Disability and Curriculum

“in the air     the slant snow

the bird rising away

from the wild and bare tree”  -Larry Eigner

Born with cerebral palsy in 1927, Larry Eigner spent most of his life using a wheel chair. He also wrote more than 40 collections of poetry, according to The Poetry Foundation. Often grouped with the Black Mountain Poets–and more broadly, the poets of the groundbreaking New American Poetry anthology–Eigner’s poetry has always struck me. Something about his wandering line breaks and latched-together images gives his poetry the spontaneous clarity of a Zen haiku. But it feels freer, spilling out of its forms. He composed most of them from his front porch.

About 100 years earlier, another poet named John Clair penned “I Am” from within the walls of an asylum:

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live. . .
Allegedly broken by the weight of poverty and grief, Clare was institutionalized for suffering delusions the final 20 years of his life. Some biographers trace his breakdown with the rise of industrialization and the death of the commons.
To me, both poets represent powerful writing. They also represent work from people with disabilities–Eigner’s cerebral palsy, and Clare’s psychosis. When approaching Linton’s Claiming Disability, I wasn’t sure where to begin. Maybe the clarion calls it makes throughout for a more integrated, critical outlook on disability. Or the way it deconstructs the traditional curriculum. The stances it makes on language.
But, I think the point that likely struck the most from Linton, and what drew me back to this poetry, is her point about the dominantly medical mode of disability and the role of this sense of the term has. As she writes at one point, “What is absent from the curriculum is the voice of the disabled subject and the study of disability as an idea, as an abstract concept, and it is in the humanities that these gaps are most apparent.”

Here, I think Clare’s final lines in this stanza are particularly pointed and well-suited words. Linton and others have worked hard to regain power over the term disability, take ownership of it, and make it into a term of community and identification. Even as the medical model, sometimes with good intentions, hopes to pathologize and “cure” many of these disabilities, Linton observes the tenacity of people who hold on. And yet I am, and live…
This notion of disability as idea–and the curricula of ableism and disabilities–seems particularly relevant to a scholar-in-training. I think that academics and educators should recognize that a syllabus with some Eigner or Clare alongside Creeley and Coleridge and calling it a day isn’t going to cut it. As Linton points out, “divisions” occur between disabled people and nondisabled. Simply using Eigner or Clare as spokespeople for disability is little better than tokenism or a shallow sense of social justice, as it is still maintaining those divisions. It’s better than nothing, but shallow inclusion is not enough.
Instead, as Linton articulates, “the voice of the disabled subject and the study of disability as an idea” is missing. If we frame this disabled voice in ableist dichotomies or as mere additions to an already ableist-dominated discourse, we are not recognizing the depth of their experience. Thus, inclusion is an important start, but the inclusion should actively change and build upon dialogue and experience.
And in many cases, one does not have to look far. What does Eigner’s composing process tell us about him as a writer? What about his experience of cerebral palsy, not as a limitation to his potential craft, but as an involved part of his invention and style? For Clare, what do we make of the edits made to his early work to correct his spelling and grammar? His mistreatment? The link some scholars make between his psychiatric disability and industrialization? How do these writers affect our understanding of disability? What are they telling us about their lives?
With a background in literature and philosophy, I’m particularly drawn to these conversations, but I think that Linton’s general caveat to avoid simplistic division and to be inclusive of disabled voices strikes me as particularly salient and guiding. But this is hard, as I would find it easy to let these conversations become overly determined by a sort of showcase feature. Indeed, I really think one needs to not just “study” disability studies as a content area, but “do” disability studies as a mode of scholarship, social engagement, and pedagogy, which is why Linton’s link to activism and her critique of what is not disability studies seems so important.
On the whole, this is hard to articulate. It’s even harder to do–for many reasons that I’m still coming to terms with and thinking over. Yet Clare’s voice and Eigner’s images seem to ground and prompt me, just as more flesh-and-blood experiences do.

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