Touch the Future: A Manifesto in Essays (John Lee Clark)

Reviewed by Cristina Hartmann

In the introduction of John Lee Clark’s new essay collection, Touch the Future: Manifesto in Essays, we meet a DeafBlind man named Leslie, a brilliant ASL storyteller, a delightful poet, and a role model for the young John. Leslie wanted something simple: to work. After years of spinning on the bureaucratic turntable that was the local vocational rehabilitation agency, he finally got a job–light assembly work that paid below minimum wage. Still, a job was a job, so Leslie set about doing the best work he could. He piled the pieces into a box and assembled them within its confines. His supervisors, all hearing-sighted, kept dumping out the box’s contents onto the tray, a setup more suited to the sighted. Leslie explained that this approach didn’t work for him and that the box setup was better. The supervisors ignored him and continued to rearrange his workspace. He got fed up, packed his things, got his coat, and left the workshop. Soon afterward, he posted a poem aptly titled “Who is Disabled?” on the local DeafBlind listserv. He would never find steady work.

Many questions arose in my mind after reading the anecdote. Why were these supervisors so insistent on intervening? What would have happened without the intrusion, and what should’ve been done?

Many of the answers lie in Clark’s groundbreaking essay collection, a follow-up to his equally pioneering poetry collection, How to Communicate (Norton, December 2022). Clark, a poet, essayist, and Protactile educator, guides our hand with energetic amiability along the many textures of the DeafBlind world. With him, we cover a lot of ground, from the hidden history of the DeafBlind community to the growing Protactile movement to meditations on reading, art, and rugs. There is even a delightfully subversive retelling of a tired fable. It’s a romp, and Clark’s passionate and skillful writing makes it a splendid one. But the collection is far more than an excursion into a different world. Clark engages us in an intellectual discourse that challenges assumptions about inclusion, accessibility, and more.

“Against Access,” the collection’s bellwether essay, might seem provocative to many, pushing back on the conventional wisdom that mere “access”—allowing the disabled into the same space as the able-bodied with a few jury-rigged adaptations—is enough. Inclusion and accessibility become a one-way street, letting the disabled into the room without making them a part of it.

Clark, like most of us DeafBlind, has experienced the pitfalls of this approach. On the morning of September 11, 2001, he walked into his university classroom, and the ASL interpreters asked if he had heard about the plane hitting two poles. They were, of course, referring to the horrific collapse of the Twin Towers, but ASL is a visual language, and the precise meaning of two raised fingers got lost in the tactile reception. Clark laughed, amused at the thought of a prop plane crashing into poles, and the interpreters didn’t say anything. The interpreters had been trained to serve as neutral conduits to spoken English, ostensibly reproducing the experience of hearing people—providing “access.” Clark didn’t find out about the terrorist attacks until he read the news that evening. He had sat in that classroom at the University of Minnesota without being a part of it.

A concept called distantism, which Clark coined in his seminal essay of the same name, is responsible for many of the failures of mere access. Distantism is “‘the privileging of the distance senses of sight and hearing,” that separates us physically and otherwise. Distantism is everywhere: in how we sit across from one another at the dining table, in how objects are packaged to be untouchable, and especially in our aversion to touch. This status quo works well enough for the sighted but is a nightmare for tactile people like us DeafBlind. Distantism puts intermediaries between us and the world—professionals like ASL interpreters, SSPs, and intervenors—who regulate our interactions with our surroundings and the people in them instead of us experiencing them for ourselves. The physical separation also has psychological consequences, a standing apart of our psyches.

Years ago, I went into a museum gift shop with an SSP, who led me to a collection of dinosaur skull models. As soon as I touched the skull’s smooth, stone-like surface, he stepped away. I was left alone to investigate the crevices of a T. Rex skull, wondering where he was, whether he was watching, and what the other patrons were doing. An eerie sense of being an exotic creature observed from behind thick Plexiglass came over me. I lost all interest in the skull, and we left the store, him steering me away from the other patrons and items.

All that changed when I started working with co-navigators who follow the Protactile model. We went into a gift shop and touched everything. I discovered a wide, heavy necklace and showed it to them. We explored the intricate beading together with our fingers and laughed after I put it on. Apparently, it made me look like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They walked their fingers across my back whenever someone passed, and sometimes, the passerby and I would comment on the jewelry and scarves. We spent an hour in gleeful exploration and left with a few gifts.

The emerging Protactile movement is how many DeafBlind are touching the future. Many of the essays describe the birth of our first genuinely tactile language and how it is changing our lives and minds. “Always Be Connected” outlines the need for a shared tactile space. “Co-Navigation” presents a new way of moving through the world together. “Tactile Art,” my personal favorite, explores art that goes beyond touchable into the truly tactile, and so many more. The future is vivid and exciting to the touch, and Clark is our thoughtful and enthusiastic guide.

Many will cordon off this discussion within the disability space, or worse yet, within the even smaller DeafBlind space. But Clark’s discourse has far-reaching implications for how we include and engage with all marginalized communities. How can we move beyond simply allowing people into the room and make them a part of it? The collection’s closing lines give us some answers: “They may find that they need to throw out the big conference table in the middle of the room [for him to teach poetry] … so many of us are just not interested in fitting in. Indeed, we cannot. Instead, we’re interested in collaboration. We’re interested in changing the world.”

If we return to Leslie’s workshop and his interfering supervisors, perhaps we need to take it a step further. We shouldn’t merely “let” Leslie keep his box. We should work together with Leslie to create a better setup for everyone.

Title: Touch the Future: A Manifesto in Essays
Author: John Lee Clark
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Date: 2023

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About the Reviewer

Cristina Hartmann is a DeafBlind Brazilian American writer living in Pittsburgh. Her writing explores relationships and identity through the disability and immigrant experience. Her nonfiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Disability Visibility Project, and H-Net. Her fiction has been published in the Stillhouse Press anthology In Between Spaces, Kaleidoscope Magazine, The MacGuffin, Peatsmoke Journal, and elsewhere. You can find out more at her website,