Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
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august 2008

Whose Story Is It, Anyway? (Part 2)

A year ago, I taught poetry to blind teenagers. “Tell that story again!” said Angela, as we were eating dinner after the class was over, “{about} how they dissed you at Mickey D’s ‘cause of your vision.” Drama queen that I am, it’s not hard to persuade me to repeat a tale, even if the adventure wasn’t a happy one.

I’m not that much into fast food, but every so often I get a junk food jones.  One day in the mid-1980's, white cane in hand, I went into a McDonalds in New York to grab a quick lunch.  “You have to get your Big Mac to go,” the young man behind the counter said, “we don’t want blind people eating in here.”

I was angered, but not surprised by this.  This type of thing had happened to me (and many other disabled people) before.  I figured it would get resolved and it was.

After speaking to several of that Mickey D’s employees, I got an apology from the manager.  Sort of. “You people have a right to eat here,” he said, “but we just don’t see many of you.”

“You’re seeing me now,” I told him, “and my friends will be stopping by.”

As I unwrapped my sandwich, a woman tapped my shoulder.  “You do so well!,” she exclaimed, “Imagine!  The blind and Big Macs!”

This is hardly the stuff of Hamlet.  So why did I like telling this story and what made the kids enjoy hearing it? Partly because, my students liked knowing, as one of them put it, that “you can eat burgers, even if you’re blind and a poet, and somebody tries to diss you.”

Another reason is that telling stories conveys and confirms the voice and reality of the storyteller (and for him or herself and the audience). This is especially important, if you have a disability, and live in a culture such as ours, which considers those of us with disabilities to be “other” – as exotic as rare birds or esoteric tropical fish. When you’re “the other,” you seldom get to call the shots when it comes to telling your story. Either you’re  left out of the narrative, or someone from the dominant culture tells your story as he or she imagines it to be.

When I told the teens about the McDonalds incident, I knew that they’d believe me.  Because they, too, had encountered disability-based prejudice.  

Conversely, if they told me that they’d been “dissed because of my disability,” I trusted them.  I knew that, even if they were exaggerating, that there was a kernel of truth in what they’d said. When a 17year-old boy said that three girls had refused to go to the prom with him because of his blindness, I knew that he wasn’t lying.

I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t hurt by rejection in high school (or in later life).  But when you’re “other,” rejection can be as present in your life as the air you breathe. Like artists throughout history, the above-mentioned young poet made poetic sausage out of his misery.  He wrote a poem in the voice of a 16-year-old blind girl, who faces bullying and prejudice at her school.

I’ll bet you a year’s worth of Big Macs (or whatever treat you fancy), that if an able-bodied poet wrote about a teenage blind girl, the poem would focus on her ‘dark world.”

The poet might use her blindness as a metaphor for darkness or confusion.  Or try to imagine how anyone might “want to live” who has to face the “pain” of being blind.

He or she would likely focus on the sensory deprivations (at least from his or her perspective) of the young blind girl.

But my hypothetical able-bodied poet would likely miss-read this character’s inner life. In contrast, because he himself was blind, my actual student was able to zero in on the true nature of the girl’s pain. Her classmates’ prejudice, rather than her blindness, is what caused her anguish. This doesn’t mean that all of us who have disabilities have the same experiences or the same views on what we experience.

“We haven’t yet had the meeting where we’ve said ‘these are the rules, let’s march in step,’” a friend joked recently. Nor does it mean that no able-bodied artist can make art out of disability. But yet... most of us with disabilities don’t see ourselves in novels, poems, plays or other works of art. Sometimes we’re invisible.

A friend, a psychologist with cerebral palsy, told me, “until recently, if you read a novel or watched TV, you wouldn’t know that we, brushed our teeth, worked, made love, had kids, danced, drove cars or shopped.”

Often, we’re not ourselves (in all our bodily difference) at all in art. We’re metaphors.  Sometimes cliched.  Other times stunning, similes for love, death, evil – every quality of the human condition. But we’re not us. 

Recently, I conducted a Crip Metaphor Check. (Some of us with disabilities proudly call ourselves crips.  We do so to reclaim pejorative terms.)  I picked up several books of poetry from the piles on my living room floor. In a random search, I found many instances where disabilities were used as metaphors:

In “A Happy Thought,” Franz Wright writes, “Assuming this is the last day of my life/which might mean it is almost the first/I’m struck blind but my blindness is bright.”

“We who were loved will never/unlive that crippling fever,” writes Adrienne Rich in “After a Sentence in “Malte Laurids Brigge.”

Poet W. S. Merwin uses deafness as a metaphor in “The Rock.” He writes, “Saxophone and subway/....riding deaf together/flying up in boxes/through gray gasses/and here pause/to breathe.”

I love these poets.  My house is too cluttered for me to keep books written by poets whose work I dislike.

You wouldn’t have art (or language) without metaphors, and I’d never want to inhibit any poet’s imagination or creative process. But, having said that, artists have generally used crips as images – of “the other,” the outcast, the disturbed – the innocent fool.  From Laura in “The Glass Menagerie” to Forrest Gump. In art, as in life, we crips are the objects of your stares.

Helen Keller, one of the most famous crips in history, was so aware that people stared at her, that she would sit rigidly still in public.  Not moving an image.  To try to minimize, if not stop, the staring.

Beginning about a decade ago, people with disabilities began to enter the arts in increasing numbers. Though far from numerous, we’re starting to tell our own stories. It’s no accident that Kenny Fries’ 1997 groundbreaking anthology of writing by people with disabilities was entitled “Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out.”

“Able-bodied people love us! We’re human interest stories,” a buddy of mine said the other day, “we’re ‘inspirational’ to them.  Individuals who have ‘overcome’ adversity.” I knew what she meant.  Our stories are what make us human–unique.  Our bodily differences make us interesting to people who aren’t crips as well as to ourselves.

But these individual stories take place within a political context of societal discrimination against people with disabilities. In 1990, the first President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. This landmark civil rights bill offered protection against discrimination to people like me. Unfortunately, over the years, the Supreme Court has gutted some key provisions of the ADA. Last month, the House passed the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act. If this bill becomes law it would put the teeth back into the ADA. As of this writing, President Bush has said he may not sign the legislation.

This sounds dry as spread sheets. Unless you hear crips tell their stories. Making art is a vital way of telling our stories. I don’t mean “eat your spinach” polemics pretending to be poems or plays. I mean well-crafted works of art created by talented artists.

In future columns, I’ll write about the ways in which artists with disabilities (from playwrights to actors to poets to photographers) are telling their own stories.

I leave you with a poem from my chapbook “Helen Takes The Stage: The Helen Keller Poems” (published by Pudding House Publications)

Fingertips and Cigarettes: Helen at the Café

    I never wanted to be a hero.
    The heat from the gaze
    of strangers almost burns my hands.
    They call me wonder woman, then say
    they’d rather be dead than live like me.
    I’d like to blow smoke rings around
    their pity.  If only they could
    have seen me hung over this morning
    or hugging the softness of mink coats
    at Saks Fifth Avenue this afternoon.
    “Get the espresso,” my fingertips
    plead, “I must be awake.”


©2008 Kathi Wolfe
©2008 Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe
Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet and a columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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