The Art of Asking Able-Bodied People For a Life

The Art of Asking Able-Bodied People For a Life, Part One

With apologies to Georges Perec let’s start with his words: “Having carefully weighed the pros and cons you gird up your loins and make up your mind to go and see your head of department to ask for a raise so you go to see your head of department let us assume to keep things simple – for we must do our best to keep things simple – ”

Let’s say this isn’t about a phobic man whose alienation is insurmountable. We’ll substitute disability. Having carefully weighed the pros and cons…we gird the loin cloth and go to see our head of department to ask for what’s rather quaintly called a “reasonable accommodation” and Lo! Lo! We’re of course asking for the right to have lives. Accommodation, reasonable, means the right to live.

Please forget the soul crushing experience of having to ask for the right to live. You must forget how brutal this is. You must behave like those passengers on the Titanic who played pickup ice hockey. The art of begging for your life must be a game. Able bodied people love games, the crueler the better.

This is why the boss, the Dean, the district manager, (able bodied people have many titles) like to keep you waiting. You need something central–permission to use your oxygen tank in the library; a Braille sign pointing out the exits in the dormitory; a fire alarm for the deaf; Lord how it goes on–someone to shovel the sidewalk in front of the wheelchair ramp; medical coverage; maybe just a single day of acceptance which I think is also an accommodation–but Mr. or Mrs. Able keeps you waiting. All you want is an equal shot at life.

Once upon a time I was told by a waiter that I couldn’t come in his restaurant. He didn’t understand that my guide dog is protected by law and is allowed everywhere the public goes. In fact he didn’t care about this at all. It was raining. Hh was playing the ableist wait game. So I pushed past him, entered the Tony little restaurant and announced loudly to the assorted diners that I was being told I couldn’t come in as a blind person. Diners booed. I was seated.

The point is accommodations are not negotiable no matter what the abled employment-education complex wants you to think. Any modification that allows the disabled to fully live is a matter of life itself.

Dignity is not a game. Not anymore. Black Lives Matter; #metoo
speak to a thing beyond dignity, nobility itself.

Life is noble.

Something Which is Very Pure

I once went to the home of Sergei Esenin in Tashkent. There was a Caruso record on the Victrola. One of Isadora Duncan’s scarves was framed behind glass and hanging on a wall. A book of poems lay open on a table. All three of these artists died tragically when still young. The cramped apartment was a museum to arias I thought. Esenin wrote:

“I do believe in happiness!
The sun has not yet faded. Rays
Of sunrise like a book of prayers
Predict the happy news. Oh yes!
I do believe in happiness!”

Describing the ardor of dance Isadora Duncan wrote:

“Now I am going to reveal to you something which is very pure, a totally white thought. It is always in my heart; it blooms at each of my steps… The Dance is love, it is only love, it alone, and that is enough… I, then, it is amorously that I dance: to poems, to music but now I would like to no longer dance to anything but the rhythm of my soul.”

And then there’s Caruso singing “Donna non vidi mai” from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”:

“I have never seen a woman, such as this one!”, “To tell her “I love you”, my soul awakens to a new life.”

I pictured Duncan and Esinen whirling around the little room to the astonishingly beautiful aria sung by a tenor who was said to spin gold threads. And I thought of death at bay in that tiny room.

As I recall (but may have it wrong) Esinen’s book mark was a demi tasse spoon.

Wheelchair Jesus

Scholars and students of disability studies have had a great deal to tell us about the components of embodiment by which we mean “fringe” bodies held at remove from the tasteful drawing room. The TDR is your university, corporate conference table, the chamber of commerce, and yes, organized religion which is excused from adhering to the Americans with Disabilities Act presumably because in this “Christian” nation everyone knows the lame and halt are outcasts though Jesus said no such thing. One imagines the bishops reading John Rawls whose just society supposed no one would ever become ill. With a tip of the hat to Mel Brooks: “let’s have the dancing Jesuses over there; the singing Jesuses over here!”

Of course I like the wheelchair Jesus and the sign language Jesus and the guide dog traveling Jesus, the limping Jesus, and so forth.

In her edited volume “Foucault and the Government of Disability” the philosopher Shelley Tremain unpacks the creation of enforced disability, that is, disability as a vehicle for governance:

“…the governmental practices into which the subject is inducted and divided from others produce the illusion that they have a prediscursive, or natural, antecedent (impairment), which in turn provides the justification for the multiplication and expansion of the regulatory effects of these practices. That the discursive object called “impairment” is claimed to be the embodiment of a natural deficit or lack, furthermore, conceals the fact that the constitutive power relations that define and circumscribe “impairment” have already put in place broad outlines of the forms in which that discursive object will be materialized (Tremain 2001). In short, an argument about disability that takes Foucault’s approach would be concerned to show that there is indeed a causal relation between impairment and disability, and it is precisely this: the category of impairment emerged and, in many respects, persists in order to legitimize the governmental practices that generated it in the first place.”

If you’re not a philosopher or a historian of governmental effectuation this passage might be as difficult as abstract poetry but let’s say disability was created by government to withdraw status from outlier bodies because they couldn’t work in the newfangled factories of the late 18th century. Disability originally meant and continues to mean lack of economic agency. Governments then created carceral institutions hidden behind tall hedges. Thus the government of disability both creates disablement and enforces the lived experience of disability.

Now putting a ramp on a church is just too damned expensive. Easier to keep the fringe out. If there wasn’t something wrong with them Jesus wouldn’t need to cure them. Curing them is Jesus’ job. We love Jesus. But you must agree the disabled aren’t tasteful.

What does this have to do with Foucault and the government of disability? Plenty. Enforced unfitness is designed to be unresolvable. Then exclusionary. A human difference that’s always too expensive. And in the pandemic, why not let them expire?

The best of the liberal intellectual tradition calls on us to engage with and talk back to the enforcements of bio-politics.

Here comes wheelchair Jesus.

Keats and Plums, Please

There are lines of poetry that once you’ve read them you’ll never get rid of. “The world is ugly and the people are sad” is one of them and it’s bugged me for almost forty years. I was an undergraduate when I first read the lines and if you’re a reader of American poetry you know they are by Wallace Stevens.

The lines represent a mood. Moods are to truth as armadillo meat is to–well, anything. It doesn’t matter that the world is beautiful and people are at least happy on occasion. Mood wins in poetry and the darker the better.

What would a poem which argues the world is glorious and people are, if not happy, at least capable of happiness sound like? It would sound like this:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.

I’ll take Keats over Stevens any day. Why? Because the imagination insists the gloomy days have no noble nature. Because the sails of beauty can be slack or filled with wind but they break the monotony of gloom. (Sails and horses running will always do this.)

On the night Stevens wrote his lines someone was playing a banjo in New Haven and singing softly something the poet did not conceive of. And whether it was a spiritual or the blues or a song of the working classes doesn’t matter. The world was never ugly. Some people are occasionally sad, or cannot shake sadness and in any case saying so bears nuance and scruple neither of which are evident in Stevens’ original lines.

Stevens for all his capacities could be cheap, a thing you never find in Williams, the poet against whom he’s often positioned. Williams would tell us an old woman eating plums finds them good. I’ll take Williams and Keats and plums.

Of Appetite

One is tempted to say appetite is everything. I know you know. I’m ravenous. The old stomach is cleaving to the backbone. With wings I’d be a raven like the one that flew over my house clutching a live snake in its beak. Now the raven is nature’s true hunger. With human beings appetite becomes voracity, greed, it’s entirely covetous. This is why real estate agents tell home sellers to bake cookies before potential buyers visit. Eat that house. And while you’re at it devour the tricycle in the yard.

The raven represents true hunger. Late capitalist hunger is something else unless you’re in poverty. The rich who are America’s decision makers only understand the desire to eat your Chevrolet. That’s where their appetites are centered. The children who suck on pebbles to get to sleep are nowhere in their minds. Literal hunger differs from hedge funder’s appetites. If this was a college classroom, right about now a student would raise her hand and say “professor where are you going with this?”

I know. Forgive me. It’s just that I’m seeing a new kind of American appetite, an edacity, a thing beyond desire or covetousness–a Thanatos driven wild fire quickened rage to eat anyone who stands in the way. I will chomp you and I’ll wash you down with milk and iodine or blood.

Once you’ve turned people you don’t favor into symbols they’re nothing more than the other industrial junk you’d like to eat, the swing set, the pony, the Mercedes Benz, the cash cow megalith shopping mall your neighbor invested in, the great post-modern dehumanized but entirely human hungriness. It’s like the prose Edda. Kill your enemy, drink from his skull.

That’s what I saw when the Trump fed Q-Anon Proud Boys and their molls attacked the Capitol. These were people who’d eat anything. Grandfather clocks. Settees. Dropped mittens. The faces of policemen. They were hoping like Piranha to eat the Speaker of the House. They’d eat anything before them. The new appetite is of course the old appetite, straight out of Jefferson Davis’ kitchen. It’s a racist hunger. “Here,” say the Proud Boys, “I’ll get down on all fours and eat the rug.”

And then they’ll eat you.

Fearing the Blind

For years now I’ve been trying to convince people the world over that blindness is really nothing more than any other embodied characteristic like left handedness or shoe size. The obstacles to succeeding in this quest are many. The chief one is what I like to call “neuro-superstition” a panic rooted in our collective nervous systems. People with sight imagine blindness is a vast helplessness. As a guide dog traveler the number one question I’m asked by strangers—especially in airports—is: “will your dog protect you when you’re attacked?”

I’ll return to the dog in a moment but let’s think about this. The question supposes not being able to see renders one a walking victim. The assumption is that sight is a defense mechanism and the world is wildly dangerous. (People devoured by bears are not saved by their vision nor are pedestrians who are struck by cars while texting,) Seeing is believed to be a get out of jail free card, a talisman, the guarantor of welfare.

Once while walking on Fifth Avenue in New York City I asked two young men for directions to a nearby restaurant. I knew I was close. After they told me where it was one of them said: “How can you go anywhere? I’d stay home if I was blind.” The other wanted to know if the dog does all the thinking for me.

And there it is in a nutshell, the neuro-superstition. Once you’re blind you’re a victim. You’ll probably get eaten like a silly camper in a sleeping bag.

Sighted people think seeing is more than believing they imagine it’s thought itself. When someone asks if the dog does my thinking they’re convinced that without sight I can’t possibly process the world. In other words they think the blind live in a mineral blank. Not seeing is imagined to be like living inside a stone. Except of course we can be eaten. The sighted have a number of mixed metaphors about my kind.

In her excellent book “For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches From the World of the Blind.” Rosemary Mahoney writes: “The blind are no more or less otherworldly, stupid, evil, gloomy, pitiable or deceitful than the rest of us. It is only our ignorance that has cloaked them in these ridiculous garments.”

I agree with her but want to suggest that there’s something in the ophthalmic connection to the spinal column that connects seeing to self preservation which in turn stands at the root fear of the sighted. This flips quickly to: “can’t see, can’t think” which is interesting because it’s a fear based figure: not seeing is to be unable to move or move safely therefore it’s a physical hijacking and an abandonment of all reason.

Mahoney does a great job in her book of showing how real blind people successfully navigate the world using their other senses and critical thinking skills.

Americans fear blindness more than almost anything including hearing loss, heart disease and cancer.

Not long ago while traveling with the US State Department I spoke with blind children in Kazakstan. We were in a special school for the blind. I said what you’d expect, that the blind can achieve their dreams, that there’s nothing we can’t do in today’s world. Afterwards I wept. One boy’s mother said to me, “how will my son ever get out of this school? People are afraid to be near him.”

The blind persist. The sighted need to pay attention. We don’t live inside rocks and we think just as well as anyone else. It’s amazing to still be saying this in 2021.

Back to the dog. She follows my instructions. Her job is to evaluate whether they’re safe. She has a capacity for what the guide dog schools call “intelligent disobedience” which means she won’t step into harm’s way. I look after her, she looks after me. Which gets me to my final point. Blindness is never solitude in the frightful way the sighted imagine. We have friends canine and human. We live successfully in the world. If you shake my hand you won’t go blind. If you talk to me you might learn a few things about the art of listening.

The Chuzzlewit Hour

In our time, this prepossessing era of vanities, this age of clowns and bullies, anti-intellectual, partisan without ideals one is tempted to throw coins down the nearest storm drain and have done with all expectation. I think of the Trump impeachment this way. The Democrats for all their failings cling to ideals and the GOP won’t have any of it. Jeffersonian idealism and a principled belief in the basic tenets of democracy are for chumps. You can see it written on Lindsey Graham’s face.

Trump is to democracy as feces to fudge but his defenders cry impeachment will destroy the legislative branch which is of course what he’s charged with attempting in the first place Have done with expectation, have done. And of course I can’t.

My favorite novel by Charles Dickens is Martin Chuzzlewit where you’ll find this marvelous passage:

“If I was a painter, and was to paint the American Eagle, how should I do it?…I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its short-sightedness; like a Bantam. for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like an Ostrich, for putting its head in the mud, and thinking nobody sees it -‘ …’And like a Phoenix, for its power of springing from the ashes of its faults and vices, and soaring up anew into the sky!”

Can today’s America spring from the ashes of its facts and vices?

This will depend on the staying power of progressive voters and in turn that will depend on their willingness to be disappointed and still turn out to vote again and again. Democrats are not good at the long haul. Republicans are always good at it.

As I watch GOP senators doodling on their note pads while insurrection is displayed for their benefit I’m reminded of another Chuzzlewit passage:

“The weather being hot, he had no cravat, and wore his shirt collar wide open; so that every time he spoke something was seen to twitch and jerk up in his throat, like the little hammers in a harpsichord when the notes are struck. Perhaps it was the Truth feebly endeavouring to leap to his lips. If so, it never reached them.”

Lindsey Graham anyone?

Of the long term and the GOP remember this quote from Chuzzlewit:

“My meaning is, that no man can expect his children to respect what he degrades.”

Democracy does demand something like respect and if it’s not esteem perhaps we can cal it approbation?

And yes what will our children’s children say?

All the Missing Socks: the Role of the Swiss…

Well what can you say? Socks in the dryer vanish. I’ve a theory they all wind up in Switzerland. I try not to dwell on it. There are so many other things to obsess about. Big things. Real issues. Global warming. Racism. The plight of the disabled. Ah but those socks.

Like Pablo Neruda I believe socks are tokens of love as well as comfort. When socks disappear a bit of the soul goes with them. This is not a small thing. Not at all.

When a sock disappears a man or woman, a child, secretly feels as if a kitten is gone.

No one talks about it. There are no conferences at the United Nations.

And the Swiss, those louche and disreputable hoarders, well they can’t disguise their role in this with cuckoo clocks.

Why do I know the Swiss are the ones?

Because no other nation in the world can keep secrets.

If the British had those socks they’d be lording it over us.

If the Chinese had them they’d find a way to monetize the matter just like Americans.

If the Italians had them they’d declare a festival.

I hesitate to think about the French. But whatever they’d do they’d do in public.

Under the Matterhorn lie the soul-socks of the world, nested in frozen edelweiss, guarded by Bernese Mountain Dogs.

Disability: It’s What’s for Breakfast

One of the lasting things about studying disability and its history is there are so many things you can’t unsee. Jean Jacques Rousseau had a ghastly urethra and couldn’t urinate or did so without forewarning. It wasn’t his opinions that caused him to be a detested house guest.

Disability is everywhere once you learn to look for it. Or not. Let’s say you weren’t searching. You’d no interest in Alexander Graham Bell’s wife Mabel who was deaf and you’d no curiosity about “the why” of the telephone–that it was intended as a hearing aid of sorts. What does it mean to find this out?

I’m no fan of those posters you see, the ones that say “did you know these people had invisible disabilities?” But I do like knowing disability is customary.

Which is the point: it’s part of nature, part of us. And it’s a prominent part of us. Which in turn means that discomfort with disability is nothing more than a discomfort with humanity and the world itself.

I wish bigots would just get to the point: “we hate the world.”

Disney makes plenty of money off of this.

I know my disabled face interferes with their horizons.