On Carelessness: Disability in the Literary Community
by Anna Binkovitz
It is easy to miss, my disability. I have a genetic disorder called Stargardt’s Disease that causes the cells in the center of my eye to die. I sometimes even miss it—since my periphery is undamaged, the world appears clear, until I try to focus to read a street sign, the newspaper, or a web page drop-down menu. It is a small blindness, a small thing, until it isn’t. As I re-enter academia as a poet, these institutions and communities occupy an even larger part of my life and in their failings, a larger part of my pain as a disabled person.
Over the past year, I went through the MFA application process like many other poets. Almost every school’s online application required the use of drop-down menus. These menus rarely, if ever, zoom along with the rest of the screen to accommodate low-vision users. While filling out a large, state school’s application, I inadvertently clicked on an incorrect branch of the school’s MFA programs. All further communication regarding my application gave only the overarching school’s name. This led to rejection from a school I hadn’t meant to apply to and a lost opportunity to be fully considered for the program I was interested in.
When I followed up with the school, they couldn’t comprehend that disability may have played a role. Instead, I was berated by admissions staff who placed the full fault on me and my own “careless” error. The school’s administration hadn’t thought of writers like me even applying to their program.
While this thoughtlessness spreads into institutional design and policy, it begins with the careless use of ableist language by the people who form and staff these institutions. I cannot count the number of times sighted poets have used the word blind as a metaphor for stupidity or willing ignorance. This use of the word is not only hurtful but also tired and cliché. Yet somehow this carelessness of language is tolerated and extends to a reliance on terms like “crippled” or “deaf” or “paralyzing.” As writers, we all have to demand more care in the language we use and the worlds we create both on and off the page. By turning the experience of real, disabled bodies into metaphor, this type of writing erases us. A metaphor doesn’t need accessibility resources. A metaphor doesn’t feel the pain of physical limitations. The lack of awareness and concern this kind of language shows is a different manifestation of the hurtful ignorance I experienced in my application process.
I’ve given a lot of thought to what impact this kind of language has on the workshop and small press organizers who use and hear it, and also to who is allowed to be careless in the literary world. Able-bodied people, and the institutions they lead, often don’t consider the existence of disabled community members, let alone our needs.
This is the crux of disability, particularly invisible disabilities—that is, disabilities that don’t require visible assistive devices, such as being low-vision or hard of hearing. At home, and in accessible spaces, you hardly notice it. But in an ableist world, your limitations blossom, filling every space designed without taking you into account. Every year at AWP, I have an incredibly difficult time navigating the book fair.. Printed maps are too small for me to read, and the numbers for aisles are far above booths, making it difficult for me to find my way. In 2015, while tabling for Button Poetry, I was continuously lost and stressed out about getting to my shifts on time.This kind of stress intensifies when I am in more intimate academic settings.
I have attended a few writing workshops and completed my BA and a year of MFA study at Lesley University since being diagnosed. Before all classes and meetings, I ask about emailed copies of powerpoints and videos and large-print handouts. Almost always, someone forgets, and I am unable to fully participate in literary spaces that I work hard and pay to be a part of.
When I spoke with the graduate staff regarding my application mix-up and realized what had happened, I cried. I couldn’t believe my vision had taken this from me. The woman on the phone snapped at me, shaming me as much for my emotion as for the mistake. In all kinds of scenarios where I am faced with ableism, I am often told to calm down or simply stared at, while I cry out of frustration and humiliation. Now, when a professor neglects to print a larger handout and then asks for me to read aloud, or when I try to read a friend’s newly published book and can’t because of the small font, the voice that I hear is the staff member in the admissions office telling me, “Crying won’t solve anything.” While cruel, she hit on a hard truth. As much as we may wish it, disabled writers expressing our pain has never been enough to change the way the world sees—or doesn’t see— our needs. We often have to take on the burden to educate larger institutions on how to care for us.
I wish, most of all, that able-bodied writers—and people in general—would expand their concept of accessibility beyond strictly wheelchair access. We need to include people who are hard of hearing or deaf, low-vision or blind, and people with other mobility needs. Perfection isn’t what I expect, but rather to know that I and people like me are in the conversations event planners and literary institutions have. This requires us as disabled writers to be bold and insistent, not only in conversations with organizers but in our own writing. We need to reclaim the language of disability so that it reflects our real lives.
I’ve long struggled with the impulse to minimize my invisible disability so as to seem “normal” in my writing and in the world. However, I’ve begun to realize it is my job to exist and thrive as a disabled person, and for all writers with disabilities to be a presence the literary world can’t deny.
Anna Binkovitz is an MFA candidate in poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. A graduate of Macalester College with departmental honors in English, Anna serves as the poetry editor for LUMINA Journal, and as a board member for the Feminine Empowerment Movement Slam in Boston. Anna's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Fat Magazine, Atticus Review, Beech Street Review, Muzzle Magazine, and elsewhere. Videos of Anna's performance poetry have been featured on the Huffington Post, Jezebel, CosmopolitanUK, and elsewhere.