Greeks, Spears, and Disability in Higher Ed

When Greeks (ancient) went to the theater they knew they were going to see a tragedy. Though comedy was sometimes performed it was rare. One can imagine a good old Greek saying, “I must get my fair share of abuse.”

To be abused was a matter of citizenship. With nuance and scruple one was reminded what being a good Greek (or a bad one) was all about.

In its pantheistic way the Hellenic world was engaged with suffering.

Disabled I’m eternally catching spears thrown by the able bodied. These spears have writing on them. On the arrow head it says, “I’m not like you.” On the shaft: “As God is my witness.” And if the spear has a ribbon it says: “Make them go away.”

Usually I catch the spears but sometimes they pierce me.

Because I remember the Greeks I know there’s no such thing as “me.”

I’m just one of the insistent ones at my university who says the materials distributed by the committee aren’t accessible; the websites and software packages used by the university are not accessible; the provision of equal opportunity for disabled students and staff is not readily apparent.

I catch spears for a living.

The difference between today’s disabled and any ancient Greek is we’re not afflicted by staid and superstitious ideas of fate.

We weren’t misshapen because of the gods.
We aren’t incapable of reason.
We don’t stand for anything other than embodied diversity.
Bodies don’t stand for anything other than the rich tableaux of human kind.
We do not represent the decline of society.
We don’t suggest the erosion of academic competence by our very presence.

Why is this so hard to absorb in higher education?

Jay Dolmage, author of several important books on disability and how we talk about it tells us that colleges and universities have always been built on the exclusion of certain kinds of bodies. In fact the university has functioned throughout history as an exclusionary gate to society. Dolmage writes:

“Disability has always been constructed as the inverse or opposite of higher education. Or, let me put it differently: higher education has needed to create a series of versions of “lower education” to justify its work and to ground its exceptionalism, and the physical gates and steps trace a long history of exclusion.”

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

Creating versions of lower education and lowered expectations is in no small measure what universities have been about. Eugenics, the organized pseudo-science of social Darwinism had a strong foothold in American universities including Stanford, Harvard, and yes, Syracuse. Faculty at Syracuse engaged in a study with the infamous Cold Spring Harbor eugenics institute, a study which sought to prove Syracuse University coeds were deficient as bearers of offspring.

Exclusion and deficiency have long been manufactured by post-secondary education. Small wonder then that almost thirty years after the adoption of the ADA colleges and universities are so far behind when it comes to supporting and celebrating disability inclusion and disability rights.

Jay Dolmage again:

“…the alternative to planning for diversity is pretty dire, leaving access as an afterthought, situating it as something nice to be done out of a spirit of charity, or as something people with disabilities are being unfairly given. Without Universal Design, the alternatives are the “steep steps” that are set out in front of many people with disabilities, or the “retrofits” that might remove barriers or provide access for disabled people, but do so in ways that physically and ideologically locate disability as either deserving exclusion or as an afterthought.”

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

The Greeks understood dire.

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 Ableist Shrug at Licorice University

Ableism: I’m the problem. I didn’t get cured. Didn’t stand up. Couldn’t read the books with my peepers. “Jeepers Creepers, where’d you get those peepers?” 

Good eyes are productive, produce results; bad eyes, get cured baby! 

Ableism: a term no one likes. Like licorice. (No one really likes licorice. Studies have shown this to be true.) 

What if I substitute “licorice” for ableism? Would it be easier to talk about? 

Licorice: a set of beliefs that hold everyone must like licorice. All licorice eaters are equal but some are more equal than others. If you don’t favor Glycyrrhiza glabra you can’t sit at the table. The great big licorice table. 

Note: too much licorice will poison animals and humans. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t whole cities of licorice. 

Side note; when I was a boy in Finland, licorice candies were sold in bite sized pieces, wrapped in wax paper featuring a cartoon of a little black child. 

Licorice is not innocence. 

Ableism: a predominant belief that discrimination against the disabled is just a matter of innocence. E.g. “We really care about disabled people. What’s that? You can’t get basic accommodations? Oh dear. That MUST be awful! I’m sorry you feel that way!”

Ableism: the disabled have ungoverned feelings. That’s their problem. Really. It is their problem not ours. 

I call the example just above “the ableist shrug”—universities are especially good at this. 

Back to licorice: “So Billy, you don’t like licorice? Then you can’t be in our club house!”

Ableism is infantile. 

The shrug is privilege. It’s not convenient to think about those people today. Perhaps we will get to them tomorrow. 

I’m sorry you feel that way.

Candy can represent hegemony. Finnish candy. 

The shrug: we are good people. We care about you. But your accommodation is way down on our list of priorities, because, well, how do I say this? You’re not in our budget. Not in our plans, not convenient, yes, that’s it! You’re really really really not convenient. We love convenience here at Licorice University. We may talk big about being the best! Frankly, business as usual is just fine. We especially like the Licorice Clubhouse. 

Shrug:  the word comes from Late Middle English and it originally meant “to fidget”—and fidget is an early Modern English word meaning “uneasy”—the shrug, the licorice ableist shrug signifies that disability makes the ableist both uneasy and vexed. Having to think about disability is nettlesome. 

When the disabled bring up their problems—lack of access to buildings, bathrooms, educational materials, transportation, zero dignity in the village square, the shrug works this way: 

  • We personalize the problem. 
  • It’s the disabled person’s difficulty not ours.
  • All disabled people are just failed medical patients. 
  • If you can’t be cured, you’re a failure as a human being.
  • While the disabled are talking, we look at our iPhones.
  • We all know there’s something wrong with the disabled, it’s below the surface, like icebergs.
  • You can’t see it, but below the waterline they’ve got bad attitudes. 
  • If the disabled just had better attitudes. 
  • When the disabled say, “we really hate it here” you say: “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
  • Which means the problems are not about accessibility and inclusion but all about the individualized disabled person.

If you were the right kind of disabled, (Tiny Tim for example) you’d be grateful for the little we’ve given you. “I know it’s a dinky crutch, hand made by your impoverished father, but it’s yours Tiny. It’s yours!”

 

 

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 

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.

 

Disability and Faculty Self-governance in the Age of Neoliberalism

When talking to faculty, students, and staff with disabilities who work or study at America’s colleges and universities, one quickly learns that higher education is broadly disinclined to treat disability in a concerted and efficient manner, but instead engages in widespread administrative deflection. From architectural barriers to simple pedagogical modifications colleges routinely drop the ball where equal access is concerned. So ubiquitous have these stories become one can browse the web for hours reading of school after school that has violated basic civil rights protections guaranteed by the Americans With Disabilities Act. From the University of Michigan, to Penn State to Harvard, one finds dramatic instances of disability discrimination. As a disability rights activist and professor who teaches that incorporating physical difference in the village square creates powerful opportunities and advantages I’m often asked why higher education performs so poorly. For many years I imagined these failures had simply to do with a basic financial resentment of the ADA, as one hears the widespread complaint from college administrators that it’s simply an “unfunded mandate.” The idea that barriers should be removed as a matter of civil rights is represented as a violation of libertarian principle. This seemed reasonable enough until over time I realized there’s a broader delegitimization of disability in the Ivory Tower and it’s only loosely connected to money.

In a recent interview at TruthOut Henry Giroux observes of Neoliberalism:

As a form of public pedagogy and cultural politics, neoliberalism casts all dimensions of life in terms of market rationality. One consequence is that neoliberalism legitimates a culture of cruelty and harsh competitiveness and wages a war against public values and those public spheres that contest the rule and ideology of capital. It saps the democratic foundation of solidarity, degrades collaboration, and tears up all forms of social obligation.

 

The past quarter century has seen the American academy shift from collaborative and democratic agreements about social obligations toward an embrace of monetized aggression. During this period the ADA has been overtly ignored by colleges of every kind. The two developments are syncretic, reflecting what Giroux rightly calls the failure to contest the rule and ideology of capital. It’s relevant to note in this context that “disability” first appeared in the mid-19th century as a term for laborers who’d been rendered unfit to work. The 20th century saw sustained advances in rehabilitation and employment services for people with disabilities, improvements which culminated in the passage of the ADA in 1990.

Neoliberal pedagogy and campus politics depend on limited faculty governance, the erosion of public debate, and the establishment of a culture of severe economic competition. Disability is re-inscribed as a 19th century problem. Accommodation services are sequestered—students are “sent” to ancillary offices for accommodations which they may or may not receive; faculty are taught nothing about pedagogy and disability; basic services like sign language interpreting or accessible technology are hard to find, and sometimes non-existent. At one liberal arts college where I recently spoke, a disabled student told me, “the disability office is hidden like an asylum.” Indeed. Disability is a drain on capital. Not because it’s an unfunded mandate but because after all is said and done, neoliberal visions of success are built as Giroux rightly says on cruelty and competitiveness.

Harvard and MIT are contesting the demands of deaf students and staff that instructional videos be captioned. Harvard’s opposition is symptomatic of the neoliberal university’s war on basic public values. In terms of governance Harvard’s resistance represents perfectly the academy’s abandonment of the principles of social obligation. But institutions only arrive at such a place when faculty are deterred from self-governance by the obligation to write endless grants and compete for provenance in the marketplace of capital ideas, when teaching and idealism are considered quaint and immaterial. In turn the civil rights of academic communities are “handled” by offices that are both physically and culturally distant from the “agora” or academic life of the campus.

The neoliberal campus relies on distention of self-governance and enforces centralized administration. Moreover it thrives on factionalism. A faction, as James Madison famously wrote in essay 10 of The Federalist Papers is a group “who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Because college faculty are often divided by competing interests and since some of these divisions reflect the complications and struggles of identity, it’s difficult to forge consensus about disability and disability rights—they seem tailor made for deflection, a problem for a specialized office. In other words, disability is often viewed by academics who are already narrowly factionalized as too difficult to embrace. As Lennard Davis notes in his book Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions:

Because disability is an amorphous identity with porous boundaries, other identity groups in the United States have had difficulty incorporating it into their goals. Previously legitimized groups such as Latinos or African Americans have been reluctant to admit disability into the multicultural arena. For example, in 1996 a disabled, white assistant professor at a historically black university found that the chair of the department and the dean of the school had recommended against tenure, saying that any analogy between disability and race was both methodologically unsound and insulting to the unique history of African Americans. For them, the categories of oppression were mutually exclusive and should not be mixed. After much public outcry from the disability community, the president of the university decided to award tenure to the assistant professor. Nevertheless, the issue of an identity defined by impairment as opposed to one defined by race or ethnicity is a sticking point for some. When some faculty members at Hunter College in New York City tried to include disability studies as part of the requirement for a multicultural curriculum, they were opposed by many of the ethnic and national groups that usually make up the progressive wing of the university. Hunter ended up deciding to omit disability from the curriculum.

 

From a disability studies perspective one sees how sectarian infighting among faculty concerned with categories of oppression can further the work of neoliberal administration, not by embracing the neoliberal brand of governance, but by replicating its effort to de-legitimize disability as a mainstream concern. De-legitimized disability remains in the province of non-academic offices. In turn university faculty fail to understand and embrace the nation’s largest minority. Such neglect reinforces a central fact of neoliberal administration which supports deflection where accountability is concerned and it represents rather broadly a further symptom of weakening faculty self-governance.