Telling Our Disability Stories: Interview with Jim Ferris
[Anthony Tusler] Hello, this is Anthony Tusler. I am the host of the podcast series, “Recalling Telling Our Disability Stories.” “Telling Our Disability Stories” is sponsored by the Accessible Technology Coalition in partnership with the California Emerging Technology Fund. Once a month, “Telling Our Disability Stories” brings you thoughtful and personal interviews with people in the disability community. We bring you disabled people who are doing interesting, important things and living creative, vibrant lives. This morning I wanted to welcome Jim Ferris. He’s a poet and chair of the Disability Studies Program at the University of Toledo in Ohio. Hi Jim!
[Jim Ferris] Hey Anthony! How are ya?
[Anthony Tusler] Hi, I’m good! Um, I wanted to start off with uh, having you read a poem from your new book Slouching Towards Guantanamo, which came out this summer I believe.
[Jim Ferris] Yes.
[Anthony Tusler] And have you read poems from Disabilities and then we’ll talk about them some. How does that sound?
[Jim] Sounds great. Sounds Great. Poems with Disabilities. I’m sorry. This space is reserved for Poems with Disabilities. I know it’s one of the best spaces in the book. But the Poems with Disabilities Act requires us to make all reasonable accomdations for poems that aren’t normal. There’s space just a few pages over. In fact, don’t tell anyone. I think it’s better than this one. I myself prefer it. Uh, actually I don’t see any of those poems right now myself, but you never know when one might show up. So we have to keep this space open. You can’t always tell just from looking at them either. Sometimes they’ll look just like a regular poem when they roll in. You’re reading along and suddenly everything changes the world tilts a little, angle of vision jumps. Your entrails aren’t where you left them. You remember you aunt died of cancer at just your age. And maybe yesterday’s twinge means something after all. Your sloppy, fragile heart beats a little faster, and then you know. You just know. The poem is right where it belongs.
[Anthony] I love that poem. Uh, describe for the people, uh, who’ll be listening to this where that poem appears in the book.
[Jim] Um, it’s actually it’s…it’s the very first poem in the book. It’s before the first section starts. So it’s, you know, it’s in a sense kind of a prologue.
[Anthony] Do you wanna talk a little about what you were thinking of when you put the poem there and what you’re thinking about the poem itself?
[Jim] Well that…you know that poem led off the book. You know my thinking in part was that that was…it’s probably the most widely read of my poems. It’s been published on the web and in some magazine or other, I can’t remember anymore. And, you know, it’s gotten around a good bit. In fact, The essay…the Arts and Disability Organization used that poem as a part of its writing spotlight series for teachers in schools to use. Um, and so it’s, you know...it’s shown up in a whole bunch of places and so I figured I probably… I hadn’t put it in a book yet so I figured I better use it…include it in this one. And I don’t know, sometimes it’s good to have it upfront and get it out of the way so you can get on with the other stuff.
[Anthony]What….I like how subversive it is in the sense of the way…. having been someone who provided disability access in a university running into the kind of attitudes of people who are still somewhat unclear of what to do with people with disabilities and I’m actually talking about cultural competence next spring at the university because people are unsure…and I like how this in a very general way, teases I think at the notions of “oh, we have to do something special.”
[Jim] Mmhm, mhhm.
[Anthony] So do you see it as subversive in that same kind of way?
[Jim] Oh, Anthony all my poems are subversive. If they’re working at all, I think they’re subversive. I mean I often think they work on a whole bunch of different levels. An um, I mean one of the things I think that does work with this poem is that it is accessible on a number of different levels. I mean if somebody only kind of takes it at face value it can be a way to raise questions and, you know, give people a little something to chew on. I think if you can enter it more deeply, more complexly you know, then it can…it can…I hope at least bring, you know, more, that there’s more there to chew on.
[Anthony] Can you talk a little bit about what that more to chew on is? Because I think, at least in my mind, all your poems have more to chew on.
[Jim] Um, you know I’m really kind of hesitant to talk about it too much because I want to be careful not to close off potential readings of the poem. I kind of figured that my part was the writing and the sharing whether through publication or here through our conversation and what people do with it, I guess I kind of want to give them the room and maybe the responsibility to do that, you know.
[Anthony] That’s fair. And I think we talked earlier this week about creating art, whether it is poetry, or writing or painting and that creative impulse and then thee crafting of the piece and hoping that it gets reaction of some sort, not necessarily that it’s propaganda.
[Jim] Right, yeah exactly. And um, you know I sometimes…oh shoot. I was doing a performance piece last year called Scars: A love Story and I remember being interviewed by a student reporter....a reporter for the for a student newspaper who, I mean basically wanted me to tell him…”so tell me what it means.” I don’t think he had any idea how belittling and insulting that question was. I mean he was a good kid. He’d been a student of mine in fact, but this idea that poems or any art form that they are really a puzzle that you just have to solve, that there’s somewhere… a single unitary meaning that they yield up. It’s not that simple. That’s just enormously… It’s reductive and I think people wind up depriving themselves of the richness…it’s sort of like taking the poetry out of the poetry, you know?
[Jim] To…to try to press that. Yeah, and so I try to dodge stuff like that. I mean, I think that if someone is way off the mark in talking about a poem, you know I might try to provide some guidance or call some attention to something but um, but I also you know...I mean...I guess I also want to be really expansion in, um, making room for different approaches or responses to poems. I mean I think so often people, because of that sort of idea that poems are puzzles and you know and that you’ve got to figure it out and if you don’t it’s just too hard, you know, you’re stupid or I don’t know what. What I prefer instead is, you know, making room for a whole range of encounters with the poem, you know, of engagements with it and um, you now it’s kind of…it’s not a multiple choice test, you know.
[Anthony] Right…like true false.
[Jim] Yeah exactly, so you know I want to be really careful not to close the doors. I have some people…you know…I have seen this in reviews of my work that people will have interpretations that, you know, had never occurred to me that I think “wow interesting is that right? I kind of like that you know.” So if somebody were to ask me, “Well, is that right? Is that THE answer?” or something, you know. When I’m doing well I sort of smile enigmatically and don’t say anything.
[Anthony] Well, I’m assuming that when people come up with an interpretation that you hadn’t thought of that that’s really a mark of success.
[Jim] It’s a great thing. I love it, you know. I enjoy it very much. Yeah, it is. It absolutely is, you know. Because.. I mean like we were talking the other day I think that it is really crucial to give people the room to invite them to bring themselves into their encounter with the poem, you know. I mean, if I say 2+2=4, you say “ho hum” you know, “so what? I could do that.” But if I give you the opportunity to, if I invite you to bring your 4 into the equation, then we’re making something together you know and then there’s the possibility for art to happen.
[Anthony] Well, I think it’s also dangerous because there’s always the possibility in thinking about a disability song that I like quite a bit written by Randy Newman called “Short People.” It’s obviously satiric and yet, when it went out into the world, it was not taken satirically.
[Jim] Right, right.
[Anthony] And so there is… I think that good art always kind of “whomps” on the edge of that ledge that some of the interpretations that are going to come back are not ones that you would particularly like to have come back. But that’s that’s the power and strength of doing good art
[Jim] Exactly, exactly and there’s real way in which, you know, once you finish a poem or a song you know you send it out into the world and people respond to it as they respond to it. And what I think is that if I made it well enough it would both guide the reader or you know the auditor in particular ways and allow them to bring what they bring to it too. And yeah you’re right, sometimes it’s not what I might have chosen. And…you know, that was the breaks. You, you know, you get to make it as well as you can and then you sail it out there and then what happens happens.
[Anthony] And if you wanted to be safe you’d be writing Hallmark cards, right?
[Jim] Hahahaha, I wouldn’t make a lot of money. Well actually I don’t know if they make a lot of money. The people who sell the cards make a good bit of money. Not sure about the writers.
[Anthony] Well if you crank…from what I understand...if you can crank out enough of the cards then you can make some money but it’s one of the production line kind of things.
[Anthony] No thank you.
[Jim] Yeah, never quite appeal to me somehow.
[Anthony] Well one of the things that struck me in reading more of your poems, at least for me anyway being having grown up with a disability and I think that the one that struck me was um Admission Ritual where the description is about doctors and disrobing and what years ago was written called about public stripping. And um I actually cursed the strength of your poems a little bit last night because it got past my intellectual filters and really started touching on my emotions and really bringing up some of those feelings that I had walking down the hallway in a um, in one of those gowns so my orthopedic surgeon could see how I was walking, you know, and having the hallway you know there’s nurses aand other patients and those kinds of things and I was a 10 year old boy and your poem evoked that. It didn’t paint that picture that said “this was what it was like,” which I think I could have then defended myself better but what it did was it reminded me of those times in a way that was very close and very hard to defend against, which I think is wonderful.
[Jim] Yeah, thank you. I appreciate that a lot. I’m glad to know that um when poems are working well that’s exactly the ,you know, brining your own experience and um, you know, thinking, feeling, experiencing self into it. And I appreciate the openness that you brought into the poem that allowed that to come up.
[Anthony] Well, I was powerless to resist it actually.
[Jim] Yeah, that’s my evil plan.
[Anthony] Hahaha, I think that’s the subversion I was looking for. Exactly. And it’s um I mean, I actually have a confession is…is I’m not much on poetry generally because it doesn’t speak to me for some reason. I am somewhat tone deaf to a lot of poetry but this… in its...your work in its simplicity in a way yet complexity and also reflecting on my experiences as a disabled person just sucked me right in, and so that is why we… you and I are talking so much about poetry today is because I think that experience for people with disabilities who might be listening to this podcast, I think it’s an important thing for them to experience.
[Jim] Yeah, yeah.
[Anthony] That’s my subversion is getting people with disabilities to look at disability from all kinds of angles and bring their own experience to it and remake it in their own ways. Not particularly subversive it’s kind of overt.
[Anthony]So one of the things that had we talked about was in talking about Slouching Towards Guantanamois some of the reactions you’ve gotten and I’m wondering also… both I assume that some through email and other means and also you’ve talked about a couple of tours that you’ve done this fall where you’ve read your poetry. Can you talk about some of the reactions you’ve gotten?
[Jim] Yeah, um, it’s interesting to me…the um…I guess you might call it the points of access that people have into the poems and the wide range of responses that they evoke. Last night I was a part of a reading, I had some work in a startlingly good and uh very well received new anthology called Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability.We had a reading last night in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 4 of the authors including myself from the anthology, which did a reading in an art gallery. And it’s so interesting to me that I get responses I just…I just would not have expected. I have a poem in this collection called Personal Improvement that I wrote…you know it was... I talked to a whole bunch of disabled people that I know and you know was asking about the different ways that the non-disabled role had tried to push them to make them try to look as normal as they could, and try to seem somehow normal and, you know, the problems that that brings up, of course. What I was really struck by is that that poem has gotten an incredible response form cancer survivors and especially women who were breast cancer survivors. The poem was about pressure to seem normal somehow and it never occurred to me that it would speak to people who, you know, who had survived that awful experience. And um, so that’s one of those things that you just, you know…I just would never have expected.
[Anthony] I’m thinking back to some of those pictures of women who were showing the scars where their breasts had been, I think it was in the mid-70s and I always felt a kingship with that group. As much as people value walking and get freaked out if I crawl. In this country, in this culture… we certainly…breasts carry a whole lot more freight with them I think even than walking.
[Jim] Yeah, they’re certainly a heavy load
[Anthony] So um, any other comments or observations that you want to talk about?
[Jim] In this moment, nothing else is jumping to mind right now.
[Anthony] Which is fine.
[Jim] Yeah, well was there something that we talked about before that I’m just not remembering?
[Anthony] You said there were some weird comments and you thought that maybe they’d come back to you.
[Jim] Hahaha, sorry.
[Anthony] That’s fine
[Jim] Maybe I’m not so sorry.
[Anthony] Sometime it’s best to forget the weird comments…exactly it’s like what do they think I am? You’ve talked about that you’re the chair of the Disabilities Studies program at the University of Toledo and you were telling me about how that has been your second career? I’m assuming that you grew up with a disability.
[Jim] Yeah, yeah I have a congenital mobility impairment and um, yeah after I got out of college I was…I spent-
[Anthony] What’d you major in? Just out of curiosity.
[Jim] I’m a history major. I remember thinking that I didn’t really want to major in anything. I wanted to have about 4 or 5 different minors but they wouldn’t let me do that. You had to pick something. So I, um, I had…I really liked history classes and I made a nice connection with a history teacher so I became a history major with him as my advisor and it was good choice. It was a good major for me. After I graduated I spent some time trying to make a living as a musician. You know I played guitar in saloons and for a while I had a regular gig at a comedy club where I would sort of serve as the opening act and I did that often on for at least a couple years, I think. It was one of those deals where I could make 5 bucks a night plus a drink, you know. So, reminds me of what a folk singer, guys named Vance Gilbert used to say, “It’s a great profession. You could make literally hundreds of dollars a year.”
[Anthony] One thing that occurred to me in that kind of comedy club, in that kind of setting where people are drinking and they’re there for the comedy not for the folk singer that it’s a wonderful place to experiment with getting people’s attention.
[Jim] Yes, absolutely. Absolutely, it was a great way to start to develop my performance chops for sure. Um, and you know what…what was nice in some ways and in some ways this was not unlike one of the great values of being a poet. There’s a certain degree…you know when you’re the guitar player opening act at the comedy club, they don’t expect you to be funny, and so when you make some good jokes or do stuff that is humorous as well as entertaining in some other way, that’s a bonus you know. I remember there was a comedian at the club; I don’t know we got along pretty well. I remember when I came off the stage after a particularly good set, he’d smile and shake his head and he’d say “get out of the business.” Which I always took as a compliment, it’s sort of like, you know, I’m reducing the competition. Yeah, it’s you know…it was um…it was definitely a way to find some ways to control the gaze you know to use sort of scholar talk. I mean I’ve been drawn to performance since I was a kid in the choir at St. Francis honestly, which seemed kind of strange or counter intuitive maybe, because I was also really painfully aware of being on display out in the world as a disabled person out in the world. That, in a way, now that I think about it now makes a lot of sense that I chose to develop skills at commanding and shaping people’s attention. If you’re gonna be looking at me anyway, then I’m gonna give you things to look at but I’m gonna make you look at what I choose for you to look at, I’m gonna guide you to look at it in ways that I want you to look at it.
[Anthony] That’s one of the reasons why I became a hippie. I believe was that if you’re gonna look at me…might as well be for my long hair and my bell bottoms.
[Anthony] You know, rather than my crutches and braces and the funny way I walked.
[Jim] So was it the sex and drugs and rock n roll?
[Anthony] Well I do believe that that was a large part of it, but I think there was a multi layered identity.
[Jim] There you go, yeah. Yeah. Which is how identity works you know?
[Anthony] Do you want to talk a little bit about the gaze? Because I think it’s an interesting…it’s something that I’ve been playing with lately and I think…I mean we talk about the gaze in academia, but I think that it’s that that notion of staring and what people stare at and as people with disabilities and where I’ve talked about it was with Ulrey Toulouse Lautrec and his gaze on his subjects and how his disability shaped his gaze making it more tender than his…who he aped which was De Gaulle. But any thoughts on the gaze both on you and yours?
[Jim] You know that’s a really interesting question that kind of compares and contrasts the looks at me as opposed to my looking at other people. I remember when I was, oh this is probably 6th or 7th grade that um, you know I mean I used to get kids…kids that would stare at me a lot. I developed a capacity to stare, I mean I could stares nails through a board man. It was just you know I could…somebody’s staring at me and I’m just gonna nail them with my eyes until they cringed, turned tail and slouched away. That was a point of pride for me, you know. I’m gonna…if you’re doing that to me I’m gonna do it right back to ya and I’m gonna do it longer and better.
[Anthony] It’s a way of taking power
[Jim] Exactly, exactly.
[Anthony] In the women’s movement talking about gaze is often times about power.
[Jim] Mhmm, yeah.
[Anthony] I think that’s one of those places we share. Although, unfortunately you know… I would rather have people looking at me with desire than revulsion.
[Anthony] But as a disabled person, I don’t necessarily get that.
[Jim] Yeah. One other thing that I think is really interesting that to think about is I had a conversation with somebody last night who was talking about, um, let’s see how to talk about this…what I found myself thinking was the ways that she was interpreting other people’s responses to her may not in fact have had anything to do with what was on their minds at all.
[Jim] And the ways that we often draw conclusions about what you know what particular eye behavior from other people might mean. And maybe we’re right. maybe it had nothing to do with that though you know?
[Anthony] And even if we are right, if it’s negative, it reinforces the negative and makes the negative more possible
[Jim] And there’s a way in which you know…even if we are right, now what?
[Jim] I mean okay, what next? So, I don’t know and maybe this is partly just gaining maturity that comes with time unplanned but I guess maybe at least at time times I feel like I am less judgmental and more willing to be open to a range of possible interpretations. I mean, I’m still happy to interrupt objectification unless it’s me doing it I suspect but not realizing it. But maybe it’s that I have learned to be a little bit more generous in the inferences that I draw from other people’s behavior.
[Anthony] I think, at least for me anyway. It comes from maturity.
[Jim] You know what else I noticed too and this is really interesting. There’s a way in which so much of the time when people are staring at me, maybe I’ve gotten so used to it or something that I don’t notice it anymore. And I’ve had this happen with my partner now will notice that and will kind of respond to it when people are gawking in my direction. Pfft, I don’t even notice you know. It’s funny because I used to be so hyper aware of stuff like that and today, I mean most of the time, truly, I don’t even notice it. It’s just there. Yeah, I mean it’s not even that I just ignore it, I don’t even see it. I’m busy looking at the sky or I don’t know a pretty girl that walks by or who knows you how a particular leaf is curling on the grass and so if I am something to see you know…I mean there’s a way in which we are all objects in each other’s visual fields, you know. For those of us who certainly can see you know, we are all kind of available things to look at. And um, I don’t know that’s just a part of being there you know and um, and so that people may choose to look at me or to not look at me I guess. It’s not the big deal that it needs to be and I don’t feel ashamed when people look at me anymore and that’s a wonderful bit of maturity to have achieved.
[Anthony] As you were talking, I was thinking this is really the, in some way, the human experience that we…the painful shyness that most of us have in adolescence diminishes as we grow into adulthood and it’s a perfect example of what that means for us disabled folk in that we have a lot more uh, at risk for the mill but there are more dimensions to our identity out there that actually makes it a hyper personal experience like others. I don’t know if I’m making sense here.
[Anthony] What I believe is that those of us with disabilities who are paying attention that our lives are both as just as people and that we see ourselves as people, but we also have an outsider’s perspective and so there is…it’s particularly satisfying I believe that we get that maturity, because it then freezes from the shame and the hurt that people going through life generally, that the norm, doesn’t feel.
[Jim] Yeah and that, oh I don’t know, that we wind up having gained things from having gone through that, you know, that um, that since itself, and, um, connection to or orientation to the world, you know, I mean it’s just one of the things that I like about getting older is that I feel like I know who I am better in lots of ways. I’m willing to try more stuff and um it’s I don’t get thrown as easily. You know? I feel like whether you know this is metaphorically but I feel like my feet are planted more firmly on the ground but I can use my toes to grab a hold of the ground better than I used to be able to.
[Anthony]I think that at least for me is the goal of maturity. So as a singer-songwriter, I’m assuming that at some point much like um like I did in my mid-twenties that being a photographer was not going to pay the bills. At some point you decided to leave singing, performing and move onto something that was a little more lucrative
[Jim] Yeah, you know I was playing guitar in saloons at night and teaching guitar lessons to 12 year olds who wanted to be, um, oh I don’t know be Art Clapton the first time they picked up a guitar. And um when I was offered a job as a newspaper reporter, I thought you know gainful employment and a steady wage-- that sounds like a pretty good victory, and so for a while, I was able to do that and continue playing out. But, you know, at some point, it got too hard to do them both, and you know, being a reporter and having to write on deadline and, you know, producing in that way every day, it’s just it’s great great great practice for a writer. It really is, you know? And so that became a really important kind of, uh, you know, professional path for me.
[Anthony] So we were talking about inspiration and writing on deadlines.
[Jim]Yeah. Yeah. Yeah when you’ve got an unhappy editor standing, you know, behind you looking over your shoulder saying you know. Inspiration like inspiration my hindquarters. You know. Produce this thing now now now! It um I don’t know you know it’s uh probably not one’s most most finely wrought prose, but getting it out there is it’s really important. And you learn a lot about how to do things with language, you know?
[Anthony] What you mentioned you mentioned that one of the driving motivations when being a writer in a newspaper is that when you don’t create that copy, there will be a white space on the front page. No one can stand that shame.
[Jim] Yeah, yeah, I remember thinking more than once that if I don’t get this done there’s a big white hole on this page with my name on it.
[Anthony] Haha that’s not the byline you want. So how’d this shift happen from…actually, let me go back to journalism a little bit? Any experiences being a disabled reporter that made it different than other…uh a non-disabled reporter?
[Jim] What a great question. It’s not something I’ve ever thought about. Nothing’s jumping to mind right now, but I wonder if there were times when being a disabled reporter might have facilitated a connection with somebody I was interviewing. That’s a distinct possibility. But I was so invested at that time in sort of overcoming overachiever stuff that we all sort of tacitly agreed to overlook my bodily faux pas and just not pay too much attention there.
[Anthony] I think that’s one of the things that as disabled people we get skills at which is guiding people in a way to think and interact with us and if we tacitly say we’re going to ignore my disabilities and focus on being a reporter for instance then people generally tend to be pretty good about doing that
[Jim] Yeah and the news gathering about being out and about as a reporter. I’ve got work to do. And talking about me that’s not what we’re here for I’ve got questions for you and you have information that I would like to have so that I can share with my readers and it doesn’t have much to do with me. And so nothing has come into mind specifically, although I’ll tell you there was a time after I had gone to grad school at Texas. I went to grad school because I wanted to learn to write movies and after I finished my masters there some years later I was back in the Chicago area and for a time I was working there as a freelance writer and also did video production and I wound up working as a stringer for the paper I had worked for before I was a full time reporter and um, oh good lord ok, I’m having one of those moments. There was point to starting that story and I had completely lost it.
[Anthony] Bing a disabled reporter
[Jim] Yeah um….It’ll come back to me
[Anthony] That’s fine. One of things that…it’s because I did a training a couple weeks ago to a group of nondisabled people who provide services in universities. Thinking about those skills we develop as disabled people usually and I’ve certainly known disabled people who didn’t have these skills, of being able to guide out public identity and interactions. An example I use is uh when I’m in a deli getting a sandwich and the person hasn’t seen me because they can’t see over the cold case to see me in my wheelchair. When I finally get their attention, I make a joke but then I say “and this is the sandwich I want” to remind them of their job so that I don’t have to spend another three minutes helping them work through their embarrassment while I’m hungry.
[Anthony] And I think we develop those skills at being able to guide...where as a reporter you make it clear in various subtle ways that we’re not here to talk about me or for you to go “Oh how wonderful or oh how horrible.”
[Anthony] We’re here for you to answer my questions.
[Jim] Yeah, exactly. Exactly. It’s, you know, it’s about just doing the job. I remember what I wanted to say before uh that when I was doing that work as a stringer for the paper, the story that I wrote during that time that I liked the best, that I was the happiest with was a long form feature um about the…the last time that a group of world war II veterans was going to have a parade. Um I lived uh for quite a few years as a kid in Maywood, Illinois outside of Chicago and a group of young men from Maywood and Broadview, I think they were in the National Guard, the unit that was based there um they were all together sent off to the Pacific, to the war in the Pacific in WW II. I don’t know just dozens upon dozens of these young men, they were all on the Philippines…yeah it was…when the Philippines fell and um and they were subjected to what was known as the “baton death march” and um lots of them died from the horrible ways that they were that they were treated. They were tortured on that long and awful march into a horrible prison camp. And um after they got back home, every year they had a parade and wanted to pay tribute to these folks, but while I was working as a reporter here, they were all…the survivors were all getting old and unfortunately dying off and there weren’t enough of them to carry on this tradition and so I wrote a story about the last time they were doing this parade and um and I think that some of my awareness and perspective of the world from being disabled helped me to write a good story there.
[Anthony] What my guess is that it also had to do with maturity.
[Jim]It could be too, yeah.
[Anthony] And knowing yourself better as a disabled person and being able to bring a more complete self into the writing. I mean, that’s really what I’ve been doing as a disabled person is integrating my disability into my day to day life more and I think of myself in all my facets rather than shunting all my disability to the side and trying not to think about it.
[Jim] Yeah, yeah.
[Anthony] So what led you to get a PhD?
[Jim] Um, you know, I…it had been a dream of mine for a long time to make my living as a writer and when I was doing it working as a freelance writer and I did some editing and video production and editing it was hard work man. What I found was that I never felt like I had the time to sit back and put my feet up and say “job well done. I’m glad that went well. I’m pleased with that.” I was always concerned with 2 questions: what’s next and when are they gonna pay me? Because my biggest clients…I had some very big time international clients, and the bigger they were, the longer they had you wait. I had people go and make me wait 2 or even 3 month to pay me and that was what I was living on. And um so I started thinking what where would I like to work what kind of work would I like to do rather than having to hustle all the time in these ways and um you know university campuses were always really pretty comfortable places for me and I always liked the energy and um intellectual engagement and stuff that was there and so I thought I think I’d like to work on a university campus and maybe I’d like to teach. Following that line of thought I quickly came to the realization that having a doctorate would be very helpful in doing something like that, so that’s really what led me to a PhD.
[Anthony] And so what led you to disability studies? Because I’m assuming that when you were going into it, there weren’t any disability study programs.
[Jim] There weren’t and at that point I had never heard of disability studies and it had never occurred to me to do anything like that. It just wasn’t a possibility. I went into a performance studies program that I went into it because I wanted to continue to develop my skills and talents as a writer. And I had found, through taking a performance of literature class, a couple of them in fact in Texas, I found that the kind of attention you had to pay to perform a text well was exactly the kind of attention you had to pay in order to write well. They were the same sort of focus and energy and so that seemed to me to be a good way to continue to develop my skills and talents and of course once I got there, I got a whole lot more than I bargained for. I tell grad students now” if you’re not getting more than you bargained for, you’re getting short changed.” And I also tell them “and you’re short changing yourself.” If you’re not in over your head some of the time, then you’re just not trying hard enough.
[Anthony] Well, even with the smallest task, there’s a point that I get to, and I understand this is common where it’s common, where I’m completely confused and I think I’m in over my head.
[Jim] Oh yeah.
[Anthony] And if that’s not happening, then I’m not doing very good work
[Anthony] Because that’s where creativity and putting things back together in a new way happens.
[Jim] Yeah, yeah.
[Anthony] I hate it.
[Jim] Sometimes that can be awful. The worst moment for me in writing is…are the times right before I find a place to get started, it’s where I just feel like I’m flailing around. I remember Archimedes, I think it was, who said one of his famous sayings, “give me a long enough lever, a fulcrum, and a place to stand and I can move the world. You know he’s saying, “I can move that much weight if I have a lever and fulcrum and some place to stand and do it.” What I came to realize is that when I’m working…getting going on a major project is that figuring out where to stand can be just mystifying and deeply, deeply, deeply troubling and then once I find it then I get traction and I know I’m shifting my metaphor somewhere from a place to stand to that idea of traction. Then I can get going.
[Anthony] Then you can move the world
Right, exactly. But right before that time, it’s just…it’s awful. I guess I’ve been doing it long enough to realize that that’s okay if I can sit with that, if I can be with that confusion and that lost feeling then I can get through it and I can find that traction. I mean I’ve realized that it’s a part of finding traction. You know, it’s not something different. It’s a necessary part of finding traction.
[Anthony] What I…that’s where experience is very valuable I think.
[Jim] Oh yeah, yeah. Yep
[Anthony] You can then get faster and faster I can realize “oh, this is where I am.”
[Jim] Yeah, right.
[Anthony] And this is exactly where I need to be.
[Jim] Right, yeah, yeah, yeah.
[Anthony] I hate it but that’s the way it is.
[Jim] It’s not that I’m this enormous failure. Not like any shred of talent I had fled to the other side of the universe. It’s that this is a part of the process.
[Anthony] Um so you’re in the PhD program for performance and I’m assuming you started looking at disability issues to perform. Is that what led you to disability studies?
[Jim] You know how I got into disability studies I couldn’t even tell you what I was looking for anymore, but I was poking around in the library and I expect I probably was looking for something that had something to do with disability, but I came across a special issue of the scholarly journal, the journal of social issues. In 1998, they published a special issue devoted to the very new field of disability studies. What was really cool about it was that they were revisiting a special issue that they had done 40 years earlier that I had recognized as a precursor to what became disability studies. I think it really was. And that, finding that journal, was really transformative for me for a couple of reasons. One of them was that in reading this I realized that all of those weird interpersonal things that happened around me, that seemed to be happening around me so much of the time, they really are happening. I would see things, you know, people looking at or treating me in particular ways and I would say something to, you know, like somebody in my family, a nondisabled person in my family or a nondisabled friend and they would minimize or dismiss, “oh that’s not really happening. You’re just imagining it” or “no he didn’t mean it that way and reading that scholarly journal helped me to recognize you know what, that’s really going on and if other people can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there, it means they can’t see it, but it’s really going on. But the other thing that was so vital to me was that not only was it happening, but it’s worthy of study. It’s worthy of paying careful attention to. And that was just, that was just transformative for me. It led me into doing my scholarly work around the performance of disability and it has led me into, yeah, just doing all the stuff I’ve been doing since.
[Anthony] Makes sense. Um we’re getting kind of close to the end here. Anything that comes to mind that you want to talk about? Any future plans?
[Jim] Future plans. I have a bunch of them, actually. I have a number of writing projects that I’m working on. I’m excited about the future prospects for the disability program here at the University of Toledo. We’ve got the commitment from the university administration to make 3 new hires in disabilities studies in---
[Anthony] Good lord….
[Jim]… new faculty members, over the next 3 years. We’ve gotten a promise of 1 per year for the next 3 years and that’s incredibly…that’s intensely exciting. We get to build something now and so yeah that’s something that I’m working on and really excited about getting a chance to move forward. You know, yeah, that’s just for all of the vexations that arise when everyone works at a big institution like a university I have to say I’m chuffed with an axe about getting to do this.
[Anthony] It sounds very cool. So what degrees are you offering?
[Jim] We have an undergraduate minor in disability studies and a master’s level concentration within the Masters in Liberal studies program. What our plan is to do is to develop an undergraduate major in the interdisciplinary disabilities studies and to develop a master’s degree specifically in disability studies rather than a concentration in a different program. What the configuration of disciplinary contributions will be, we’ll see. In part it’s gonna depend on the power of the applications that come in and the connections that we continue to forge across the campus. We have folks from business and nursing and health sciences and human services as well as the arts and humanities colleges that are all contributing to developing the vision for the program. So it’s gonna be really interesting.
[Anthony] That sounds exciting and fun and I’m very glad to hear it and there are not nearly the number of disability studies programs I certainly would like to see across the country…
[Jim] Right yeah.
[Anthony]…or the world.
[Jim] Yeah, exactly. We’re going to be successful in a timely way in our goal of changing the world, you know. We need more.
[Anthony] Exactly, well Jim thank you very. I really appreciate you spending the time with us.
[Jim] You’re welcome. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s always great to talk with you.
[Anthony] So don’t miss next month on December 16th we will have a podcast of Bethany Stevens from Georgia State University. She will be talking about disability, sexuality, and media representations. Thank you, this has been Anthony Tusler about disability. If you have suggestions about guests or anything else, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. This webinar and others in the series are archived at http//:atcoaltion.org. And I want to thank Karen Sheehan and John Meyers at the Center for Accessible Technology for all their help and for making these podcasts possible.
Transcription made possible by Rebecca Do.