Despite the rainy, windy afternoon, tables filled up quickly for the first event of this year’s Books and Coffee series, hosted by the English department.
“Books and Coffee began in 1951, so this is actually our 69th event,” said English professor Aparajita Sagar, the organizer for this year’s events.
Books and Coffee is an annual series of events where different speakers give discussions on books for students and the community from 4-5 p.m. every Thursday in February in Stewart 302.
The kickoff event this year featured Maren Linett, a professor in the English department and the director of the critical disability studies program at Purdue, talking about the book, “Have Dog, Will Travel,” by Stephen Kuusisto.
The memoir details Kuusisto’s life and him coming to terms with having a disability in a world that isn’t always accommodating.
“It takes a familiar story of overcoming disability and shifts it, quite decisively, so that what’s to overcome is not at all what’s overcome in most disability narratives,” Linett said.
Many typical stories about disability focus on the process of overcoming the disability, rather than learning to live life with it, Linett said.
She quoted historian Paul Longmore, who said disabled people are taught “that they must perpetually labor to ‘overcome’ their disabilities. They must display continuous cheerful striving toward some semblance of normality.”
“For Kuusisto, the most disabling feature of his childhood was not his blindness, but his family’s denial of and shame about his blindness,” she said.
One quote from the memoir Linett read was, “My parents always referred to (his neighbor) as ‘the Blind Man’ with tones of sadness and (pity). The meaning was clear. I mustn’t display vision loss, ever, for doing so would make me a victim of The Crippler.”
Kuusisto also describes how his parents pressured him to just pretend to be normal, a harsh take on disability that Linett explains as the “medical model,” which suggests disability is a physical and mental thing that can be overcome.
The reference to “The Crippler” was further elaborated on by Linett, who played for the audience a clip from a March of Dimes fundraising campaign.
“The ad portrays polio as a sinister pedophile who will stalk and ruin children. Notice that once the child has been ‘crippled’ by polio, not only can he not walk, but he can no longer sing or whistle,” Linett said. “The ad suggests more strongly that he can’t sing or whistle because his happiness is forever destroyed.”
The professor discussed how, at first, Kuusisto learned to live without acknowledging his blindness since the people around him made him feel ashamed for having a disability to begin with.
“This kind of disabling environment is what keeps people expending enormous psychological and physical effort to pass for ‘normal,’” Linett said.
Once Kuusisto accepted his blindness and decided to get a service dog, Linett explained, he had to face a different battle: now the only thing people wanted to talk about was his blindness.
“The shame and stigma that had kept him working to pass as sighted for 38 years were now, in a different variation, working to enclose him in blindness, to make him nothing but disabled.”
Another passage Linett quoted from the book was, “I was mindful of my healing — not because blindness needed a cure, far from it. I was healing from a wounding failure to love my blindness.”
She related the struggles of Kuusisto back to anyone who has ever struggled to come to terms with having a disability in a world that often looks down on the disabled.
“Parents of blind children are still afraid, if not of The Crippler, of that other (boogie) man: difference,” Linett said. “They mean to do what’s best for their children, but their insistence on normalcy works to starve the blind part of their children’s identities and hinder their success.”
Linett suggests that, moving forward, the real thing that must be overcome is the oppression on the disabled.
“’Have Dog, Will Travel’ shifts the story of overcoming disability, making it abundantly clear that what must be overcome is the shame and stigma associated with disability by a person’s family and culture.”