Ableism in the Academy, Thoughts on Moliere

Ableism, the experience of it, requires the French adjective écœurante —for disability discrimination is simultaneously heartless and sickening. I recall the professor of English at the University of Iowa who told me my blindness would preclude me from being in his “famous” graduate class on Charles Olson. Another professor snickered when I said I was reading books on tape. When I protested the chairman of the English department said I was a whiner and complainer. I wept alone in the Men’s room. My path forward to a Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa was stymied. This was a full six years before the ADA was signed into law. Who was I to imagine a place at the agora’s marble stump?

I had an MFA degree from the creative writing program at that same university and I just went ahead and wrote books and sometimes appeared on radio and television and I wrote for big magazines and over time I received tenure at The Ohio State University. Later I went back to teach at Iowa despite my earlier experience and these days I’m at Syracuse. I’m a survivor of sorts. I’m a blind professor. The odds were never in my favor. Somewhere along the way I began thinking of Moliere in my private moments and I laughed because after all, every human occasion is comical and Moliere recognized the comedic types one encounters in closed societies better than anyone before or since.

It doesn’t really matter what institution of higher education you’re at, if you’re disabled you’ll meet the following Moliere-esque figures. The heartless and sickening ye will always have with ye if you trek onto a college campus. You’re more likely to spot them first if you hail from a historically marginalized background however, the ecoeurantists are more prone to blab at you if you’re disabled, especially behind closed doors. Ableists love closed doors. All bigots love closed doors.

The “Tartuffe” is an administrator, usually a dean or provost who will tell you with affected gestures that he, she, they, what have you, cares a great deal about disability and then, despite the fact a disabled person has outlined a genuine problem, never helps out.

The “Harpagon” is also an administrator, but he, she, they, can also be a faculty member. The Harpagon is driven by rhetorics of cheapness. It will cost too much to retrofit this bathroom, classroom, syllabus, website, etc. If the Harpagon is a professor he, she, they, generally drives a nice car.

Statue du Commandeur: a rigid, punctilious, puritanical college president—“this is the way we’ve always done it. If we changed things for you, we’d have to change things for everybody. Yes, it certainly must be hard…” See:

The Geronte: when his son is kidnapped he says: “Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère?” (What in the deuce did he want to go on that galley for?” In other words, he brought this upon himself. “Really, shouldn’t you try something easier? I could have told you.”

These are the principle types of ableists. I invite you to add your own.

The one thing they have in common besides a privileged and thoroughly unexamined attachment to the idea that education is a race requiring stamina and deprivation, is that they all genuinely believe accommodations are a kind of vanity.


Why Some Special Ed Profs are Afraid of Autists: Hint, They Don’t Know Very Much

“It is difficult for nonspeaking people to define their feelings in language which is chiefly made by talkers to express theirs.”

—my paraphrase, Thomas Hardy

Hi. My name is Steve. If this was a twelve step program instead of an essay you’d say “Hello Steve!” (presumably with warmth) and I’d announce: “I’m blind and though I’m a reasonably well known writer (which means I’ve found many nuanced methods to swindle readers) I must make a confession.” Yes. Here it comes. When I type I don’t look at the keys. That’s right: I just peck from inside a cloud of unknowing which some might call memory and others may call serendipity—and soon I’ll explain the difference but not yet—not yet because if you’re a neurotypical sighted person I think you look at your keyboard when you type. You do this not only for help (your knowledge of the keys is incomplete; you really don’t know where the “t” and the “o” are) but also as a means of confirmation. I know you don’t think of your eyes as accommodating agents. I understand you think sight is an autonomic extension of your inmost thoughts. You must believe this for to acknowledge vision’s documented primacy in all your achievements would be too humbling. Yes. Your eyes correct your typing which means you’re not a typist at all. That’s right. And worse for you, your memory is substandard. You couldn’t name where all the letters are on a qwerty keyboard or what’s right now on your bookshelf—not  without your peepers.

I know my keyboard from memory, not by luck or deceit. I’m literate (though the blind have only been viewed as being so since the late 18th century) and what’s more I’ll kick your ass at Scrabble. The difference between mnemonic prowess and serendipity is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug, to borrow an analogy from Mark Twain who used it with more panache though you shouldn’t repeat what he said in mixed company.

I’m a blind high speed typer who knows where everything is on his bookshelf and can find a book in the dark.

I have a dozen autistic friends who type to communicate. They’re frequently attacked by a school of special education professors who believe non speaking people can’t possibly do this. The professors’ thinking goes like this: “If an autistic goes into a forest with Hansel and Gretle and he points at a tree and Gretle supports his elbow so he can touch it, has he really communicated anything? Maybe the hapless autist didn’t want to touch that tree at all. What if Hansel and Gretel forced him to touch that Fagus sylvatica—for Gretle especially loves the beech trees of the Black Forest? (Much worse of course is that Gretle doesn’t even know she has a beech tree bias.) Now in turn, if the autist wanted to point at the beech tree and Hansel took his elbow, well Hansel might conceivably force him to touch a Scotch Pine since Hansel is a variant of “Hans” and Hans means “one who repeatedly rubs pine trees” and yes, Hansel is more than half dishonest, and in any case the poor autist doesn’t know the difference between a beech and a Christmas tree you see.


Divagation #1: wandering off the path, especially in forests…

There are no autists or people with autism. There are no blind people, no deaf people. The terms are meaningless as no two disabled citizens who are categorically believed to have the same disablement will experience it in the same way.

Divagation #2:  Charles Darwin put his finger on it…

Referring to Darwin’s trans-speciesism where use of language is concerned, Elizabeth Grosz writes in her book “Becoming Undone: Darwinian Refections on Life, Politics, and Art”:

“The human represents one branch of an anthropoid line of language, birds an altogether different line, and bees and other insects another line again. Each develops languages, communication systems, forms of articulated becoming, sign-systems, according to its own morphological capacities, its own sexual interests, and its own species-specific affects. Each “speaks” as it can, elaborating a line of movement that brings sound, movement, resonance into being, that composes songs, sound-lines, statements, expressions as complex and rich as each species can bear.”

Clearly autists are human and not cockatoos or bees, but articulated becoming, sign-systems, and individuated morphological capacities are essential to any understanding of what language is.

Sound, movement, resonance, articulated becoming, complexity are all components of languages and work across what we call species but which we might as well call life itself.

Divagation @3: the boy next door has made a whistle from a blade of grass; I’m playing a trumpet…briefly, we make the same note on October 2nd 2002, in Columbus, Ohio…


The professors I allude to in the field of Special Education are proponents of “exceptionality” and believe that a cohort of disabled students can only be taught if identifiable patterns of strengths and needs common to all students can be understood. In parts of Canada and in various places in the US a disabled student can only access special education services if he or she has an exceptionality—that is, they must prove they’re better than the rest of those dumb kids. In these days when neuroscience and assistive technology are changing our understanding of individual needs and competencies the hoary idea that autistic people must fit a neo-Victorian template, a spectrum if you will, with high functioning and low functioning labels trotted out like specimens in 19th century science is still prevalent. Forget that these professors have a stake in waving the flag of science as a red herring—that the majority of special education faculty are ill equipped to engage with contemporary neurological research into the nature of autism—let us just pretend that autists are mannequins, and voila! You’ve got the professors’ favorite “ableist” conspiracy theory. You see: there are no talented, imaginative non-speaking people. The term “facilitated communication” is their rhetorical weapon of choice—an outdated term and one that has zero relevance these days, but it is so easy to paint with an old, stiff, unwashed brush. It’s important to the proponents of exceptionality that the public continue to think nonspeaking people have no thoughts of their own. Moreover the general public should also believe that all inclusive communication techniques are dishonest because, after all, you must always remember Hansel and Gretle and the woods.


Ubiquitous Ableism Run Amok Department

The Finnish poet Tua Forsstrom once wrote “nothing terrifies us more than the godforsaken places” but I don’t think it’s true. I think disability frightens people even more than death or a profane landscape with goblins. A wheelchair or a blind man scares the pants off of most folks. They’re not even circumspect about it. “I think if I had to ride around in a chair like you, I’d have to kill myself” is a phrase heard often by my paralyzed friends. I kid you not. It’s in circulation, this idea that disability is worse than dying. Once, riding in a cab in New York the driver told me I must be the victim of voodoo. My blindness was living evidence of demonism. His subtext was clear: I’d be better off dead.

Lately we’ve seen several instances of disability murder—from Japan to California to the Middle East. From ISIS murdering children with Down Syndrome to a ceremonial garden party where tastefully dressed men and women say goodbye to their hostess who’s decided to end her life because she has Lou Gehrig’s disease, the idea that disabled lives ain’t worth living is absolutely everywhere and largely unchallenged. Of course there are plenty of us in disability circles who cry foul. We ask on social media why the news reporting is so ubiquitously one sided; why disability life remains so undervalued in our media. How frustrating it is for those of us who raise this question, since we already know the answer. We’re locked out of television networks; under represented in even the progressive press. Where’s the disability writer for The Nation or Mother Jones?

In our absence networks treat disability almost exclusively as inspiration. Recently NBC’s “Today Show” raised a guide dog puppy “on air” as a year long feature. While this was engaging the program never explored what blindness in America means, how real blind people live, what they do, how they do it. The treatment of the guide dog puppy was reduced to what we in the disability rights community call “inspiration porn” which is to say it was designed explicitly to make able bodied people feel good. That sweet Labrador puppy would soon change a blind person’s life. Fair enough but they missed the chance to interview blind computer designers, attorneys, school teachers—you name it. Who’d know blind people aren’t passively sitting in dark rooms awaiting the gift of dogs who’ll save their lives? Who’d know blind lives aren’t summed up by dogs?

When able bodied people don’t understand the richness and beauty of disabled lives they remain convinced disability is a calamity. Sometimes I think we should just drop the word disability and use calamity instead. Calamity Parking. Calamity seating. Calamity services.

Imagine the conversations. “How did you become calamitized?” “Oh, I played with dark magic…” Or: “God grew tired of me.”

I’m closing with a link to this terrific interview with disability activist John Kelly over at the website of Not Dead Yet. Disabled lives are not merely under represented in the mainstream, they’re actually under attack in movies and TV shows that suggest our deaths are better than our lives.

The Big Picture

I don’t believe in identity politics anymore.

I gave up on the idea that my disabled identity was in any way
singular when my nation began bombing Iraqi children and civilians with
a slogan for god’s sake: “Shock and Awe”.

We have destroyed Iraqi hospitals, neighborhood housing, electrical
generating plants, and all with the goal of devastating every woman,
man, and child in sight. As a human rights activist I realized that the
Pentagon’s campaign meant that I couldn’t spend any additional time
imagining that my disability is a meaningful category of humankind.

I used to think otherwise. I liked imagining that being blind I was
oddly singular in terms of suffering. Blind people are more likely to
experience unemployment than the general population. I have experienced
at various times the degradations of social services and food stamps.

Nowadays I see that my hardships are part of a generalized policy
that’s aimed at putting as many people into straightened circumstances
as possible.

While western leaders talk about installing democracy in the middle
east they unleash terrible violence on that very region and create
disabled soldiers and civilians with astonishing efficiency.

The Iraqi people who suffer disabilities as a consequence of U.S.
foreign policy are out of luck. Veterans who come home to the U.S. with
disabilities are only provisionally better off—depending on where they
live they may or may not get good medical and rehabilitation treatment.

So I’m an angry blind dude who believes that we are living in
inhumane times and that the American people are not sufficiently
disgusted by the spectacle of what nowadays is called “collateral
damage”—as if a slick euphemism can disguise the fact that we have been
maiming innocent people as a matter of policy.

Don’t tell me that the children of Iraq are the same as Al Qaeda.
Don’t tell me that we can’t look after people who are the victims of
war. I won’t believe you.

I see disablism and ableism as constituent components of a larger
and terrifying inhumanity that is repugnant. Human rights cannot be
sequenced or sub-divided anymore. The dignity of all life depends on
this principle of unity.

I suppose I sound like Eugene Debbs. I’m sleepless when I think of the suffering of others. I really am.

Am I still fighting for disability access? You betcha. But I want to
be at the victory celebration where the elderly and the young, the
trans-gendered or gay people, or those who emigrated from Mexico are
accorded equal dignity. I’m chilled to the bone by the corporate
fascism that seems to have clouded our age.