not have heard.

Walking on Hat Pins Part Two

If you are blind and you use assistive software like JAWS or Window Eyes (just to name two first rate products that turn Windows based programs into speech) you may sometimes ask yourself why you need a third party software package that costs over $500just to use the same computer that everyone else can use “right out of the box”.


The problem is that Microsoft didn’t take the accessibility of the Windows operating system into account when they introduced it. In turn blind software developers created software and after a series of legal battles with Microsoft they got cooperation of a kind that opened the doors of MS scripting to programmers who hoped to make windows accessible. The problem is that this work became a third party cottage industry and in turn that industry (making computers accessible) let Microsoft largely off the hook.

And so it costs the blind tons of dough to use the computer and meantime the upgrading of software systems invariably leaves the assistive software industry months behind every time a major operating system is upgraded or tweaked.


Don’t get me started on Macintosh–their accessibility for the blind is mostly a trick pony.


In truth the blind ought to demand full accessibility of electronic products”off the shelf” for indeed that’s what’s needed.



Getting Around on a Hat Pin

Like most blind people who use computers I depend on assistive technology or adaptive technology or whatever else you may wish to call it. I tend to think of all technology as “assistive” though not without irony for surely current history and our prior century prove how “unassistive” technology can be. The mass scale bombings of civilians comes to mind: Guernica, Dresden, London, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, Nanking, Hanoi, around and around it goes. But I digress. I use assistive technology. I’m typing at the moment with JAWS version 10 on a Sony VAIO laptop that was customized by my friends at Universal Low Vision in Columbus, Ohio. Hooray for Universal Low Vision–they are, to my mind, one of the best outfits in the U.S. when it comes to customizing systems for people with disabilities.


But I digress. I get around on a hat pin. This is a delicate business. I walk like any of you but then I don’t. I never know when my blog service will change their interface or when the coursemanagement software at my university will leapfrog me right out of accessibility. It remains a common factor that the people who design software do not know that there are basic accessibility needs that ought really to be taken into account so that people like me and the tens of thousands who may become like me can use the internet.


So I’m trying Windows Live Writer to see if it will interact with my blog a bit better than the blog’s own posting page which remains rather opaque for my screen reader. This of course shouldn’t be the case. But that’s a long and boring tale. Getting around on hat pins is more interesting. You put them point end down through the bottoms of your shoes and balance on them like a Rosicrucian and you mumble as you steer ever so vaguely down the street. Come on. Just try it. Just try! You will be able to claim that you’re on the information highway in a form.



Through the Looking Glass of Advocacy

        Educators have long documented that students with disabilities face disadvantages in the acquisition of critical thinking, writing, and oral communication skills. While non-disabled adolescents participate in numerous summer educational programs, students with disabilities are frequently isolated, leading to a lack of self-esteem and experience that can assure success in higher education.

 The Autistic Self Advocacy Network of Northern Virginia makes the case for easy to find information about access to higher education, health services, housing, and accommodations for people who are on the autism spectrum. Their recommendations are designed for legislators in Virginia yet the clarity of their recommendations speaks to best practices when it comes to including people with disabilities on the "map" of citizenship.

Their recommendations speak to a national problem, one that's replicated in all 50states. People with disabilities and their friends and families can't get access to information and networks that will assist them in their efforts to get an education, gain housing, or find a job.

Many people with disabilities who have managed to graduate from high school find its very difficult to locate transition programs designed to help you get a higher education.

They will discover all too often that applying to colleges and universities remains a crap shoot when it comes to accessing effective programs that really take disability seriously.

Here in Iowa City the local school system has seen a considerable influx of families who have moved here from Chicago, many of them looking for access to special education for their children. The Iowa City School District most likely would earn a C plus when it comes to adequately provisioning programs and services for students with learning disabilities. But that C plus is far better than the miserable climate for LD kids in Chicago.

President-elect Barack Obama's choice for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has a dreadful record when it comes to special education. The Justice For All carries the discouraging history of budget cuts and legal obstacles that Mr. Duncan presented to the special needs children of Chicago during his tenure as CEO of the Chicago Public School System.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century students with disabilities of all kinds are in peril. Only 15 per cent of students with disabilities graduate from four year colleges. 70 per cent of pwds remain unemployed in the U.S.

Why would the CEO of the Chicago public schools cut the budgets for special education and then resist the justifiable legal action calling for the restoration of that funding?

Arne Duncan wanted "top end" results. The American predilection for the quick fix is ingrained in every facet of our social lives from the auto companies in Detroit to Wall Street to your local school board.

Arne Duncan was able to improve reading and math scores in Chicago while slashing services for the children most in need.

When his selection as Secretary of Education was announced pundits on the TV networks sagely confirmed the wisdom of the choice. He got the reading scores up and he managed his budget.

The only trouble? He didn't manage all our children's futures.

People have migrated to Iowa City hoping desperately that they'll get a new deal.