ON April 4th I joined two other speakers in a Dialogues Conference at Chatham University on disability issues. One of the presenters was a deaf English professor from Gallaudet and the other, a woman dealing with chronic pain, also an English professor and head of an MFA program at Fairfield College. After a dinner where we interacted with the many students, we each read from our work, then held an hour-long panel discussion.
We discussed obstacles and opportunities our disabilities brought to the literary and academic world, changes in attitudes, technology, and quality of life over the years, experiences in a publishing world trying to increase the number of authentic voices, and books that were getting it “right.”
Chris Heuer who seemed equal stand-up comic and professor and writer, argued for deafness being no more a problem than baldness. He spoke, too, of paternalism, still a problem. Sonya Huber pointed to our inattention to language, calling something a lame proposal. She suggested that often the nondisabled unconsciously see our disability and expand its power to include a slower functioning brain. People without disability casually tell us how to handle our disability. I spoke of progress, giving my days as a grad student, taking exams on a ladies’ room floor, because no professor ever managed to find my requested empty room so I could use my reader and, ahem, typewriter (which I’d carried 8 blocks) without disturbing other class members.
Chatham students, several dealing with disability personally, then asked many questions, and the moderator, the associate director of Chatham’s MFA program, asked what universities could do to be more helpful. We supported so much that is done today, on-campus centers for disability awareness and accommodation, and special opportunities for discussion, like this one. Simply ask questions to find out if your students have specific needs. One professor said a student with hearing impairment asked after class if she could use caption for the power point from then on.
“Just bringing disability to the forefront is important,” I said. “A famous history of blindness, The Unseen Minority, describes a difficulty still experienced today. Among the minority groups, the disabled are more overlooked. Publishers still produce books with stereotypes and mistakes.”
And as Sonya said, the general public still uses careless language, “deaf to his faults” or “blind to her needs,” continuing the unaffected negative connotation of disability.