Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Discourse of Disability

by Emily Wilder

What kind of egomaniacal fuck writes his or her own life story?
— Dave Armstrong, Taproot CafĂ©, May 29, 2010

Dave and I have been friends for the better part of my adult life — we met as English majors at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. I was just beginning my Master’s; he was just finishing the program. (Although if memory serves, we defended our theses around the same time two years later. But I’m polite, see, so I won’t bring that up.[1])

A favorite professor of mine, Patty Linton, saved me from making an ass out of myself by pulling me aside early on to reveal Dave had RP, and his vision was worsening. That sucks, I thought. And he’s a literature major? Better than a painter, I suppose, but still. Bummer.

Dave was wicked smart and funny, and we ended up hanging out a lot — despite his roommate’s decision to decoupage their bathroom walls with photos of boobies. One night, some friends were gathered around Dave and Eike’s kitchen table playing a board game that required one member of each team to act out the word on the back of a card. Dave and I were on the same team, and the prompt had him (along with the two or three others trying to get their teammates to guess the word first) alternating between aggressively humping the floor and hopping up to clasp two hands in prayer. This went on for much longer than it should have, because the actors never deviated from their approach and the guessers were too busy laughing our heads off.

“Missionary!” I finally gasped.

He high-fived me in relief, and no one stopped cracking up for a good half hour.

If it bugged the crap out of him to be peppered with eyesight-related questions, he never let on. How much can you see? (Enough in the daylight to get by; hardly anything at night.) Do Alaska’s dark winters make having RP especially difficult? (Yes, duh.) What’s the best way to help you navigate this dark bar? (Lemme grab your elbow, thanks.) I didn’t have a lot of experience with visual impairment, and I didn’t want to treat Dave any differently than I’d treat anyone else … but I did want to know where he was coming from, and I wanted to be able to help without making a fuss. The last thing I wanted was to be a Lady Handicop.

As a result, I may have tiptoed around the issue more than necessary — an approach unlike our friend Catherine’s, who blurted out drunk after Dave told her she was hot:

“How would you know?!? You’re BLIND!”

This picture speaks, like, at least three or four thousand words. I am not going to tell you what they are — you have to fill in the blanks yourself. It’ll be a fun game.

Once, at a literary conference Dave and I were participating in, a professor no one really liked started questioning a panel about being “blind to” this and “blind to” that. A visiting hothead stood and scolded him: “From a discourse of disability,” he said, “that’s offensive.”

Maybe Disability Studies Man was being overly PC, but maybe he had a point.[2] How often do we shape invectives by assigning disabilities to the object of our derision — e.g., “don’t be a lame-o” or “you’re so dumb” or “what are you, blind?” These insults are so much a part of our lexicon we no longer associate them with a discourse of disability at all.

People call him “Blind Dave” because visual impairment is a more specific identifier, I suppose, than any love for music or baseball or literature or chicks that would otherwise inspire a man’s moniker. Some still know him by “Punk Rock Dave” or “English Department Dave” — he’s lobbied for “Dirty Davy-ent the Shaman of Shamelessly Well-Endowed Superstars from Space,” though for some reason it hasn’t caught on.

Give it time, Dave.

I’ve been campaigning to get him to move to Austin, Texas, and I think it’s working. (The people of Anchorage may commence despising me now.) I’ve been selling the sunshine and people and live music, but until now it hasn’t occurred to me to mention that Austin is a bit of a visual impairment hub: The Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired is located here; I often see people wearing masks and practicing with canes on sidewalks around town. It must have slipped my mind because I don’t think of Dave as my “blind friend.” He doesn’t let visual impairment define him, so why should anyone who knows him?

Anyway, I hope he moves here, and I hope he lets me edit his autobiography. I know some great writers, but if any one of my friends could put down his life story and get it published and sell a ton of books, it’s this guy. And not because of the subject matter. Sure, compelling content helps, but it’s the writing that’ll make people take notice and stick around. He’ll earn readers the same way he earns friends — by having something real, and pretty great, to offer.

[1] Occultatio!
[2] Either way, it was gratifying to hear someone shut down a professor who a) never remembers my name and b) makes a habit of staring at female students’ chests.