Cranky

I must admit I’m a cranky man. This means I’m a hurdy gurdy man, a street nuisance. Did you know most curbside organ players were disabled? Many were war veterans. Jobless. They played for your amusement. Several cities in America didn’t like them. “Ugly Laws” were adopted across the nation at the turn of the last century—edicts stipulating bothersome, unsightly people were forbidden to appear in public. This was excellent news for the asylum business. The United States loves to lock people up for any reason at all—you’re black and deaf. Asylum. You’re blind. Asylum. You’re an immigrant in Trump’s America. Instant prison camp. Native American. Home detention. Gay? The Asylum. The Los Angeles County Jail is the largest psychiatric facility in the U.S. Cranky? You bet. I’m so cranky I can’t muster irony.

Disabled I know a good deal about cruel irony—“the act of using somebody’s words against them, usually when something to their great detriment is about to be inflicted upon them.”

I’ll never forget an administrator of a certain college who, once he had me behind a closed door told me I wasn’t a competitive blind person, why he had a roommate at university who was a blind Olympic rower and so forth. He was essentially firing me because I’d asked for a reasonable accommodation.

But you see here’s the trap. I’m cranky if I talk back, assert my dignity and my rights. I am especially cranky at the University where when I ask for basic ADA 101 accommodations, (a sighted graduate assistant to help me in my daily work) accessible texts, descriptions of overhead projections, asking that our websites and teaching software be accessible and so forth) I’m labeled as a real cranky pants. Academic ableism is built on cruel irony. “If you were more like us you wouldn’t have a problem. You don’t like what’s happening to you? You must be the problem. Not us. Not us able bodied birdies….”

I’ve met so many able bodied birdies. They may have different kinds of feathers but their song is always the same.

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 told 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?

Now 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 that accommodations are a kind of vanity.

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.

Well, It’s a Living

So you’re disabled. You get a job after years. You plant seeds in snow. It’s not much of a job but it turns out to be steady. The seeds are small and blue—a friend jokes, says they look like “viagra tablets” and then you see they do like like viagra tablets though you’ve never actually had first hand experience with the stuff. The supervisor looks like a malevolent version of Mr. Rogers and he comes around periodically on one of those All Terrain Vehicles and says you’re not pushing the seeds deep enough into the snowbanks. So, “ahem,” you say, adding: “I can’t really reach deep into the snow because I’m riding a wheelchair you see…” Mr. Rogers says, “I’m riding an All Terrain Vehicle” and I can push blue seeds into the snowy sod, and he leans over and pokes two or three viagra into a snow man’s belly button. Then he whisks away in a cloud of exhaust. You never get the chance to explain that the average wheelchair bears no resemblance to an ATV and that most wheelchair users can’t lean to their sides to touch the ground. For Mr. Rogers, it’s enough that you both have wheels. And you never get to point out that planting blue seeds in snow is non-productive work. Talk about alienation! You’re separated from the means of production, planting fungal seeds above the arctic circle.

The Guide Dog and the Cruel Nun, Italy…

I didn’t want to cry. The wide sun was covering my face. Tourists were all about. The day was warm for April. I didn’t want them, the tears, the choked tears of disability exclusion but they came and I leaned against a wall outside Santa Maria delle Grazie, home to “The Last Supper” and wept before strangers. I’d been denied entry to the church by a nun. She’d hissed like a goose and had pointed me away. It was Corky—no dogs in the grotto! Her disdain was cruel and it belonged to the viaticum of ruthlessness and I understood it wasn’t Corky she objected to at all but blindness itself, a pre-Roman atavistic stigma. I heard it. It rose from the back of her throat.

I’d encouraged Connie to go in and so I swayed and cried alone and hated myself. It wasn’t the spectacle of weeping that disgusted me, it was having to cry and letting a dried up craven, superstitious dingus get the best of me. “Supper Sister” had turned me away from Heaven and she knew it.

I slid down the wall and sat on the pavement. Corky, Labrador, large, affectionate, concerned, pressed against me and I cried all the more. The guide dog was supposed to fix this; to give me freedom; open the world, and to the best of her ability she had. We were in Italy where only three years ago I’d been living a sealed and provincial life in a small town, unsure of how to go places. Corky had done her part.

Godammit! I cried all the more. What was wrong with me? The Italians weren’t friendly to guide dogs, and over a span of three days I’d absorbed the evil eye from at least eighteen men and women. So what? Where was my inveterate, subversive streak—though I’d lived much of my childhood and adolescence fearing disability, I’d also been wild enough to say fuck you to teachers and aggregate bullies. Fuck you, I’d said to the high school chemistry teacher who wouldn’t describe what was on the blackboard. Fuck you, I’d said to the college professor who said I shouldn’t be in his class. Fuck you and Fuck you. And Fuck you, Nixon. Jesus! I’d been undone by a nun! A sputum bespattered unfounded wobbly nun!

I laughed then because that’s how it is with tears of discrimination—you get there.