Ableism in the Academy–It’s What’s For Breakfast

Ableism is akin to racism or homophobia but with one difference: the assumption that physically challenged bodies are “someone else’s issue” remains largely unexamined outside academic or activist circles within disability communities.   

—Stephen Kuusisto, before his first cup of coffee

You can’t include the disabled in whatever is meant by “diversity” until the problem above is addressed. 

—Kuusisto after his second cup of coffee  

That the disabled belong in special offices, sequestered environments, is a a hangover from the 19th century. Just as people of color or women still experience cruel 19th century headaches, the disabled do also. The academy taught racial separation, “the White Man’s Burden”, eugenics, and promoted the medical and psychological inferiority of women and people of color throughout the 1800’s and long into the 20th century. The hierarchies of post-secondary-education in the U.S. remain in an amnesiac state—you see, I’ve even chosen an ableist metaphor to make the point. Where disability is concerned, college administrators see no reason to address the structural dynamics of outworn and damaging ideas—after all disability is about accommodations and doesn’t a special office take care of that?

—Kuusisto after a bowl of oatmeal

 The last sentence above is always spoken by the able bodied. The disabled don’t say this. They say “we’re part of the village now.” 

The able bodied say, “you’re part of the village only insofar as it’s convenient. Go to your special office.”

—K after walking his dog

 Loose Notes:

  • The special office is always in an out of the way location. 
  • The special office is always understaffed.
  • The S.O. gives faculty and administration permission to think “the disabled” (who are really cash paying students—your sister, your friend, your neighbor….) are a complicated problem, requiring sequestered and specialized “treatment”.
  • This is an outworn model for disability engagement. 
  • Faculty and staff need to be brought into the 21st century where disability is concerned. 
  • This cannot be accomplished if able bodied faculty, staff, and administration cannot confront the legacies of ableist thinking. 
  • No one likes to be called ableist. Just as some white people hate to be called out for white privilege and say, “but I have a black friend”—thereby proving their privilege—ableists are fond of saying “I CARE about disability”—which  often means, “I want to change the subject.”
  • This is what I like to call the ableist shrug. If the able bodied believe themselves progressive but fail to assist the disabled when they experience obstacles, then they’re extending ableism. 

   

—Kuusisto after a shower 

Early morning riding the bus….

 

Blind fingers & toes, blind face

Arms, legs, torso—

Woman opposite 

Sizing me up 

Like something 

In a market

Blind cabbage

& me thinking

How fair

She once

Must have been

A Victorian doll

Poems sticking from my pockets

Some about sea horses

Some about manners of love

Structural Inequality at Syracuse Can Change….

Things are going badly at my university where diversity is concerned. In fact this is an understatement. The racist, ableist, homophobic, misogynistic videos from a fraternity party are chilling. Syracuse U didn’t make these videos happen; didn’t instruct fraternity boys to unleash hatred. I give the university a pass on coercion. Yet our civic space, or “agora” has long been exclusionary, toxic, and even cruel to historically marginalized students, staff, and faculty. 

Right now there’s a lot of talk about systematic change. Committees are being called. Grievance meetings are being held. They are good first steps. 

Syracuse University cannot succeed unless her administrators, staff, students and faculty have a collective and shared intellectual experience that examines bigotry in all its institutional and hegemonic ways. 

Disabled as I am, I have seen first hand how senior administrators have shrugged their shoulders when told that accommodations and access for disabled students, staff, visitors, and faculty are not easy to obtain and are often lacking altogether. 

This isn’t a new experience for me. I’ve been teaching here for 7 years and have been ignored for much of that time. Course management software not accessible? Thanks for telling us Prof. K. Ho Hum. You know of a student who failed a course because she didn’t get note taking accommodations in a timely way? Thanks for telling us Prof. K. Ho Hum. What? You can’t get access to teaching materials in accessible formats? Thanks again. Ho Ho Hum. 

7 years is a long long time to be waiting for action. Now, because of the horrid videos mentioned above the university is talking about changing its culture. 

My argument, such as it is, is that ableism is rife in the academy. Most scholars believe that education is a race and it goes to the fittest. They believe disabled people are only on campus because of the sufferance imposed by disability rights laws. How many students have come to me over the last few years sharing tales of faculty who don’t want to provide them with reasonable accommodations—extra time on tests, the ability to record lectures because they’re blind, sneering at them because owing to autism they wear noise reduction headphones in class—the list of faculty misdeeds is a long one. Then there are the senior administrators, deans, provosts, associate vice presidents, who think disability accommodations are best left to a later day. Who say to themselves, “We’ll get to that next year.” Who believe disabled students and faculty are malcontents. I know because I’ve been labeled as such. 

Ableism is built into the very buttresses of higher education. Higher Ed is a seat of privilege, merit, exceptionalism; it’s a race that goes to the swift; maybe the good looking; if you need any kind off academic help you shouldn’t be here. Unless you’re a star athlete of course. Ho Hum. I mention the athletic support system not to denigrate it, but to point out that the cost of helping disabled students isn’t the real issue—ableism assures us that the appearance of helping the disabled presents the image of a college or university with undeserving students. 

I’m not wrong about this. In his new book Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education Jay Dolmage writes: “basically, academia exhibits and perpetuates a form of structural ableism.”Then he adds, and I think this is key: 

“I borrow to a certain degree from the notion of structural racism, defined by the Aspen Institute as follows:

A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist. (n.p.)

Likewise, ableism has to be seen as a series of entrenched structures—not just the action of an individual or of individuals. We have to understand that because of these pervasive structures, we live in a society that resists efforts to ameliorate or get rid of ableism. As scholar and activist Daniel Freeman writes, “Able-bodied people all have things that they fall short with, skills or tasks that they will never master. But when disabled folks say, ‘These are the things I need in order to do my very best,’ it is labeled as an ‘accommodation.’ . . . The language itself is ableist in nature, bringing into focus the reality of how disabled bodies are seen as barriers to able-bodied life” (n.p.). Accommodation is thought of as something that always needs to be created, something that has a cost. ”

Excerpt From: Jay Dolmage. “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education.” iBooks. 

Until the administration at Syracuse understands the structural dynamics of intersectional and pervasive delimitation the problems experienced by people who hail form historically marginalized backgrounds will persist. Let us point out that disabled students and all other minority students are paying for the opportunity to get an education. Or as one disabled student said to me yesterday, “paying for the opportunity to be treated badly.”

Moreover Syracuse can’t get better so long as its public rhetoric about disability is steeped in the lingo of 1970. Take the following passage from the School of Education’s web site on accessibility: 

Syracuse University and the School of Education are dedicated in their mission to fully include persons with disabilities and special needs. In compliance with Section 508 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Syracuse University and the School of Education are committed to ensure that “no otherwise qualified individual with a disability…shall, solely by reason of disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity.”

Special needs is a term that should be tossed into the dust bin of history. As for stating the university is in compliance, that’s simply not true. Hasn’t been true. Not as long as I’ve been teaching here. 

On the matter of “special needs” I like what activist Erin Human has to say:

Every time someone says “special needs,” they reinforce the false notion that disabled people are asking for “extras” when we require accommodations, modifications, and/or support to access the same things that non-disabled people are able to access, such as education, public spaces, community involvement, and so on. 

That’s the first problem, because access is not “special” for disabled people. It’s our right. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protects disabled Americans from discrimination, requires us to be accommodated in the workplace, and grants us equal access to public spaces and institutions. Other countries have laws in place to protect disability rights in similar ways.

The second problem is, the phrase “special needs” flies in the face of the social model of disability. The social model says, the disabled person’s inability to access things is due not to the disabled person’s failings, flaws, or deficits, but on the environment’s failure to provide access to the things. For example, a Blind person is not disabled because they can’t see, they are disabled because the world was set up by seeing people for seeing people and is made of many things that are inaccessible to non-seeing people.

To make a metaphor of it, imagine taking a brand new car and submerging it in a lake. The car is disabled; there’s nothing wrong with the car itself, it still does everything it’s designed to do, but it cannot operate in its current environment. If were in an environment well suited to its needs and purposes, like say a road, it would be able to do all the things a car does.

The current environment at Syracuse University, ironically the first college in the United States to offer a disability studies program needs to change for everyone to operate, not merely suited to his or her or they needs and purposes, but with dignity. 

Disabling Your Enemy is Terrorism

During the past month of demonstrations along the border between Gaza and Israel, at least 17 Palestinians have suffered gunshot wounds that ultimately cost them their legs, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza.

The Washington Post

Lest it’s lost on anyone the purpose of warfare is not to destroy enemy combatants but to shatter their village square. Disablement is a strategy, rape is a policy, affecting civilian casualties, all are matters of policy.

Disablement isn’t an unfortunate side effect of protests in Gaza as the Israeli Defense Force’s argument has it. Disabling civilians is overtly designed to shatter not just legs but the human will to freedom and dignity. What is the best semiotic for imprisonment and despair? Disability of course. Disability as a practice of war is criminal. It doesn’t matter who is producing the disablement. Disabling your enemy is an act of terror.

Terrorism is defined in Title 22 Chapter 38 U.S. Code § 2656f as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”

Nations that paralyze their enemies should be forced to pay for their health care.

Think how quickly that would put a stop to war.

Yeah. That’s what I think.

Two days ago I took an Uber ride. My driver was from Iraq. He told me that his wife has a master’s degree, he has a master’s, his children are in college in the US.

I told him how angry and ashamed I am that the United States has killed one million civilians in his land.

He got out of the car and we hugged. We stood there, uneasily on the street, my guide dog looking on. Who provides guide dogs to Iraqi children? No one.

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

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

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

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

Disability, Expectation, and a Just a Whiff of Episcopalianism

“I expect color to be used against me,” writes John Edgar Wideman in the closing story of his latest collection American Histories. “Amen,” I think, early, the sun not up, reading alone with my talking computer. Race is the first they “they” see—the predatory “they” ruthless, short tempered and ubiquitous—good God is it everywhere. And the sun not up, alone, I want to reach through circuits and virtual pages and shake Wideman’s hand.

Each of us does her or his or they own dance with the expectation of disadvantage in advance. If you’re black, or Latinx, or queer, or disabled you are far more likely to live this on a daily basis. Not likely. I take that back. One does. What was I thinking?

I expect disability to be used against me.

Long ago I read a definition of resentment which I can’t attribute or source: resentment is drinking poison and waiting for others to die.

I not only expect but know disability will be used against me so how do I escape the poison-resentment-complex? Or “we”—how do we do it? Black, queer, neurodivergent, women in male dominated professions, in my case blind at a university that has poor support services for the disabled and more than passing hostility?

I don’t like poison. It tastes like wormwood and iodine. Trust me I know what it tastes like.

When I’m home alone, after a day of discriminatory treatment, being told to shut up, etc., I think, as I’m sure Wideman must, “I’m a good guy; I’m funny; I like people, why is this happening to me?”

That’s the effect of the poison. Swallowing it you fall into false consciousness, a false expectation about others. You think they’re supposed to change and you’re dying inside and the ableist, racist, homophobic people go on happily about their business. As Auden says famously in his poem Musee des Beaux Arts—suffering is unnoticed by the privileged. He says it better. Read the poem.

The key to having a good life when you know your difference is going to be used against you, perhaps in a minute, perhaps later this afternoon is mysterious and there are few prescriptions in tablet form or in holy books that are proper anodynes. I love the psalms. I adore Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Shit, I’m an Episcopalian. I have whole passages of the New Testament memorized. I love Christ not for his suffering but his transcendence of it. He’s both the king of those who are mocked and of those who persist in love. But I’ll admit it: most days Jesus is too mystical for me when I’m struggling disabled in a hostile world.

I expect disability to be used against me.

It’s that word “expect” that’s the killer.

Expect is related to spectacles. It comes from Latin “to look out”.

Later it comes to mean imagining things that will happen. Somewhere in the 16th century the word transitioned from “fact” (to see what’s coming) to fiction—one of the pejorative dynamics of imagination, suspecting things will happen because they’ve happened in the past. I often tell creative writing students only ten percent of imagination is worthwhile. That estimation may be generous.

This is the poison of imagination. I expect the next bad thing. Ungoverned this becomes depression. The depressed imagination sees everything in the world as equal and equally bad.

Wideman’s literary character is correct: race will be used against him. Finding love in the face of this is the most difficult challenge of all. We can invent machines that defy gravity but so far no machine has defied hate.

I like to think they’re working on this at MIT—maybe something like an aluminum spaghetti colander with wires sticking out that you wear on your head and with a flip of the switch voila hate disappears and water turns into chablis.

As far as I know—not far of course—is the only machine that can zap hate is the imagination which we’re currently under utilizing. Like the oft repeated maxim that we only use ten percent of our brains, we simply fail most days to push our imaginations toward loving others.

I expect to be disliked. It’s a certainty. This is the story of Christ. It’s the story of my neighbor.

I expect to be more loving. Will start today.

I expect to spit. (Expectorate)

“I tell you, you will not see the new beauty and the truth, until you make up your minds to spit.” (Malevich, Essays on Art)

Aim carefully.

Read John Edgar Wideman.

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 

The Blind Guy Persisted….

Because racism, ableism, homophobia, misgogyny are rampant right now at Syracuse University (the story broadly told) I feel unwelcome on campus. I’m blind and have struggled to get basic accommodations as a faculty member for seven years. When I speak about this I’m largely treated to double talk. It’s too hard for this university to make books and articles accessible in a timely way. It’s too hard to assure that sighted support is available to the blind. I’ve been told these things and if I’m hearing them I can only imagine what disabled students are experiencing. Except I don’t have to imagine. They tell me. They tell me over and over what a mean spirited place SU really is.

Yesterday I was told to be quiet. My mistake? I posted a cris de coeur about these problems on a departmental listserv. I was told that my opinions offended people.

That’s of course how ableism works. It offends the ableists to know they’re part of a structural system. They think themselves liberal, progressive, tolerant. Blaming the disabled for calling attention to the problem is Ableism 101.

I said I’d never post to the departmental listserv again.

But I won’t stop talking about the ugliness of higher education and disability discrimination. I won’t.

I love the fact that Syracuse was the first university in the US to formally launch a disability studies program. I’m proud to be an activist faculty member who insists on human rights and who, like my faculty colleagues in many areas of study speaks about the hegemony of discrimination and the role of institutions in the creation of second class status for so many, including the disabled.

Closing, here’s a poem I wrote in the manner of Allen Ginsberg:

America with your history of eugenics.
With your hostility to the global charter on disability rights.
With your jails, stocked with psychiatric patients—worse than the Soviet Union. We are Gulag Los Angeles; Gulag Rikers Island; Gulag Five Points in Upstate New York.
America with your young Doctor Mengeles.
With your broken VA.
With your war on food stamps and infant nutrition.
With your terror of autism and lack of empathy for those who have it.
With your 80% unemployment rate for people with disabilites.
With your pity parties—inspiration porn—Billy was broken until we gave him a puppy.
With your sanctimonious low drivel disguised as empathy.
With your terror of reasonable accommodations.
With your NPR essays about fake disability fraud, which is derision of the poor and elderly.
With your disa-phobia—I wouldn’t want one of them to sit next to me on a bus.
America when will you admit you have a hernia?
When will you admit you’re a lousy driver?
Admit you miss the days of those segregated schools, hospitals, residential facilities—just keep them out of sight.
When will you apologize for your ugly laws?
When will you make Ron Kovic’s book irrelevant?
America, you threatened Allen Ginsberg with lobotomy.
Ameica you medicated a generation of teenagers for bi-polar depression when all they were feeling was old fashioned fear.
When will you protect wheelchairs on airlines?
When will you admit you’re terrified of luck?

–Stephen Kuusisto

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

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

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

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

Hate at the University

The trouble with haters is they force you to think about hate. Whatever passes for immunity to the virus of bigotry breaks down. You have a head cold suddenly. You can’t think about the beauty of spring. You’re too busy thinking about the Neo-Nazis or the hateful videos produced by the fraternity at your university, or the anti-Muslim graffiti sprayed on a mosque. The birds are singing real pretty but you’re sealed up. At a remove from joy.

This is how I’m feeling as a member of the Syracuse University community. Thousands of us who study or work at SU are feeling this. No matter your background you have to be deeply disturbed by the hatred that has leaked out around us.

Now I’m an old hand at hate. Disabled, bullied in childhood, discriminated against in education and employment, I’ve lived a long time in hate-ville. Here’s the thing: able bodied white people don’t understand that if you’re from a historically marginalized background you have to put yourself together anew every day. I don’t mean putting on your makeup or shaving. I mean a full scale, internal, hot to the touch assembly of hope, aspiration, belief in the future, and a reserve of irony—you’ll meet people who don’t get you all day long and you’ll manage them with humor, forceful insistence, passion, and compensatory self-regard. Able-bodied white people don’t need to do any of this. The worst thing they can imagine is a bad day in junior high.

A robin is walking across the top of a hedge outside my window. And I’m having to think, to engage with hate. “Big deal,” I say, “it’s nothing new.”

So here, frat boys, ableist staff and administrators, smug warriors of privilege, I’m handing back your hate. Look. I’ve put it in a little basket, like the one Moses floated in. It has a little blanket on top. When you bring it ashore and look inside you’ll find nothing at all. That’s what your hate is. It’s just moist, empty air.

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