The AWP, Academic Creative Writing, and the Disabling Ethic of Higher Ed

By now I’ve written a good deal about what it’s like to be disabled and work in higher education. Why return to the subject? What more could I possibly say? First off there’s an important new book “forthcoming” from University of Michigan Press by Jay Dolmage entitled “Academic Ableism” which (from the website): “brings together disability studies and institutional critique to recognize the ways that disability is composed in and by higher education, and rewrites the spaces, times, and economies of disability in higher education to place disability front and center.  For too long, argues Jay Timothy Dolmage, disability has been constructed as the antithesis of higher education, often positioned as a distraction, a drain, a problem to be solved. The ethic of higher education encourages students and teachers alike to accentuate ability, valorize perfection, and stigmatize anything that hints at intellectual, mental, or physical weakness, even as we gesture toward the value of diversity and innovation. Examining everything from campus accommodation processes, to architecture, to popular films about college life, Dolmage argues that disability is central to higher education, and that building more inclusive schools allows better education for all.”

Yes disability is enacted on university campuses as the antithesis of higher education. It’s not merely “a distraction, a drain, a problem to be solved” (though arguably these ableist perturbations remain true) but also a de facto bearding of the noble lion as disablement requires vigorous reexaminations of pedagogy, administrative systems, institutional histories, faculty preparedness, information technology, and what is meant by cultural inclusion. Colleges that do not do these things are most often participating in what Professor Dolmage calls the ethic of higher ed. I should know: I’ve been stigmatized repeatedly throughout my career because my blindness hints at intellectual, mental or physical weakness. I still remember the graduate student in creative writing at Ohio State who dropped my nonfiction writing workshop because I was asking students to read their work aloud. My assistive technology hadn’t arrived yet. My mother died on the first day of class. I invented my time pressed accommodation and gave those students the benefit of twenty years of writing and reading. The woman who quit told a senior faculty member that I was a lousy teacher. Hearing her fellow students read was beneath her. And clearly I wasn’t capable of running a workshop. That student effectively undermined much of my subsequent career at OSU. Although I did receive tenure and ultimately went on to receive tenure at the U of Iowa and Syracuse, the dog whistle followed. It follows because of blindness. The blind, who must do everything differently, are suspect. Are they really reading? (It’s only been 200 years since the blind were conceived of as literate. You shouldn’t think for a minute that old prejudices have vanished. Strangers on public buses offer to pray for me; give me money; imagine I’m destitute.)

The “ethic” is false as practiced and I’ve been put in mind of this all over again by recent developments at the AWP, (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs) the sponsor of the nation’s biggest academic creative writing conference. Each year they manage to humiliate disabled writers by failing to provide basic accommodations, and each year they receive criticism for this, as well as merited approbation for a lackluster commitment to featuring disability related writing at their conference. These are just criticisms and there’s no denying it.

What the AWP “has” is the capacity to stigmatize anything that hints at intellectual, mental, or physical weakness. After fumbling badly with accessibility at their 2017 conference in Washington, DC the leadership of the conference hired a consultant to help them tackle the problem. (Football imagery intentional.) Now the organization has put out the following statement to address the ongoing concern that there’s not enough recognition of disability writing: “We believe the current scope of the conference strikes the best balance between inclusion and good, selective programming.”

Talk about valorization of accentuated taste (read perturbations regarding ability).

Why return to the subject?

I return because I heard a writer at AWP say “that’s not germane to me” when told of a panel on disability and nonfiction writing.

I return because my own university is still struggling to admit the disabled have appropriate and necessary opinions about accessibility problems they continue to encounter on campus.

I return since labels are for jars and not people.

I come back again because most campus accommodation processes are demeaning, stuck all over with red tape, and yes, their very presence signals to faculty and college administrators that the 19th century model of sequestering the disabled is still OK.

And I return because today, right now, even as I’m typing, there are students and faculty and staff with hidden disabilities who are scared as hell to disclose them at their respective colleges and universities.

I can’t convince them they shouldn’t be.

The disabled walk in the same sunlight, even beside the ivory tower.

Perhaps, just maybe we can stop pretending they are “other” and their talents are stealing the goodies from the strapping, healthy taste makers.