Stephen Kuusisto likes to call himself a “blind poet with some razzle dazzle.” And he relishes sparking others’ imaginations to unleash their own creative flair. In May, as part of a 10-day international disability and cultural diplomacy outreach program, Kuusisto traveled to Kazakhstan to give poetry workshops to young students with disabilities. “There’s a sweet subversiveness to the imagination—you trick people into playing,” says Kuusisto, a University Professor and director of interdisciplinary programs and outreach at Syracuse University’s Burton Blatt Institute , which seeks to advance the civic, economic and social participation of people with disabilities around the globe. “Poetry can be silly, poetry can be play, so you create a community around fun—and before long, disabled and non-disabled people are having the same fun.”
In Kazakhstan, the acclaimed poet and author of the best-selling memoir “Planet of the Blind” was part of a delegation of artists who visited the cities of Almaty and Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) and taught workshops in music, dance and poetry, with a focus on inclusive arts education. The workshops also collaborated across genres, mixing poetry and dance, for instance, and culminated with public performances. “The kids are incredibly eager to play with the imagination,” Kuusisto says.
The initiative, a collaboration of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, also included public readings and visits to universities, literary institutions and other significant venues. In previous years, Kuusisto made similar journeys to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China. He has a longstanding relationship with the University of Iowa, where he graduated from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, taught creative writing and forged a friendship with author Christopher Merrill, director of the International Writing Program and driving force behind the disability and cultural diplomacy workshops. “If you’re playing with imagination with disabled kids around the globe, then you’re also really excited about breaking down barriers,” Kuusisto says. “One way to do that is to bring institutions together that can further the cause of helping disabled people.”
Kuusisto knows the barriers—both physical and societal—that children with disabilities encounter. He grew up decades before the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act ushered in change and created an awareness of inclusivity in the United States. He loved art and using his imagination, but as a child with severely limited vision faced challenges posed by public schools he attended. His mother, he says, was relentless in taking on teachers and school administrators to ensure his inclusion in the educational system. “She fought like a tiger,” he says. “You have to be a fierce fighter for your child with disabilities.”
That was a message he shared with the parents of the children he met in Kazakhstan. He told them being an advocate is hard work—they have to be tough and never take no for answer. “I tried to convey that to the parents,” Kuusisto says. “Never give up. Never stop fighting. Never stop believing in your child. And never stop believing in yourself.”
Kazakhstan was a signatory of the 2006 United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international human rights treaty. But inclusion in the Central Asian country is still viewed as a radical concept, Kuusisto says. “There are some longstanding social issues that are complicated, and helping a society see the value of the disabled as fully functioning and productive members of society is important work.”
The children are typically home-schooled and excluded from public education and activities with their peers. That’s where cultural diplomacy and the inclusive arts workshops come in, creating opportunities to bring together children of all abilities in a classroom and demonstrate that those with disabilities, like all children, have talents and skills that should be nurtured. “Disability is a rich way of knowing,” Kuusisto says. “The disabled know how to problem-solve in unique and profound ways. There is a knowledge base to disability and, when united with the imagination, disability can produce some astonishing art. We talk a lot about ‘outside the box,’ well, disabled people live permanently outside the box and they have a lot to share, so these workshops become places where some of this starts to come up. These events are incredibly powerful and memorable.”
Pursuit of the Imagination
For Kuusisto, central to the cultural diplomacy mission is the idea of “the pursuit of happiness”—that unalienable right which Thomas Jefferson embedded in the Declaration of Independence. As Kuusisto—who has taught a Renée Crown University Honors course on the topic—notes, it’s not a guarantee of happiness, but the right to pursue it. “We show how the arts is about the pursuit of happiness,” he says. “What’s imagination? It’s pursuit.”
It’s a message Kuusisto wants to continue to spread globally. He’s currently working on a memorandum of understanding with the State Department, the University of Iowa and the Burton Blatt Institute to expand their collaborative efforts. “We’re really eager to team up together now in more focused ways to see if we can take this to new levels,” he says.
With the magic of the arts, a message of inclusion and community building, and his own personal story to share with some razzle dazzle, Kuusisto wants to ensure that one day children with disabilities worldwide are given the opportunity to become who they want to be. As a reminder, he can look back to meeting two Kazakh children who were blind and sang for him: a young girl in a white dress with angel wings and a young boy decked out as a Little Elvis. “It was poignant,” he says. “If the way forward is not created for all these talented children to be themselves in a fully inclusive way, well, nothing is sadder to me than talent denied.”