Why I Adore Marty Feldman

Photo: Stephen Kuusisto with a dark suit jacket over his head, his face showing,  eyes rolling and “cat who ate the canary” smile.

By now my wife is sick of this image, a photo of me doing my Marty Feldman imitation taken in Iowa City around ten years ago. I tend to post it a lot. I admit this. It’s my way of saying “what hump?” (I’m of course talking about Mel Brooks and his film Young Frankenstein, and the scene where Gene Wilder as the ambitious doctor apprises Feldman as “Igor” the hunch back and says in the supercilious and jaunty manner of all physicians to all disabled people, “Perhaps I can cure that hump!?” Feldman: “What hump?”

Like Feldman I had a childhood eye problem. His derived from a thyroid condition that left him with exophthalmic bulging eyeballs. Mine was retinopathy of prematurity and severe nystagmus–I couldn’t see much and my eyes moved uncontrollably. Everyone knows if you’ve flicking, wandering eyes you’re either a crook or a comedian.

“What hump?” was my introduction to what we call nowadays “the medical model of disability.”  

When Young Frankenstein came out in 1974 I was a struggling college sophomore whose legal blindness was both a social and intellectual obstacle. The ADA was far off in the future and frankly I’d no language for my circumstances. I told people I had eye problems rather than tell them I was blind. I’ve been lucky to meet hundreds of brothers and sisters for whom disability was first a problem of language, then a matter of declaration. Closeted disability is legion.

And there I was in a dirty little theater in upstate New York when Marty Feldman hit me with satori. I saw my true self. I understood I could be joyously “Abby Normal.” 

OK. It took me years to get joyous. You don’t become Igor overnight. And yes, I still worry about what others may think of me. One imagines some parts of the super-ego are healthy. But I don’t care what strangers think of my disability. Not a whit. Your ableist, facetious, shriveled, suck the persimmons exceptionalism means nothing to me.  I even wrote a blog post about why I feel sorry for sighted people.

Marty Feldman did some artful jujitsu with his deformed eyes. I loved him for that. What a thing! And of course I was living in a provincial culture. Small town America. Middle of nowhere. No disability guides. Years away from meeting and joining the disability rights movement. Surrounded by fraternity boys and the faculty who loved them. But you see, when people show you possibilities with overt celebrations of abnormality even a kid with glasses thick as padlocks sitting in the front row of the Exchange Street Cinema, who felt like a crushed cigarette butt, who had no idea how he would “make it” in the world, well shit a brick, you change lives for the better.

I suppose I’ve now written my true teaching statement. Perhaps I should send it to the administration?





Disability Abuse Department

Every day I wake up and read horror stories about the disabled—some stories come my way via social media, others from traditional news sources. Whatever their source they all have the same sub-text: whether the abuser is a policeman, a social worker, a family member, a bureaucrat—disability life is still imagined to be reduced life even 24 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Note the word “imagined”—all of the abusers in the articles below imagined their victims were negligible people, or worse, weren’t people at all. The sheer breadth, the legion of these stories, tells us that these ugly imaginations are fed like bacteria in a petri dish. I’ve heard ugly sermons where disability is a metaphor for lack of faith; heard ugly radio where social services for the disabled are described as nothing short of fraud; heard college professors demeaning students with disabilities; heard bureaucrats and physicians and merchants all say in varying tones of disgust or approbation that they don’t have time for disability—this human condition thing is so inconvenient.


The trick, the daily art for the disabled is to like yourself anyway. And stay aware. Fight. Speak for others. These links come from http://www.disabilityabuse.org


1.   “Watch: Police Entrapping Disabled Teens in Pot Stings” — VICE recently reported on Jesse Snodgrass, a Temecula teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome who was bullied into buying drugs for an undercover … — SFGate — July 10, 2014  (CALIFORNIA)  http://is.gd/HCeXSg

2.   “11-Year-Old Autistic Boy Kept Inside Dog Cage at Anaheim Home” — The parents of an 11-year-old autistic boy were arrested Tuesday night after Anaheim Police discovered the boy living in a cage inside their home. — NBC Southern California — July 2, 2014  (CALIFORNIA)  http://is.gd/wWmW3V

3.   “Vallejo Caregiver Who Sexually Assaulted Disabled Adult Among 104 Fugitives US Marshals …” — The U.S. Marshals in the Northern and Eastern District of California arrested of 104 wanted violent fugitives and gang … — CBS Local — July 1, 2014  (CALIFORNIA)  http://is.gd/cUCEU7

4.   “Florida Woman Gets Life Sentence for Killing 11-year-old Autistic Stepdaughter by Gagging Her too …” — Florida woman gets life sentence for killing 11-year-old autistic … A Florida woman who gagged her autistic 11-year-old stepdaughter so tightly it killed … — New York Daily News — June 29, 2014  (FLORIDA)  http://is.gd/ehIYA5

5.   “Shocking Video of Lafayette Police Officer Pushing over Man in Wheelchair” — Eric Levy reports on a video released showing a man in a wheel chair being pushed over by police. Apparently the man in question … — Tyler Morning Telegraph — July 4, 2014  (INDIANA)  http://is.gd/KBZw0v

6.   “Disabled Foster Child Dies at Maryland Group Home” — A 10-year-old disabled foster child died last week while under the care of a group home in Anne Arundel County that Maryland health regulators were … — Baltimore Sun — July 10, 2014  (MARYLAND)  http://is.gd/VZ7EVn

7.   “Audit Says DHS Mishandled Allegations of Adult Abuse” — Under Michigan’s Social Welfare Act, the agency is charged with protecting adults who are vulnerable to neglect, exploitation or abuse because of … — Detroit Free Press — July 9, 2014  (MICHIGAN)  http://is.gd/bJeric

8.   “Saginaw Man to Serve 18 Years for Sexually Assaulting Mentally Handicapped Woman” — A 51-year-old Saginaw man will spend at least 17 years more years behind bars for sexually assaulting a mentally handicapped … — The Saginaw News — July 8, 2014  (MICHIGAN)  http://is.gd/ErHNJq

9.   “Grand Jury Indicts Caretaker in Abuse of Disabled Man” — A Nashville caretaker accused of beating a severely autistic man in an incident secretly captured on a cell phone video camera now faces felony … — The Tennessean — July 3, 2014  (TENNESSEE)  http://is.gd/HdXfR6

10.   “AP Exclusive: Thousands with Disabilities Denied Right to Vote in California, Group Says” — At a time when election officials are struggling to convince more Americans to vote, advocates for the disabled say thousands of … — Greenfield Daily Reporter — July 10, 2014  (CALIFORNIA)  http://is.gd/wgbsrH

11.   “Common Core Accused of Leaving Special-needs Students Behind” — There are 6.5 million special-education students in the U.S. today, and most are falling further behind their peers under Common Core standards. — Deseret News — July 6, 2014  (U.S. – NATIONAL)  http://is.gd/Sqw1eX