Stephen Kuusisto

ON BEING CALLED A MALCONTENT

Word reaches me from well informed faculty colleagues that some higher ups in the administration at Syracuse University have branded me a "malcontent"—a badge of honor perhaps, as contrarianism is itís own reward and one can say, "I must be doing something right." But since Iím a disabled professor the term is revealing. Within the disability community we know being labeled "dissatisfied" is a feature of ableism—equivalent to "uppity" or "bitch" in usage. Itís always the first response from bureaucrats who are grudging or clueless about disability both in the letter and spirit of the law. The disabled are keenly impacted by poor service—the bank that offers no means of communication for deaf customers, the movie theater with no audio description for the blind, the airline that stops an autist from boarding. We cripples forward these stories on Facebook and Twitter.

Now I know a thing or two about true malcontents. My Finnish grandmother was a full fledged fun-sucker. She could (and did) destroy every moment of cordiality and/or innocent fun. She was a sour Lutheran fundamentalist who, seeing a child enjoying her ice cream cone would say: "vanity, vanity, all is vanity." A genuine malcontent is a conspiracy theorist. Something sinister is behind every human moment. Did you know the chocolate bar youíre now eating is the product of slave labor? The infuriating thing about malcontents is that more often than not theyíre right. My grandmother was always correct. You were truly happy with your ice cream and yes, youíd better get right with God because youíre going to be dead a long time. Malcontents arenít famous for flexibility.

Me? Iím just a consistent voice for inclusion, accommodations, transparency, dignity, and professionalism where the disabled are concerned. Iím also incredibly persistent. Hence the label. Rather than admit that the university has a poor record when it comes to providing basic accommodations—instead of boldly doing something about it— itís much easier to say that the students who complain, or that blind professor, or that deaf one are problematic. When "malcontent" is used as a pejorative term for the disabled it means "youíre here on sufferance."

It means, "we let you in, now what?" "You want accessible texts? Websites? Access to auditoriums? Accessible housing? Sign language interpreters for campus events that arenít part of your course load?" Yes. You must be a malcontent.

Truth is, Iím funnier than my grandmother. She was such a sorrowful and aggressive soul that one day, as we all rode together in the family station wagon, and she began exulting about the beauties of nature, my father, suspecting that heíd delayed too long replacing the muffler, thought to himself: "God God! This is a woman whoís never said a positive thing in her life! We must be getting carbon monoxide poisoning!" He pulled over. Shoed everyone out of the car.

He was right. Grandma was the canary in the coal mine.

I know more about malcontents than anyone in bureaucracy will ever know.

 

Stephen Kuusisto teaches at Syracuse University and is the author of numerous books of nonfiction and poetry.