Even before the class period began, many students were anticipating a quiz while sitting outside Room 322. Their prediction proved true, because in the words of Dr. Foss, “What better way [is there] to welcome us back from Fall Break?” He followed up the quiz with some announcements: the first was to remind us of the upcoming events for Disability Awareness Month, including a presentation from Kenny Fries, one of the authors we read for the day. The other announcement was that Dr. Foss had updated our grades for both class participation and reading quizzes, and we could now view them on Canvas. Since we had reached the midpoint of the semester, it was helpful to know where we stood academically, in case we wanted to step up our game.
Our first large group discussion was on “Disabled Lilacs,” a poem by Petra Kuppers, as well as the experimental video that accompanied it. Dr. Foss, who had never been corrected until his previous section, pronounced lilac as “lIE-lAHk”, while the rest of us pronounced it as “lIE-lAK”. Although the meaning of the poem was not initially obvious, it is arguably looking at disability from a broader and more general perspective. The speaker leaves their disability ambiguous so that the text is more inclusive and can relate to anyone, regardless of if you know someone disabled or are disabled yourself. The descriptive imagery suggests that this poem takes place within a dream world, perhaps one where ableism does not exist. If that were the case, though, the main symbolic motif would have been lavenders instead of lilacs. After all, some parents use lavender to calm down their kids. What is the significance of lilacs, if any? Could it possibly have more to do with their juxtaposition to simplicity, nature, and beauty? We were left with even more questions after watching the experimental video, and I joked that “experimental” was a fitting word to describe it. Whereas I was expecting to hear the poem articulately read out loud, the video instead alternated between Neil Marcus seemingly reciting the words as they appeared on screen, and Lakshmi Fjord describing black and white photos of a nude couple. Another one of my classmates argued that due to its presentation, someone who is unable to see would entirely miss the text. Additionally, the meaning behind the photographs shown is unclear. How do they relate to the poem? It was tougher to draw substantial conclusions from the video, so we decided not to dwell on it further.
We transitioned to the second poem of the day: “Excavation” by Kenny Fries. Seeing as Fries would be our keynote speaker for Disability Awareness Month, it felt reasonable to analyze some of his writing. The title alone is very impressionistic, and on its own, it could be interpreted in a number of ways. For the speaker, the excavation represents a foot surgery, which resulted in “the bones at birth [they weren’t] given” that they now appear to be stuck with. By examining their new foot shape, the speaker also peels back all of the hurtful nicknames they internalized, such as ‘freak’ and ‘midget’. The poem’s lament, therefore, is a struggle to find a proper home in a body that has been greatly altered, similar to Shelia Black’s “What You Mourn.”
We moved into small groups to talk about “Cathedral,” a short story by Raymond Carver. My group in particular talked about the hostility, and perhaps jealousy, of the narrator throughout the text. None of us were sympathetic towards the narrator, and one of my group mates even said he felt insecure. He has no interest in connecting with anyone, including his wife, and never calls Robert by his name, instead referring to him as “the blind man”. Another one of my group mates compared the tension between the two men to male turkeys puffing up their feathers to intimidate one another. In the end, when the narrator finally attempts to both figuratively and literally see things from Robert’s perspective, it does not feel like a gesture of good will. In fact, it feels more like a form of saviorism, since drawing with your eyes closed is nowhere near equivalent to actually being blind. Still, is it a step in the right direction for the narrator? Maybe from that point, he can continue growing and improving as a person.
We ended the class discussing Jay Dolmage’s “Academic Ableism” in small groups. Dr. Foss prompted us to also consider UMW’s campus, and whether or not it is accessible. My group pointed out the image of a stairway on page 3 of the online text, and how it relates to the ongoing conflict of accessibility versus aesthetics in colleges across the country. Is there a way to achieve balance between the two? Many schools, UMW included, seem to care more about improving their image than accommodating for people with disabilities. My small group agreed that how a campus looks does not matter if it is not accessible. Another instance of academic ableism that the piece hints at, but does not cover in great detail, is academic papers. Students are often taught to prioritize formatting and big words, in order to sound smart and get better grades from teachers. Consequently, the process of writing essays becomes less fun and more time consuming, as we are forced to overlook any real substance. To make academic papers more accessible and easier to finish, teachers would need to be less critical of simplistic language and contractions in favor of getting the point across.
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“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.” – Kelly Brown