So You Elected a Pornographer, Now What?

First things first: wash your hands. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve actually shaken hands with Donald Trump or not. All the major studies agree that frequent hand washing is good for you. My Finnish grandmother once shook Richard Nixon’s hand and then didn’t wash that hand for a month. As far as I know Nixon wasn’t into porn but he certainly had dirty hands.

I’m not an expert in pornography but like a famous Supreme Court justice I know what it is when I see it. We’re now living in the age of decline porn. Every story coming out of Washington or Biloxi is like something out of a soap opera. The National Basketball Association? Soap opera. Congress? You get the gist.

People have to love their porn. They have to wallow. Trump brags about grabbing women by their privates. Abuse ‘em and ditch ’em. That’s how he runs the government, conducts foreign relations, handles his business dealings. The man is a grifter. He’s also the decline pornographer in chief. He tells people the country is in trouble though he inherited a prosperous and largely well run nation. He tells people the dark hordes are coming although immigrants fleeing persecution are part of our national history and social identity. The man is sticky with self loathing, which, as I take it, as a necessary pre-condition for spreading porn.

Yes he’s the decline porn star in chief. He’s the Harry Reams of politicians. (Remember when he boasted during the debates about the size of his thing?)

The decline porn star needs endless dysfunction to succeed in spreading false misery narratives. Remember, he’s only happy when he can abuse and mislead people.

A thoughtful, earnest, truth telling chief executive doesn’t need decline porn–he or she can see the real problems facing the nation and bring decent people together to tackle them.

In order for Trump to spread his stickiness all over the place he needs smaller decline pornographers like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and countless others with dirty hands to admire his fecklessness and abuse of dignity.

Susan Sontag said famously: “What pornography is really about, ultimately, isn’t sex but death.”

Look at the children and adults dying on our border with Mexico.

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 

Universal Design and Utopian Insistence

If you’re disabled you must explain yourself always. You’ll never get a medal for this. You’ll say I belong, I participate, I’m equal, though the phrases are gestural, utopian. You might as well say there are mermaids inside the sun.

A poem then:

Five crows in a dream last night
Faces of the old—a woman
Older than iron came near
The skin on her face
Like ice to a pond
But she was speaking
The language of crows
I saw it—the myth
Of speech—
She made no sound at all

**

I’m up early rummaging. Being disabled is a garage sale of the mind. I’m always moving things around. Seeing if things have more value in different settings. The salt shaker on a window sill feels better than when it was in the corner of a cupboard. Does this have something to do with what they call “universal design”?

Design: from Latin designare—to mark out, point out; devise; choose, designate, appoint. Later in English it comes to mean to form an outline or scheme. It’s a hopeful word if you bleach all the history out of it.

Universal is so hopeful it puts Shirley Temple to shame.

**

I think we can’t achieve universal design unless we understand what we mean by defect. I am not a defective sighted person. My friend D.J. Savarese is not a defective talking person. My pal William Peace is not a defective walking person though he gets around with a wheelchair.
Until we understand that defect or defective is as unhelpful as the mermaid inside the sun we’ll get nowhere. We will go on designing things that the majority of people cannot use.

**

The majority of people is a wonderful phrase. Too bad it’s unconnected to reality. It assumes that humans are static. Real people age, go blind, have industrial accidents, become wounded in wars, develop illnesses bases on genetics, have auto accidents, dive head first into shallow ponds, it’s a longer list than we’ve time for.

The majority of people are not defective, they are us.

It’s better I think to say we’re a planet of universal defectives.

Let’s call ourselves unifects.

**

A poem then:

Letter to Borges from London

When I was a boy I made a beehive
From old letters—dark scraps from a trunk,
Lost loves; assurances from travelers.
It was intricate work.
The blind kid and the worker bee lost whole days.
I made a library for inchworms.

Now I’m a natural philosopher but with the same restless hands.
Some days I put cities together—
Santiago and Carthage;
Toronto and Damascus.
If strangers watch closely, Borges,
They’ll see my fingers working at nothing.

In Hyde Park near the Albert Memorial and alone on a bench
I reconstructed the boroughs of New York—
Brooklyn was at the center, Kyoto in place of Queens.
This was a city of bells and gardens, a town for immigrants.
The old woman passing by saw my hands at work.
She thought I was a lost blind man, a simpleton,
Said, “Poor Dearie!” and gave me a quid.

Excerpt From: Stephen Kuusisto. “Letters to Borges.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/letters-to-borges/id564556086

Now I hate to sound like a high school English teacher but really, which of us is the more disabled in this poem—the blind guy thinking or the old woman?

The blind guy has design. He’s imagining better cities.

The old woman, who we’ll say has a tender heart, believes in the 19th century social construction of disability. In her unexamined view, the disabled belong in special places, are helpless, and need charity.

It’s worth remembering that this 19th century view required a design to begin with.

**

Here’s some helpful prose from the National Disability Authority in Ireland:

“Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits. By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples’ needs. Simply put, universal design is good design.”

This is excellent.

The problem arises, especially in higher educational settings, when people are asked to consider the diverse needs and abilities of students.

University faculty and administrators are not skilled when it comes to thinking about diverse learning styles or needs. In historical terms the university is built on a model of exclusion, a narrow model, one which suggests quite openly that only certain bodies and minds need apply.

Jay Dolmage writes in his wonderful book “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education”:

“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.”

Without universal design in classrooms, curriculum, teaching methods, websites, the university creates a de facto “lower education” system. If the blind student has to struggle to get accessible books; the wheelchair user can’t sit in the front of the room; the autistic student can’t use the proper accommodations for her needs, then the educational system is exclusionary. Let’s be clear: there are some faculty and deans who like it this way, just as they like lots of step steps that mark off the university as a place of climbing and advantage.

Colleges and universities are the least disability friendly places in the United States. The average airport is more accessible and engaged with design.

In order to have universal design in higher ed we must have inclusive education in mind when we teach.

**

I’m a blind college teacher. There should be nothing remarkable about this. Yet my daily presence haunts the academy. At all three universities where I’ve held tenure I’ve met obstacles to my participation in everything from meetings, classroom teaching, library research, online systems, even simple sporting events. All these basic things have been largely blocked.

Bad as these stumbling blocks are, and I promise you they’re lousy, what’s worse is the extraordinary degree of ableism I’ve met over the course of my roughly thirty year teaching career. Setbacks are one thing, perhaps even to be expected (at least initially) but prejudicial behavior is worse and I’ve experienced it over and over again. I’m a well known blind person. I have managed despite these problems to achieve “senior status”—that necrotic term for full professors.

Yet I’m not a full professor at all. I’m essentially a steerage passenger on a luxury liner, one who has wandered onto the wrong deck. This analogy should be ridiculous but it isn’t.

I’m still waiting for accessible “on boarding” materials at Syracuse University though I came there eight years ago. I asked for them four times. Because I’ve never received them I know less about the place where I work than almost everyone.

Getting accessible research materials in a timely way is grueling and often impossible yet I’m expected to teach as much as anyone else—oh, and also to be a leader in my field.

A colleague criticized me not long ago for speaking out about accessibility problems, saying, “you set back our reputation.”

In the meantime disabled students tell me almost weekly how they’re patronized by faculty and how difficult it is for them to get the help they need to succeed. What do I do? I complain. All too often my reward for speaking “behind the curtain” to multiple administrators about access problems is that I’m essentially conceived of as a malcontent. The eye rolling says it all: I should go back to steerage immediately.

My “non-disabled” faculty colleagues are not generally reliable allies. Even the ones who theorize disability and confront the social and economic history of disablement are seldom on the front lines when it comes to speaking up. Can’t get into the famous basketball arena with your service dog? That’s too bad. We’re all going to the game tonight.

A famous scholar once wrote about the “spoiled identity” the disabled are forced to endure—have been forced to suffer—every day. The word for this is stigma and everyone who hails from a historically marginalized background knows what it feels like. There’s a moue of unhappiness at the sight of you. Many sighted people think the blind don’t know it when it comes but we do.

Lately blind students have been filing civil rights complaints against colleges nationwide. I have not done this because I keep thinking my persistence and whatever in me passes for eloquence will pay off.

But you see, there’s the problem. I want a broad coalition of faculty to speak up.

In order for this to happen we must educate faculty about inclusive education as a human right and underscore the central place of universal design in that expectation.

**

Why is the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion at universities invariably so wooden and dead one would rather succumb to the prolixity of self help manuals? Give me Leo Buscaglia over prose exhorting the building of individual competencies or better, let’s imagine collective talent and free students (and staff) of the corporatized idee fix of the happy happy individual. If we’re to be honest we should admit universities are competitive and structurally opposed to whatever is meant by inclusion. (I like Paolo Freire’s sense of it, grass roots, promoting literacy for all, but on the American campus the term seems to mean—“tag along” as if we’re all going for a nice walk and you’ve been invited, lucky you.)

Lucky you indeed. It’s estimated that almost three quarters of disabled college students fail to graduate. What was it? The food? Must have been the chow. Yes, inclusion stops at the classroom door; stops at the inaccessible website; stops when the disability services office posits there are just a few hoops you have to jump through to get accommodations and you better follow the procedures exactly or your semester will go down the drain faster than your costume jewelry. Structurally speaking disability is to inclusion as mice are to kitchens.

At most universities and colleges disability isn’t included under the rubric of diversity. As a former administrator once said in my presence: “we don’t want people to know we have learning disabled students, it will affect our rankings.”

Talk about “Typhoid Mary”—disability might be catching! But back to the rhetoric. Consider the following, a fairly typical “letter” which a prospective college student must give to a physician in order to receive accommodations on campus:

Please provide the following information under separate cover and on practice letterhead. The authorized release of information is to include but not be limited to the following:

1. Presenting diagnosis(es) utilizing diagnostic categorization or classification of the ICD or DSM IV. Diagnoses should indicate primary, secondary, etc., and significant findings, particularly in respect to presenting problems.
2. Date the examination/assessment/evaluation was performed for the presenting diagnosis, or if following the student for an extended time, date of onset and date of an evaluation of the condition that is recent enough to demonstrate the student’s current level of functioning.
3. Tests, methodology used to determine disability. PLEASE do not send copies of the student’s medical records.
4. Identify the current functional impact on the student’s physical, perceptual and cognitive performance in activities such as mobility, self-care, note taking, laboratory assignment, testing/examinations, housing conditions/arrangements. Is this condition temporary? If temporary, what is the expected length of time to recovery?
5. Describe any treatments, medications, assistive devices/services the student is currently using. Note their effectiveness and any side effects that may impact the student’s physical, perceptual or cognitive performance.
6. Recommendations for accommodations. Explain the relationship between the student’s functional limitations and the recommendations.
7. Credentials (certification, licensure and/or training) of the diagnosing professional(s).

This information is kept confidential except as required by law.

**

Again, the prose above is standard boilerplate. It’s what’s for breakfast. If you have a disability and want to go to college you’ll need to be medicalized and sanitized. This is what passes for accommodation language at matriculation for most university students. Get a doctor or a psychologist to affirm you are indeed disabled—moreover, ask a medical professional to articulate “for you” what you will need in order to succeed in higher education. The falsity of the claim—that a standard MD or Ph.D. knows much about disability and it’s circumstances is nearly laughable but not quite. Inclusion is in the balance. Let’s see your disability certificate kid. Let’s see what it says we “have to” do for you. Do you feel included? What’s that? Not quite? Perhaps you have a bad attitude.

A campus that’s inclusive is accommodating because it’s classrooms, it’s digital domains, it’s syllabi, it’s assignments, it’s library, all are “beyond compliance”—which in turn means no one should need a letter from a doctor or a specialized office with its reliance on “treatments” and “functional impacts” and “cognitive performance” and the like. This language by its very nature is not inclusive nor is it meant to be—it’s designed to weed out students who might be tempted to fake a disability, because lord knows, maybe extra time when taking a test will give certain underachievers an advantage. I know of no other area of diversity where one’s provenance and authenticity must be vetted and confirmed.

**

Back to universal design— from the National Disability Authority in Ireland
it is:

The design and composition of an environment so that it may be accessed, understood and used
To the greatest possible extent
In the most independent and natural manner possible
In the widest possible range of situations
Without the need for adaptation, modification, assistive devices or specialised solutions, by any persons of any age or size or having any particular physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual ability or disability, and
Means, in relation to electronic systems, any electronics-based process of creating products, services or systems so that they may be used by any person.

Universal Design should incorporate a two level approach:

User-Aware Design: pushing the boundaries of ‘mainstream’ products, services and environments to include as many people as possible.
Customisable Design: design to minimise the difficulties of adaptation to particular users.

Viewing Universal Design at the Micro Level

A single design feature or a simple product, designed so that it can be used by as many people as possible.

At this level, the designer is not expected to find one design solution that accommodates the needs of 100% of the population, as Universal Design is not one size fits all. Rather, designers are urged to explore design solutions that are more inclusive; those designs that push the boundaries as far out as possible without compromising the integrity or quality of the product.

If more than one option is available for a design feature, choose the more inclusive feature. For example, when installing a handle on a door, it is always better to opt for a lever handle, rather than a door knob, as the lever handle can be opened using the elbow or a closed fist, benefiting people carrying shopping bags as well as people with limited strength in their hands.

Viewing Universal Design at the Macro Level

At this level the designer has the opportunity to combine accessible and usable design features, with customisable or adaptable features, alongside more specialised design solutions that deal with the most extreme usability issues (see levels 1-3 above).

By stepping back from the individual features and looking at the product, service or environment as a whole, designers are in a position to investigate alternatives providing equivalent experiences to users.

Examples include a user-friendly website that meets web accessibility initiative’s (wai) web content accessibility guidelines 2.0 (wcag 2.0), has a customisable user interface, and is compatible with assistive technologies.

From micro to macro, Universal Design has implications for the design of any single feature of a product, service or environment, as well as the design of that product, service or environment as a whole.

The 7 Principles of Universal Design were developed in 1997 by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers, led by the late Ronald Mace in the North Carolina State University.The purpose of the Principles is to guide the design of environments, products and communications. According to the Center for Universal Design in NCSU, the Principles “may be applied to evaluate existing designs, guide the design process and educate both designers and consumers about the characteristics of more usable products and environments.” 
Principle 1: Equitable Use
Principle 2: Flexibility in Use
Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use
Principle 4: Perceptible Information
Principle 5: Tolerance for Error
Principle 6: Low Physical Effort
Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use

**

The issue of inclusion for people with disabilities in higher ed is a matter of culture: far too many colleges and universities fail to imagine that people with disabilities represent a cultural movement. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the powerful statistical urgencies represented by the finding that nearly 10 per cent of matriculating freshmen are self-identifying as having a disability.)

A cultural understanding of disability means at its very core that students or staff with disabilities are our children, our sisters, daughters, sons, fathers and mothers, our veterans, our colleagues. But it means more than that: an academic or curricular awareness of disability means that our nation’s institutions of higher learning will finally sense that what they “do” they do for all and with no oppositional and expensive and demeaning hand wringing. Such a position requires that disability services and academic culture–matters of curricular planning and cultural diversity be wedded as they should be.

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 

Yes, Margaret Sanger Would Have Killed Me if She’d Had a Chance, or Thoughts on Certain Statues

In the United States where symbols are so often monolithic it’s easy to ignore how ghastly a statue is because oppressive emblems are commonly believed to be unremarkable. Still there comes a time when some monuments can’t be blinked away. Let’s take Margaret Sanger for example.

Sanger was was a eugenicist. She was an “equal opportunity” eugenicist as she believed people of color and the disabled should not be born. Today she’s mostly remembered as a champion for women’s reproductive rights but make no mistake: she wanted to prevent black births and eliminate the disabled.

Still a bust of Sanger is proudly on display at the National Portrait Gallery alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. I think it is fair to say that if Sanger had had her way neither King or Parks would’ve been born. Certainly she’d have voted against the birth of any disabled child. I’m a member of that group, blind since birth.

The National Portrait Gallery does have a sign mentioning Sanger’s work with eugenics. This puts the gallery’s curators a step ahead of the defenders of confederate statues, most of whom want untroubled devotion to a vicious past. Sanger’s bust stands on its pedestal warts and all. Isn’t that enough?

Perhaps. Maybe we should simply put cautionary footnotes on all our nation’s offensive monuments.

Yet I don’t think Sanger should be in the gallery at all. She actively advocated for the deaths of minorities. This is a litmus test: in life did you stand for human dignity and equality or not? Sanger fought for the rights of women to have control over their reproductive lives. She’s heroic for that. Until one admits she wanted some people in the lifeboats and not others.

I say she’s a vile figure. She lectured to the KKK. That’s a second litmus test. Anyone who spent her or his time in the vicinity of a burning cross deserves lasting condemnation.

The full history of eugenics in the United States is still being uncovered. The Carnegie Foundation, J.H. Kellogg, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Leland Stanford, all promoted theories of racial superiority and advocated for eliminating certain minorities.

Some statues are horrific. They belong in an atrocity museum and not in places of customary veneration. Certainly Margaret Sanger doesn’t belong in the same room with Rosa Parks and Dr. King.

Learning to Be Afraid, A Manuel for Outlier Bodies

In her latest novel The Burning Girl Claire Messud has her protagonist, a young woman named Julia observe the following: “Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid,” Julia says. “You came to know, in a way you hadn’t as a kid, that the body you inhabited was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified.”

Julia’s words passed through me like a scalpel. Talk about intersectionality! This fits disability, the actual living of it, to a T. All disabled people know this story—the crawling inner sense of contingency, the stares of appraisal, the shrugs, the outright dismissals that happen at any moment. One can add to this “early or late”—my first dismissal came when I was four years old. Here’s how I describe it in my forthcoming memoir about life with guide dogs:

When I was very small I didn’t know I’d meet people who wouldn’t like me until one afternoon, climbing stairs with my father, my hand in his, we met an elderly Swedish woman who lived just below us and who said, “Tsk, Tsk” because I was blind. I was only four and it was winter in Helsinki. This had been a foundational moment for me as such moments are for all sensitive children–it’s the very second we sense we’re not who we’ve met in the mirror, or having no mirror, we’re not who our parents say we are. Cruelty is one way we arrive. It comes without warning like branches tapping a window. “She’s a fool,” my father said as if that solved the riddle of human embarrassment.  

The body I inhabited was vulnerable.

“Imperfectly fortified.” Black bodies, trans bodies, diminutive bodies, let’s be democratic about the matter. So great is the stranglehold of tacit agreement about embodied value, anyone who’s not white, male, at least of average stature, lacks the automatic agency that opposes the vulnerability Julia describes.

When Trayvon Martin, the American teenager who was murdered while minding his own business, who was shot to death for being black in a gated community, I wrote about the tragedy from a disability perspective. I said, among other things:

I know something about being “marked” as disability is always a performance. I am on the street in a conditional way: allowed or not allowed, accepted or not accepted according to the prejudices and educational attainments of others. And because I’ve been disabled since childhood I’ve lived with this dance of provisional life ever since I was small. In effect, if you have a disability, every neighborhood is a gated community. 

Last week the Rev. Al Sharpton counseled Trayvon’s parents that the engines of disparagement would start soon–that Trayvon’s character would be run through the gutter. He was right. And he was properly forecasting what happens whenever a member of a historically marginalized community speaks up for “blaming the victim” is a handy way of sidestepping issues of cultural responsibility. In a way, isn’t that what “gated communities” are all about? Aren’t they simply the architectural result of cultural exceptionalism? Of course. But as a person who travels everywhere accompanied by a guide dog I know something about the architectures and the cultural languages of “the gate” –doormen, security officers, functionaries of all kinds have sized me up in the new “quasi public” spaces that constitute our contemporary town square. I too have been observed, followed, pointed at, and ultimately told I don’t belong by people who are ill informed and marginally empowered. Like Trayvon I am seldom in the right place. Where precisely would that place be? Would it be back in the institution for the blind, circa 1900? Would it be staying at home always? 

Now the forces of revision are saying that Trayvon was a violent pot smoker. Forget that pot smokers are generally not violent and that the vast majority of teens in America have tried it–forget that it’s not a gateway drug. Forget that having been suspended from high school for minor marijuana possession isn’t an advertisement for criminal psychosis. (Didn’t we dismiss that stupid idea along with the film “Reefer Madness” some thirty years ago?) The reality here is that Trayvon is being predictably transformed from an ordinary kid into an aggressor. The evidence doesn’t support this. He was stalked and threatened and the efforts in recent days to recast him as a crazed gangsta are predictable and laughable. But I’m not laughing. I too was an “outsider” teenager. My place in every social and public environment was always conditional. Hell, I even smoked marijuana as a form of self medication. I’m not ashamed of the kid I used to be. I’m not ashamed to count Trayvon Martin as my soul mate. 

There’s a war against black men and boys in this country. There’s also a backlash against women and people with disabilities and the elderly. The forces in all these outrages are the same. The aim is to make all of the United States into a gated community. On the one side are the prisons and warehousing institutions; on the other side, the sanitized neighborhood resorts. I hear the voice: “Sorry, Sir, you can’t come in here.” In my case it’s always a security guard who doesn’t know a guide dog from an elephant. In Trayvon’s case it was a souped up self important member of a neighborhood watch who had no idea what a neighborhood really means. I think all people with disabilities know a great deal about this. I grieve for Trayvon’s family. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him and will never forget.  

Learning to be afraid, to sense your vulnerability, is to recognize, in whatever neighborhood or room your very immanence is bothersome at best—and really that’s the best you can count on. From bothersome you descend quickly to the status of a foreign problem, and then to mild or medium hot threat or worse. Consider the tragedy of Keith Lamont Scott; consider Charleena Lyles; Brian Claunch; Robert Ethan Saylor; consider that half of the people killed by police in the United States are disabled.

One wish of mine is that Americans will pay attention to the fact that all outlier bodies have been essentially criminalized—that is, the foreign body is now imagined to be illegal.

Free Cookies, Evident Dignities

No one gets a free cookie in the work camp called America. You kids get back to work. Get on your scabby knees and scrub the jetsam.

Last night two cabs in Brooklyn refused to give me a ride. No to the guide dog. No to the man.

The man was told, despite the ardor evident in his heart, and perhaps observable on his smiling face to get back on his scabby knees.

No taxi. No cookie. Same old.

I never get used to it.

This came after a beautiful poetry reading honoring the late poet Deborah Tall at Bookcourt, a lovely indie bookshop. We had a good turnout and wonderful readers and wisdom and lyrical intelligence were all about us. About. We were about together honoring a poet who passed away young and who’s posthumously published final book is now out.

I said to someone, “well they can’t take our souls” in reference to Trump. Later I had to say it about the taxi men. You can’t have my big plush heart you bastards. And I’m terribly sorry no one gave you a free cookie. I haven’t gotten mine either.

Meanwhile I almost got run over yesterday while walking down Sixth Avenue when a bicycle messenger ran a red light and almost struck me, save that my guide dog made a quick maneuver and saved us both.

Meanwhile strangers, pedestrians, witnesses jeered the bicyclist who fell of his damned bike and was scrambling to get to his feet.

Meanwhile I thought he’s just another guy who didn’t get his cookie. I couldn’t be angry. I was alive. He was alive. We went our separate ways.

Meanwhile I like this recipe for the free cookie:

I part Walt Whitman’s breakfast (whatever he was having)

2 parts reexamined opinion (almost anything by Naomi Wolf)

3 generous doses of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and—

3 equally generous doses of Susan Sontag

Garnish with Christopher Hitchens “Notes to a Young Contrarian”

You can tinker with this recipe. It will accept many ingredients but the caveat is that the input, the human sine qua non must represent ardor and a history of assisting others. So, for instance, Ayn Rand doesn’t quality. No also to Norman Podhoretz.

You can put in Hilda Doolittle or Roberto Clemente if you like.

And of course we’re talking about spirits, so it’s up to you how you’re going to get this into cookies.

See? I’ve nearly forgotten being almost killed and then denied my rights.

 

 

Who are the Blind?

No one really represents the “blind” just as no one speaks for all cab drivers in the United States. There might be good reasons for a national taxi union but even if you could launch it in the face of the Teamsters’ and the 14th amendment, you’d have trouble getting word out to real cabbies, even in the age of Twitter.

 

The “blind” are just as complex and busy as any other group. Like cab drivers they’re everywhere–indeed the “blind” hail from every ethnic, racial, and social group. You can’t get the “blind” to agree about anything. I happen to like this fact. 

 

There are blind people who believe the only dignified way to walk is with a tall white cane in hand. I believe that’s their right. There are blind people who feel that working with a guide dog is the best way to travel. I belong to that group. A guide dog is trained in a procedure called “intelligent disobedience” which means if you make a bad street crossing decision, the dog will prevent you from walking into a car. 

 

Some of the “cane people” are really quite militant in their disdain for the dog people, and vice versa. This dispute has always reminded me of Jonathan Swift’s description of the nation in “Gulliver’s Travels” that was still fighting a 100 year civil war over the issue “which end of the egg do you crack–the big or the small?” 

 

In New York City cabbies are divided according to their origins and shared languages. They have their own networks and publications. I suspect they fight among themselves. That’s how it is when the commercial stakes are high and the resources are small. 

 

The problem with fights between rival blindness factions is that their disputes can do great harm to individuals who already have a hard time managing their lives. Roughly 70% of the blind remain unemployed in the US, a number that reflects larger unemployment figures for all people with disabilities. One would thing blindness organizations would work together to affirm every avenue of success for blind people trying to get ahead. But such was not the case in Iowa when a young woman with a guide dog tried to take a computer class and was told by the “cane people” that her dog wasn’t welcome in class. Here is my original blog post about this from 2009:

 

Blind Woman and Guide Dog Suffer Setback in Iowa That is Incomprehensible

If you’re looking for a story that’s so far fetched it makes Edgar Poe’s Cask of Amontillado seem like a plot from Leave It to Beaver then you can read the following story at The Des Moines Register. Some days I need a crazy story for the sheer giggling asphyxia of the thing and there’s no help for it: I just have to read about the raw, dark, nay, even pre-historic antics of people who I had quietly supposed were our civilized neighbors. I make this mistake about civilization rather often so there’s no dearth of outlandish stories in circulation but this one is surprising for its evident extremism about blindness by an agency funded by the state of Iowa that’s supposed to help blind people–and that’s just the opening fork’s worth of apalling meat. The larger mouthful is that state money was spent to fight The Americans with Disabilities Act in a time when every nickel of public aid is desperately needed to help people but I digress. I’m having a problem with my oxygen. This story is just too disgraceful for my customary sensibilities.

Here is a brief excerpt from the Des Moines Register’s article that’s linked above:

Woman’s Bid To Take Dog To Classes Rejected
(Des Moines Register)
February 20, 2008


DES MOINES, IOWA– [Excerpt] “Stephanie Dohmen’s six-year fight to take a guide dog to training classes at the Iowa Department for the Blind suffered a setback Thursday in Polk County District Court.

Jurors rejected the Des Moines woman’s discrimination lawsuit and sided with a department policy that bans the use of visual aids, including seeing-eye dogs, in the program.

Dohmen and her dog, Lilly, were caught in a decades-old argument that has divided blind Americans into distinct camps: those who prefer guide dogs and those who consider the animals a poor substitute for learning to function with only a directional cane.

Supporters of the state program who testified at Dohmen’s trial praised the verdict and defended the ban on guide dogs.”

 

Reader’s note: the excerpt above was provided by Dave Reynolds who produces the disability rights information site called Inclusion Daily Express.

 

Now back to my own bosky musings, eh?

If you are from a foreign country and you’re not aware of the matter there is indeed a group of blind advocates who believe that using a white cane as a means of navigating sidewalks and streets is a superior method of mobility than traveling with a professionally trained guide dog. Several of these cane only people work at the Iowa Department for the Blind.  

One wonders if there’s a department within the Iowa Department for the Blind that’s in charge of humiliation and impoverishment, but I digress. Sometimes I can’t help it. Preternatural and projective intolerance does this to me every time.

The real issue is that the Iowa Department of the Blind is influenced in its delivery of services by a group of blind people who are members of the National Federation of the Blind which is headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland. The Iowa folks believe there’s only one way to be blind or visually impaired even though specialists in orientation and mobility training for blind people do not generally agree with their positions. I won’t go into this matter at great length but for the sake of analogy this is like imagining a program for wheelchair users that insists no one can have a power chair–you can only use a manual chair and it has to be of a certain specific type of manual chair sanctioned by a committee of manual chair exceptionalists. Any other form of wheelchair is forbidden and not only that, but if you deign to use one of those other mobility devices you are not a “real” mobility impaired person.

Of course the analogy above doesn’t pass the sniff test. And what if we expanded the argument? Let’s say the Iowa Department of Transportation issued a decision that you can only have a driver’s license in Iowa if you drive a Yugo. Remember the Yugo? Surely there’s a Yugo collector’s group. I’ll even wager there are enough of these cars from the former Yugoslavia to match the population of Iowa. That’s a pretty good guess I think.  

The whole miserable story of the Iowa Department of the Blind has to do with the prevailing and controlling idea that people who are blind or who are “legally blind” must adhere to the NFB influenced model of blindness which means that you need to wear a blindfold if you have any residual vision in order to take one of their talking software classes. The idea that a guide dog is some kind of visual aid that needs to be checked at the door is so crazy you can hardly give it credence save that in these United States you will never run out of easily confused people who can serve on local juries. Apparently the Polk county jury was confused by the testimony of a guide dog user at the Iowa Department of the Blind who cheerfully announced that he always leaves his dog at the door.

The fact is that demanding such a position of a guide dog user is illegal. Period. And the additional galling fact in this case is that state dollars were spent on this offensive discrimination in a time when people need all the help they can get.

 

Jeez. If they let Stephanie’s dog into the computer lab it might cheat.

Why am I bringing this back up today? Because the story remains offensive, incomprehensible, and damaging. Because the National Federation of the Blind puts out press releases about their legal work on behalf of the blind (many of which I’ve reprinted on this blog) but they still have a dark and shameful incident in their social archive for which, as far as I know, they’ve never apologized. 

I tend to remember these things.