On Critical Thinking, Disability, and the Academy

One of the ironies about the current state of academe is that universities propose to introduce students to what is called “critical thinking” as if most teaching faculty are available and capable to do this very work. I remember a biology professor wagging his finger in my face because, he said, biology students really don’t need to know how to write. That he was a well regarded professor made the moment doubly remarkable. “Don’t you want your students to be successful grant writers?” I asked. “You don’t need to take writing courses to do that!” he sniffed. Opposition to writing and the teaching of same is fundamentally a resistance to the teaching of nuance, scruple, irony, and pesky associative questions like “why is this problem interesting; confounding; worthwhile; perhaps even utopian?” Whatever we mean by the term critical thinking behind the term must lie a hope that students will bloom beyond being students. If this isn’t your hope as a member of the professoriate—which is to say a wish that your students will master their own curiosities no matter their chosen profession, then you’ve no business teaching. And there. I’ve said it. I believe far too many faculty are insufficiently inclined to engage with students as potential contrarians which is what we all should be after.

How many department meetings have I attended over the years? Lordy. And scarcely a discussion about students or what we hope they’ll gain. Worse perhaps is the cynical shorthand of “outcomes assessment” that’s been adopted for inclusion on syllabi and which now occupies senior administrators from the accreditation complex—themselves former faculty who’ve little experience teaching critical thinking. In this way the contemporary academy is like the singsong monkey that chases its tail around the flagpole. There’s a lot of talk about critical thinking and little actually happening. Instead there is essentialism about any number of topics. Here’s a popular one: Capitalism is the source of all suffering. I think one should say it’s the source of many problems. But critical thinking demands probing the assertion: was there ever a civilization without some kind of capitalism? Are there capitalist countries where the people are happy? These questions are not popular in essentialist teaching circles. Essentialism requires agreement, a prescriptive shared narrative. I know disabled students who think all able bodied citizens are their enemies and that able bodied people believe in compulsory able-bodiedness.

Remember “The Combahee River Collective Statement” of 1977?

“This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”

As Mark Lilla puts it in his book “Once and Future Liberal” the left, following Reagan’s election failed to unite and instead augured into separate coverts of bitterness:

“Instead, they lost themselves in the thickets of identity politics and developed a resentful, disuniting rhetoric of difference to match it. ”

**

Three weeks ago I watched the televised memorial for President George H.W. Bush. I found the occasion moving. Bush 41 signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in 1990 and that moment still stands for me and many others as a watershed in American politics as it was perhaps the last time the left and right worked assiduously to promote the well being of millions upon millions of citizens. The law was fiercely opposed then and still is now. That Bush signed it says a good deal about his willingness to resist calls from the Chamber of Commerce to let the disabled continue living without rights as they’d always done.

When I posted on social media my appreciation for Bush’s role in promoting the ADA I was besieged by Facebookers and Twitterers informing me Bush was a moral coward, a bigot, a war criminal, a homophobe, a liar, a groper—all to edify me. Having said he’d done something good I must be obtuse or utterly ignorant about his life in its entirety. This is the sloppiness of identity politics—its execrable cheapness of thought, adopted formally at the Combahee conference and now a laziness disguised as moral advantage. If critical thinking is to be taught let’s ask what it might actually mean.

I’ll venture it may require a willingness to give up first response finger wagging—the “gotcha” which is now everywhere on both the right and left. Someone who teaches disability studies told me on Facebook (in response to my observation that much about racism I find hard to absorb having grown up in a very liberal environment) I “must be” racist as I’m white. Her proof? I’m soaked in white privilege. Gotcha works this way. It substitutes paradigms within an argument. Example: “You believe you’ve a personal identity which is moral and possesses Enlightenment values of nuance and rationality but actually you’ve no personal identity since postmodern culture assures this. Therefore you can’t be immune to racism, if say, you’ve gotten a bank loan at any time during your life.”

If you’ve white privilege you’re a de facto racist. The essentialism behind the argument—the confirmation bias—is that this has been entirely decided by people who recognize oppression better than I do.

Forget that I grew up blind; have lived on food stamps and unemployment and have spent time living in Section 8 housing. Dispose of the fact I’ve been discriminated against in education and employment over and over during my “career”—that fancy term for what the Buddhists call the “meat wheel.”

That I’ve been harmed owing to disability doesn’t change the fact that I have advantages over others. If you believe this than you also have to imagine that human beings are just flies in amber, mere products of ancient entrapments with no hope of escape.

**

Why is this “gotcha” so attractive?

Fundamentalism is easier than scruple.

Amos Oz died this week. I’ve been reading his book “Dear Zealots” with considerable interest. He is at pains to understand how fanaticism works and why it’s the illness of our time. He writes:

“Fanaticism is not reserved for al-Qaeda and ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Hamas and Hezbollah, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, white supremacists and Islamophobes and the Ku Klux Klan, Israel’s “hilltop thugs” in the settlements, and others who would shed blood in the name of their faith. These fanatics are familiar to us all. We see them every day on our television screens, shouting, waving angry fists at the camera, hoarsely yelling slogans into the microphone. They are the visible fanatics. A few years ago, my daughter Galia Oz directed a documentary film that probed the roots of fanaticism and its manifestations in the Jewish underground.

But there are far less prominent and less visible forms of fanaticism around us, and perhaps inside us, too. Even in the daily lives of normative societies and people we know well, there are sometimes revelations, albeit not necessarily violent ones, of fanaticism. One might encounter, for example, fanatic opponents of smoking who act as if anyone who dares light a cigarette near them should be burned alive. Or fanatic vegetarians and vegans who sometimes sound ready to devour people who eat meat. A few of my friends in the peace movement denounce me furiously, simply because I hold a different view of the best way to achieve peace between Israel and Palestine.

Certainly, not everyone who raises a voice for or against something is suspected of fanaticism, and not everyone who angrily protests an injustice becomes a fanatic by virtue of that protest and anger. Not every person with strong opinions is guilty of fanatic tendencies. Not even when such views or emotions are expressed very loudly. It is not the volume of your voice that defines you as a fanatic, but rather, primarily, your tolerance—or lack thereof—for your opponents’ voices.

Indeed, a hidden—or not so hidden—kernel of fanaticism often lies beneath various disclosures of uncompromising dogmatism, of imperviousness and even hostility toward positions you deem unacceptable. Righteousness entrenched and buttressed within itself, righteousness with no windows or doors, is probably the hallmark of this disease, as are positions that arise from the turbid wellsprings of loathing and contempt, which erase all other emotions there is nothing wrong with loathing in and of itself: in Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky and Brecht, Chaim Nachman Bialik and Y. H. Brenner and Hanoch Levin, we find a stinging component of loathing. A blazing component—but not an exclusive one. In the works of these great writers, loathing is accompanied by other feelings, too—by understanding, compassion, longing, humor, and a measure of sympathy.)”

**

If the American university hopes to embrace critical thinking it must examine righteousness entrenched. In literary writing courses we talk of comic or dramatic irony—those moments when a literary writer asks “what do my characters or my narrator know “now” that they did not know even just a few moments ago? In a dramatic stage play comic irony is when the audience knows more than the figures on stage. All of Shakespeare’s comedies depend on this device.

If the American university hopes to embrace critical thinking it must offer courses that show students how to work across divides. My suggestion is to look at the history of the Americans with Disabilities Act—it has a long back story, driven by veterans wounded in foreign wars, pushed by political activism—cripples crawling up the Capitol’s steps; grassroots politics of the best and worst kind; and perhaps most remarkable of all its demonstration that intellectual and dogmatic buttresses can come down just as architectural barriers can.

If the American university wants to embrace critical thinking it should look at the peacemakers.

Amos Oz again:

“There are varying degrees of evil in the world. The distinction between levels of evil is perhaps the primary moral responsibility incumbent upon each of us. Every child knows that cruelty is bad and contemptible, while its opposite, compassion, is commendable. That is an easy and simple moral distinction. The more essential and far more difficult distinction is the one between different shades of gray, between degrees of evil. Aggressive environmental activists, for example, or the furious opponents of globalization, may sometimes emerge as violent fanatics. But the evil they cause is immeasurably smaller than that caused by a fanatic who commits a large-scale terrorist attack. Nor are the crimes of the terrorist fanatic comparable to those of fanatics who commit ethnic cleansing or genocide.
Those who are unwilling or unable to rank evil may thereby become the servants of evil. Those who make no distinction between such disparate phenomena as apartheid, colonialism, ISIS, Zionism, political incorrectness, the gas chambers, sexism, the 1 percent’s wealth, and air pollution serve evil with their very refusal to grade it.

Fanatics tend to live in a black-and-white world, with a simplistic view of good against evil. The fanatic is in fact a person who can only count to one. Yet at the same time, and without any contradiction, the fanatic almost always basks in some sort of bittersweet sentimentalism, composed of a mixture of fury and self-pity.”

“The urge to follow the crowd and the passion to belong to the majority are fertile ground for fanatics, as are the various cults of personality, idolization of religious and political leaders, and the adulation of entertainment and sports celebrities.

Of course there is a great distance between blindly worshiping bloodthirsty tyrants, being swept up by murderous ideologies or aggressive, hateful chauvinism, and the inane adoration of celebrities. Still, there is perhaps a common thread: the worshiper yields his own selfhood. He longs to merge—to the point of self-deprecation—with the throng of other admirers and unite with the experiences and accomplishments of the object of worship. In both cases, the elated admirer is subjugated by a sophisticated system of propaganda and brainwashing, a system that intentionally addresses the childish element in people’s souls, the element that so longs to merge, to crawl back into a warm womb, to once again be a tiny cell inside a huge body, a strong and protective body—the nation, the church, the movement, the party, the team fans, the groupies—to belong, to squeeze in with a crowd under the broad wings of a great father, an admired hero, a dreamy beauty, a sparkling celebrity, in whose hands the worshipers deposit their hopes and dreams, and even their right to think and judge and take positions.

The increasing infantilization of masses of people everywhere in the world is no coincidence: there are those who stand to gain from it and those who ride its coattails, whether from a thirst for power or a thirst for wealth. Advertisers and those who fund them desperately want us to go back to being spoiled little children, because spoiled little children are the easiest consumers to seduce.”

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 

Of Ableism and the Lucky Rabbit’s Foot

Life proceeds without plot no matter you went to a good school or studied well—a matter which Americans have difficulty absorbing. This is why people in the United States don’t generally believe in luck.

I’ll venture in some circumstances I’m fortunate. I married well; I’ve more than a few scrupulous friends; I’ve a job. The job is no small thing given the unemployment statistics with regard to disability.

Still I will say I’ve been lucky. I did not make my own luck. This I do not believe. This I do not believe it at all. As Christopher Hitchens once put it: “It’s one thing to be lucky: it’s another thing to admit that luck has been yours.” This is the other thing.

You may have talent. Perhaps you imagine it was your inheritance. Your skill with musical composition comes down from your great great grandmother. It’s all a matter of epigenetics. You imagine this DNA bequest isn’t luck until things go badly and when they go very badly you curse your ancestors. As a general rule Americans only curse their ancestors when they become ill. The greatest American irony of all—each unassuming citizen believes he or she is secretly bred monarchial, a thing Huck Finn encounters when he meets the Duke and Dauphin.

So health isn’t a matter of luck; fortune less so; skill of any kind is scientifically deterministic. Karl Marx never had a chance in the USA as Americans hold that capital is not acquired on the backs of the less fortunate. Fortune was always yours even when it wasn’t apparent and admissions of luck take the hind most.

I am on about this, I admit, because I’ve had it with academics and/or artists who can’t admire the sheer improbability of their success and thereby think the disabled are not only malformed but should be seen as figures deserving (or not deserving) charity.

Ableism is the consequence of a broad misunderstanding or disavowal of luck which is why it’s dangerous for all, not just the disabled. It’s not a far jump from “I earned my money by the sweat of my brow” to “I absolutely deserve to have a designer baby and a designer death.” To dwell on luck is to admit life proceeds without plot as we’ve already noted which is a terrifying idea. Life is life and not what we may wish it though wishes can be admirable and striving is noble.

Now I’ve said I’m lucky. Forty years ago a teacher saw my talent for writing. Professor X encouraged me. I wrote. More professors encouraged me. I wrote some more. Kept at it. Was blind and scarcely employable but writing I could do. People who were not me or my parents said I had writerly capacities. My professional life has been the product of a village, not a matter of tirelessness or Bohemian ambition.

Ableism imagines the singularity of talent or health—beauty or success is the de facto state of affairs of embodiment. If you’re not in the group you’re not of the elect. This is important: not of the elect means the wrongness of you is ordained—either by God or DNA. Ableism imagines that the good body is the proper one; the deformed body is a poor inheritance. Ableism can only admit luck when the healthy say upon seeing the disabled: “there but for the grace of God go I”.

Bioethicists now argue whether disability viewed as a social construction and therefore a component of all humanity “should” or “should not” be so conceived. If disability isn’t exceptional and is part of the “new normal” then the utilitarian prospects for all humankind are diminished—so the argument goes—for we’ll stop trying to cure diseases and poor health will be perfectly OK. The few opposing bioethicists say, “disability ye will always have with ye, isn’t it best to include it in our best thinking?”

But you see, it’s the same luck argument all over again. Who gets to be lucky? How much should we acknowledge it? Isn’t it best to imagine you’ve made it on your own?

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 ADA is Under Attack

The ADA is under attack.  Next week, the House will be voting on a bill, H.R. 620 that would undermine the protections of the ADA and take away the rights of people with disabilities.  Please call your Representative and ask them to #VoteNo and #ProtectTheADA

Here are talking points:
·         HR 620 will take away the civil rights of people with disabilities

·         It will make people with disabilities wait for up to 180 days for services that other people have immediate access to

·         The wait may be even longer than 180 days because a business that is making “substantial progress” toward fixing a problem can take even longer than 180 days

·         HR 620 will eliminate the need for businesses to be accessible until a complaint is received; there will be no need to make a business accessible until someone complains; that will mean many groups building new buildings, renovating buildings, opening new businesses will not make their services accessible

·         HR 620 shifts the burden of accessibility from those who offer services to the person with a disability; no other group needs to prove their right to access to publically offered services

·         We should not be gutting the rights of people with disabilities; if there is a problem, we should be limiting the actions of a small number of lawyers who are bad actors

·         HR 620 will take away the civil rights of people with disabilities; would we ever think about eliminating the rights of any other group of Americans? This is disgraceful.

And here is a fact sheet from our colleagues at Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) about the myths and realities of this bill.

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.

from “Letters to a Young Cripple” #4

Dear _______,

“Who the Hell am I?” you ask, as in “who appointed you to speak on behalf of anyone?” This is the best of all possible questions. I seized the talking stick long ago and you should feel free to grab it back any time you like. But don’t design to take it—plans are insulted destinies and one elemental aspect of cripple-talk comes from the marriage of impulse and necessity. Before you use your tongue, know whether it’s time to voice a requisite inclination.

It’s time for us to get close. For now let’s imagine we’re on opposite sides of a tiny island. It’s a Robinson Crusoe situation. I’ll be Friday and you can be Crusoe. Most would choose to be Crusoe I imagine—he has all the goods and boy does he ever have designs.

Older cripples, those who’ve lived some years before the Americans with Disabilities Act know something about emptiness. We grew up without Crusoe’s nails, drift wood, string, pulleys, guns, and whatever else he hauled away from his foundering ship. Cripple Island is, perhaps, not much of a place but Crusoe has accommodations, and moreover, like any son of industry he knows what to do with them. He builds little England.

Old Crips live in old haunts. In his new and exceptional memoir Hurricane Street Ron Kovic writes of life in the paralysis wards of the early 1970’s. Think “no civil rights” and without rights, think life without dignity—or better—the organization and assembly of life without dignity. Think horror:

Dr. M., the chief surgeon at the hospital’s Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Center, walks past me. He is very tired but still he recognizes me and says hello. He has been in the operating room all day. His first patient, a paraplegic from D ward, had to have a flap put on his rear end for a bedsore that wouldn’t heal. There are a lot of them in here with that problem and sometimes the flap doesn’t take and they have to do it all over again. It can be very frustrating. Dr. M.’s second patient was not as lucky and had to have his gangrenous left foot removed. The nurses did all they could to save the foot but in the end they just weren’t able to. There are a lot of paralyzed guys around here with amputated legs. You can get a really bad burn and not even know it. I remember hearing a story once about a guy who came home drunk one night with his girlfriend and she filled the bathtub and placed him in it, not realizing the water was scalding hot. He got burned really badly and died the following week. There are a lot of stories like that and you try to never forget them. These are important lessons, and as horrible as it may seem, remembering them is crucial to our survival.

For nearly three months last year I was a patient here at the Long Beach VA hospital, healing a terrible bedsore on my rear end after a fall in the bathtub at my apartment. The accident happened not long after I had broken up with a woman named Carol who I first met at an antiwar demonstration in Los Angeles in the spring of 1972. Carol was the first woman I loved and the very first woman to break my heart. After we broke up I felt as if my whole world had fallen apart.

I was depressed and hardly getting any sleep at night. I remember putting a bandage over the bruise but it just kept getting worse. After a while the bruise became a sore and the sore an open wound, until finally I had to turn myself in to the hospital.

The last place I wanted to be was back in the Long Beach VA hospital. I hated the place. The conditions were atrocious, as bad if not worse than the Bronx VA in New York where I had been after I first came home from the war. The wards were overcrowded and terribly understaffed. The aides would sit in their little room at the end of the hall drinking coffee and cackling away as men on the wards cried out for help that never came. All the windows were tightly shut. The air was rancid, and I would push my call button again and again but no one would come to help.

The anger and frustration would build up inside me and I remember several times screaming into my pillow as I lay on my gurney until I was exhausted. I felt so helpless, so lost. During the entire time, in that depressing place, Carol never called or came down to visit me once. I felt abandoned, betrayed, and soon stopped shaving and began to let my hair grow long. I remember looking in the mirror one morning thinking how much I resembled Jesus Christ hanging from the cross. I thought back again to the Bronx VA when I had been stuck in that chest cast for nearly six months after breaking my femur, and how as I had lain on a gurney on my stomach I would paint pictures of the crucifixion with myself as Christ, and how they’d sent the psychiatrist down from the psych ward because they were concerned and I immediately stopped painting, afraid they would have me committed just like my Uncle Paul who had been beaten to death in a mental hospital years before.

For old crips there was always that need, a desperation to figure out how to live “for yourself.” Life was a terrifying mathematics—an algebra—part hope, part reaction, part belief. We’ll get somewhere with this chalk. Then they came and took the chalk away. “Chalk just makes you more hopeful,” they’d say. Accordingly old crips had to say, a la Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Maybe the better Beckett quote is: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Either way none of the Old Crips had prerogatives. If you expressed yourself in the wrong way the next stop was the mental hospital, make no mistake. One of the great backstories in American poetry is the fact that Allen Ginsberg’s iconic poem “Howl” represents his bold refusal to be quiet about the effects of forced institutionalization. (Ginsberg had been sent to a psychiatric hospital because of his queerness and his passionate intensity.) Yes, none of the Old Crips had “privilege”—unless screaming into your pillow can be understood as a private Theater of Cruelty.

Old Crips had to incorporate and gestate psychological, corporeal, and existential densities, literally hour after hour. In one of my college notebooks (written just three years after my own stint in a psychiatric ward) I copied these lines from Simone de Beauvoir:

Regardless of the staggering dimensions of the world about us, the density of our ignorance, the risks of catastrophes to come, and our individual weakness within the immense collectivity, the fact remains that we are absolutely free today if we choose to will our existence in its finiteness, a finiteness which is open on the infinite. And in fact, any man who has known real loves, real revolts, real desires, and real will knows quite well that he has no need of any outside guarantee to be sure of his goals; their certitude comes from his own drive.

 

This is the essential problem, often expressed to me by Old Crips: young cripples believe in an outside guarantee—for what after all is a civil rights law but a warranty, a certitude, a “writ” that should alleviate us from want? That is exactly what the ADA should be. That is precisely what it ain’t.

As disability rights activist Bob Kafka notes: “If we believed that ADA is the power and we are the recipients of its strength, rather than we are the power and ADA is a tool for us to use, I fear we may still have a long way to go.”

The ADA isn’t a warranty and worse, Old Crips will tell you, the power doesn’t reside there, just as it doesn’t reside in a hammer. The strength is in your mind. Easy enough to say, but harder to enact, especially if you believe there’s an ADA Geek Squad that will ameliorate the obstacles.

We like the ADA. But it hasn’t changed things as much as we’d predicted. If in fact we’ve a long way to go, read more tough people. Kovic’s new book is a good place to start.

 

 

 

 

Disability, Airplanes, and My Life as an Object…

In her review of Jessica Valenti’s memoir Sex Object (see it in The Nation here) Lauren Duca suggests the book asks, “Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?” Inevitably the most disarming questions are drawn from years of public struggle and I for one plan to read Valenti straight off. (I’ve long admired her work in The Nation and The Guardian.)

Just this past week, as I flew across the US on Delta Airlines I chanced upon not one, but two passengers who absolutely refused to sit next to me because I had a guide dog. Their requests to be reseated were directed to the flight attendants with outrage and sneering, so much so that other passengers were appalled. And I thought: “Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated the disabled?”

As I say, I’m looking forward to Valenti’s take on the sufferance and diminishment that accompany her embodiment—suffuse it, cincture it, inculcate it. Instill, implant, impress, hammer.

I like Judith Butler’s sentiment concerning emotional intelligence. She wrote: “You will need all of those skills to move forward, affirming this earth, our ethical obligations to live among those who are invariably different from ourselves, to demand recognition for our histories and our struggles at the same time that we lend that to others, to live our passions without causing harm to others, and to know the difference between raw prejudice and distortion, and sound critical judgment.”

I tried to hold the difference between those passengers who threw their hissy fits and my own obligation to be a person of sound judgment. I kept silent as the angry French business woman and the angry Asian business man demanded redress. Let’s be clear: the dog was not in their way.

Perhaps they were allergic to dogs. But this they did not say. Such a response would have been understandable.

They were evincing raw prejudice.

I kept silent.

I kept silent as the flight attendant promised they would receive a thousand miles of free air travel if they’d just agree to move to other seats.

They didn’t want other seats. They wanted their outrage.

Presumably Valenti’s memoir covers such moments: one is expelled from the sphere of desire.

You were the wrong kind of date.

And then there’s the rub: “How can one who doesn’t love him/herself expect to be loved?”

One simply has to practice reality from the fringe.

The fringe after all, is just as real as the center.

Is it my job to make the fringe the center?

Can I live peaceably on the fringe?

How do the original words, original thoughts imagine the margins? Weren’t we always nomadic?

Didn’t we take the fringe with us wherever we went?

It’s cosmopolitanism hates your variant gender, disability, pigment.

Oh but I’ve met cruel people in the countryside.

Thoughts in my head while listening to the antithetical faux umbrage of snobs.

I think they were angry because I was sitting in an expensive seat.

“What would I be like if I didn’t have to endure this prejudice daily?” I wondered.

Trouble is inevitable in all political situations, and just try to find an unpolitical cry.

 

Thank you, Christopher Bowsman

Thank you, Christopher Bowsman, for your kind words  ~sk

Steve Kuusisto on Poetry and Disability Studies

The Blackwell Inn was a big lavishly decorated hotel, and the conference was held in the ball room. I saw Steve Kuusisto moving up to the podium and talking to his dog “Come on, girl.” Moving in unison with the dog up to the podium. He introduced himself, his guide dog Nari, (Who “by the miracle of frozen sperm” is from his last dog), and began to explain disability as a mode of perception. The ability to re-claim “embodiment” (How our bodies are perceived.) is as ancient as language, he argues.

Steve was funny, articulate, and poetic. Frequently, he made allusions to other poems, or modes of perception that “re-claim embodiment.” That is, he examined the inner world of disability, its lived experience, in contrast to being defined as reified (lacking. Blindness being the absence of light. Deafness being the absence of hearing, etc. In his poetry, he describes his dog as being much more than a dog; that sometimes they are one being. This is actually how I feel about my wheelchair too. He tells stories of watching drunken men in wheelchairs eating flowers, and wrote about that poetically. Through poetry, Steve gains insight and a unique epistemology.

Continue reading post on Christopher Bowsman’s blog, Through Alien Eyes, The Sci-fi Worldview of Chris B.

Essay on the Politics of English Clarity and Them Folk with Disabilities

 

One can read theories about stigma, or about the cultural formations of difference. These are necessary and instructive but as I grow older I can’t help but feel our efforts to understand disability as a marginalized human category cannot fully bear fruit without accessing the politics of clarity–an Orwellian thought to be sure but more evident to me now. Do not misread me: I believe in talking back to “the man” and believe in the ardor of revisioning dominant or pejorative narratives, how could a so called “disability” writer be otherwise? Yet I think that the rhetorics of opposition concentrate and then recaste difference until the one who cries out is nearly exhausted with effort. Here I think of James Baldwin’s assertion: “A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled.” That there are those who despise people with disabilities seems evident even some twenty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. That people with disabilities cannot afford to be fooled is a matter for the politics of clarity. 

The post-human age may yet give us some new places to roll or stand. The evolutions of cyborgian prostheses will likely help to break down the “normative-abnormal” dichotomy that has dominated both the theory and reality of disablement. Aimee Mullins and Oscar Pistorias have redirected the fashion industry which will inevitably embrace the postnormative. This is all too the good. Yet I think it’s a safe bet that while prosthesis may become no different than the brand of automobile one drives, invisible disabilities or those that produce a public misapprehension about intellectual capacity (blindness, apparent deafness) will remain problematic in the town square. While physical difference can become fashionable, disablement as a capacity of mind is more difficult for the public nerve. In Western tradition we tend to believe in the mind as a substance rather than an essence, we cherish thought that is fast and muscular but denigrate neuroatypical thinking. We believe in “mind over matter” and imagine that those with learning disabilities or who are on the autism spectrum are simply not doing enough pushups. 

 

As I’ve already said, a person with a disability cannot afford to be fooled. The nominative and representational characteristics of invisible disability (or any condition that challenges dominant models of identity and attention) will require fresh language in a new century. Enter Orwell. The politics of language demand precision. In one of the best essays in English on the subject of language and physical difference, Nancy Mairs describes how she arrived at the decision to call herself a cripple: 

 “"Cripple" seems to me a clean word, straightforward and precise. It has an honorable history, having made its first appearance in the Lindisfarne Gospel in the tenth century. As a lover of words, I like the accuracy with which it describes my condition: I have lost the full use of my limbs. "Disabled," by contrast, suggests any incapacity, physical or mental. And I certainly don't like "handicapped," which implies that I have deliberately been put at a disadvantage, by whom I can't imagine (my God is not a Handicapper General), in order to equalize chances in the great race of life. These words seem to me to be moving away from my condition, to be widening the gap between word and reality. Most remote is the recently coined euphemism "differently abled," which partakes of the same semantic hopefulness that transformed countries from "undeveloped" to "underdeveloped," then to "less developed," and finally to "developing" nations. People have continued to starve in those countries during the shift. Some realities do not obey the dictates of language.” 

Mairs writes famously, “as a cripple, I swagger” a position that’s unassailable given the economic abjection in “disability”–that Victorian term still tied to the factories of the Industrial Revolution–it was Karl Marx’s noun for those who lacked the economic utility to be useful workers. Surely “disability” does not swagger. Moreover the word carries no degree or standard of completeness. This is its signature problem for if a cripple is entire, singular, and freed from oppositional enactments with ability, a person with a disability is trapped in a triangle of etceteras–unable, etc; incapable, etc; accordingly, vaguely sub-Cartesian–sans thought, etc. Disability disorganizes conduct and places physicality outside of possibility. So the term has less to do with opposition to normal activity and a good deal to do with a prejudicial conspiracy against the mind. Just as nothing in nature is truly broken, just as evolution defies the normal, there is no proper categorical or taxonomic position that can hypostatize variance or give it a name.    

As I’ve said more than once I prefer “world citizen” to disability. I prefer omnimodal essences and motive power.

 

S.K.