by Kathi Wolfe

Scene4 Magazine - Special Issue - What is Obscenity and... what's not? | "Staring Back" | Kathi Wolfe | January 2012

January/February 2012

One winter night, my pal Doug and I entered a bistro in New York .  Cold and hungry, I gratefully felt the warmth of the dining room, as I folded my white cane and ordered French onion soup, quiche and a glass of their house red wine.  Eating bread and waiting for our meal, Doug and I talked about the weather, our work and our friends, until suddenly he said, "I don't believe it! Everyone's staring at you–like you're something exotic–as if you're doing a belly dance!  You'd think they'd never seen a blind person eat before."

Having been visually impaired from birth, I wasn't at all surprised.  I'll get to the big reveal now.  Here's my dirty secret:

Though legally blind, I have enough vision to see movies, TV, colors, sidewalks, stairs, and all too often stares. When I can't physically see the stares, averted eyes–the pruriently-tinged glances of you there eyeing me from the table at the other side of the dining room,  you sitting across from me on the subway—you in the poetry reading audience more fascinated by if the blind lady will be able to see her poetry or if she'll be forced to break down because she won't find her papers and what a train wreck that would be!–I can feel your stares. My mind's eye is on to you: it knows your fears, desires, loathing and  lust of and for people like me.

Before going on (sorry to disappoint the fetishists and literalists among you), let me tell you:  I don't belly dance, eat lettuce with my fingers, throw dishes against the wall, try to cut my meat with a spoon or eat yogurt with a fork.  No matter how dim the lighting or what the state of my physical vision is at any moment, my taste buds are fine.  Though not (alas!) a gourmand, even in complete darkness, I can tell the difference between red or white wine, chicken and steak or sweet potatoes and rice.  I definitely would know if you tried to pass off low fat store brand ice cream as Ben & Jerry's on me.

Being blind or visually impaired is often hard.  Yet with training, adaptations (such as large type or voice activated computer software) and with our natural street smarts, we can learn how to eat, cook, clean house, cross streets, go to school, work and  be poets, writers, sculptors and other types of creative artists.  Oh, and here's the part, that almost always knocks you off your pins (you don't know whether to gasp, giggle or touch yourself–you're so excited to hear this)–we can be intimate, we have relationships, we hook-up-we have sex!

Why am I ranting?

Because my experience–of being viewed as an object–to be pitied, stared at, feared, ridiculed, (sometimes furtively, occasionally openly, often unconsciously) lusted after–isn't unique.  If it was just me, I'd just ask Woody Allen to make a movie of it, and that would be it. But, for thousands of years, people with disabilities have been objectified–stared at–treated and viewed (in life and in art) with a mixture of pity, prurience, curiosity, voyeurism and fear.

Familiarity with the stare is nearly universal among people like myself.  Most able-bodied people are surprised (as my friend Doug was) when I tell them stories like the one about people gawking at me in the New York restaurant.  But to people with disabilities, such stories happen so frequently that they become the wallpaper of our lives.

Helen Keller was deaf and blind.  Yet, she had extremely acute inner vision.  Sitting with a companion at a café, Keller would instantly feel when someone was staring at her.  Though Keller wrote of how she was angered and embarrassed by the staring only because she didn't want her companions to be "bothered" by it, it's hard to believe that she wasn't herself "bothered" by it.

Not surprisingly, there are porn sites devoted (so to speak) to Helen Keller. This, too, isn't shocking to folks with disabilities.  Keller is one of the most famous people with disabilities and, culturally, we who are disabled, are largely viewed as being either a-sexual or as abnormally (fetishistically) sexual.   It's impossible to completely know about anyone's sexually.  Yet, according to her biographers, Keller wasn't freakish sexually. Though because of disability-based prejudice, many states prohibited disabled people from marrying, Keller was set to marry journalist Peter Fagin in 1916.  Until after her brother went after Fagin with a shotgun because her family so disapproved of the marriage. 

But this hasn't stopped people from their Keller porn fantasies.  A few years ago, I had dinner with some friends in Connecticut.  One of the women, who is lesbian, when she heard that I'd written a book of poems about Keller, immediately wanted to know, "Did she sleep with Annie Sullivan her teacher? How cool that would have been!"

This woman had no interest in Keller's writing (Keller was a prolific author), her politics (Keller was an ACLU co-founder, an early feminist, an opponents of racism-among other things) or her disability advocacy.  Nope her thoughts went straight (so to speak) to the ultimate dyke fantasy.  (I'm lesbian and I love dykes.  I'm not being anti-queer here). Just sayin': here's a typical example of what we who are disabled, on the street, call crip porn–of not looking at someone with a disability as a complete human being–of just seeing someone like me as an object on which to project one's fantasies.

I wasn't overly shocked to discover that my poem "Lunch at the Algonquin" (from my chapbook Helen Takes the Stage: The Helen Keller Poems) was on a porn site.  At first, I was ticked off to see it in such surroundings.  Until my friend Jim Ferris, a superb poet and a contributor to "Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability," after hearing of this, jokingly told me, "Wow!  I'd almost take that as a badge of honor!" 

The latest example of disability porn is the newest dining trend known as dining in the dark.  In this "experience," sighted people eat out in restaurants where the lights are completely turned off.  They are served by blind and visually impaired waiters.  A chain of these restaurants Dans Le Noir has just opened up a branch in the garment district of New York city.

It's thrills and spills everyone!!!  It's the blind minstrel show!  In the dark, terrified, bereft of light, you can experience what it is to be me! After eating just once in the dark, you'll know all about what it is to be blind!!!!!!  It will be more scary than the roughest roller coaster ride!!!! You might drop your fork!!!!  What will you do????

Diners won't be able to tell red from white wine, Edouard de Broglie, chief executive of the Ethik Investment Group, which owns the restaurants, told the New York Times.  (This is news to me.  Experts don blind folds to taste wine.)

"Guests can't see the face of the person next to them, so they can't make easy judgements," de Broglie added.  (Really? They can't detect body odor if their dining companions have sworn off bathing or tell if their table mates are nasty if they speak in the dulcet tones of Godzilla?)

Dining in the Dark would be a fabulous idea, said my friend Penny Reeder, who is blind, "except that it's not!!!  People who dine at those places won't experience anything of what we're {blind people} really like!"

These restaurants perpetuate prejudice and stereotypes about blind people, added Reeder, who holds a masters degree in special education and whose recipes for cookies and her Yule log have appeared in "The Washington Post" food section. "It makes people think we can't do anything-that we can't even eat dinner!"

It's blindness (figuratively) in black face.  I don't blame the blind people for taking jobs as servers in the restaurants. Unemployment is sky high among blind people.  But dining in the dark is still a minstrel show.

If you have a disability, you learn to devise ways to fight stereotyping.  Take George A. Covington, a blind writer and photographer.  "In the past I've fought for civil rights on many levels," Covington told me recently over the phone, "But in the presence of many feminists I've felt as though I were being pandered toward–treated as something exceptional because of my disability."

He'd deliberately react with a sexist comment, Covington told me, "and the feminist would then accuse me of being a sexist.  My reply was always 'I'd rather be considered a sexist than a member of a sexual sub-species.'"

Fortunately, creative artists who have disabilities are emerging from the minstrel show.  Since the late 1980's, we've begun using our talent, inner vision and creativity to create our own images of ourselves in life and in art.  It's no accident that the 1997 groundbreaking anthology of prose and poetry by people with disabilities (edited by Kenny Fries) was called Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out.

A few years ago, Kevin Connolly, a photographer who has no legs, traveled around the world.  During his travels, he noticed (as he had all his life) that people were staring at him. One day, using his talent, Connolly began photographing people as they stared at him.  He caught them (figuratively) with their pants down–averting their eyes, gawking, looking at him curiously, pitying him.  His thousands of photos of these stares have traveled the world as a riveting exhibit called the Rolling Exhibition.

In Austria, after being furious that people from teenage boys to elderly people were staring at him and even taking pictures of him with their cell phones, Connolly impulsively started calling people out on their stares.  He began to turn the camera back on them.  "I saw a man rounding the corner....His steps stuttered for a moment as he did a double take," Connolly wrote in his memoir Double Take, "I hoped he wouldn't notice the lens slowly aiming up at him...With the camera at my hip, I pushed the button and heard the muffled chik-ticht...I didn't have any idea what the photo looked like or if I'd even managed to capture him, but it didn't matter: I'd used my own form of staring."

Stare at me and my crip sisters and brothers all you want.  We'll be right there-staring back. 

I leave you with my poem "Lunch at the Algonquin."  In it, Helen Keller eats lunch at the Algonquin Hotel.

Kathi Wolfe

Lunch at the Algonquin

Thank God for vodka and caviar.
They are an antidote to condescension, Helen thinks.

An actress, a Park Avenue socialite and a celebrity columnist
blanket her in their awe.

Once again, she is the eighth
wonder of the world.

Annie, her teacher, spells out their bromides,
letter by letter, into Helen's reluctant hands.

"You're so amazing!" intones the starlet,
"do you really know how to eat?"

I went to Radcliffe and learned Greek
as well as the Harvard boys.

I believe I can manage a salad fork,
she'd like to tell this half-baked floozy.

But the ladies who lunch frown
on sarcastic deaf-blind saints.

Still against all her good breeding,
her naked life-force comes alive,

Taking her fingers out of Annie's hand,
away from the flowing fountain of pity,

Helen burps.              

Share This Page

View other readers' comments in Letters to the Editor

©2012 Kathi Wolfe
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

January/February 2012

Cover | This Issue | inPrint | Blogs | Books | Contacts&Links | Masthead Submissions | Advertising Special Issues | Contact Us | Payments | Subscribe | Privacy | Terms | Archives

Search This Issue • Share This Page

Scene4 (ISSN 1932-3603), published monthly by Scene4 Magazine - International Magazine of Arts and Media. Copyright © 2000-2012 AVIAR-DKA LTD - AVIAR MEDIA LLC. All rights reserved.

Now in our 12th year of publication with
comprehensive archives of over 6500 pages 

RSS Feed

Character Flaws by Les Marcott at
Gertrude Stein-In Words and Pictures - Renate Stendhal