We’ve written about John Lee Clark before here, and here. Clark is, to use his language, an actor in Protactile, . So I recognized his name when he showed up as the author of the featured poem on one of my favorite podcasts, Poetry Unbound.
Here’s the poem, Self Portrait (as posted on PoetryFoundation.org):
On the morning of my forty-second birthday
The kneading of my broad swimmer’s back by my beloved is the first gift. I nuzzle my pillow and inhale. I sniff my glorious hands. They take their turn at the giving. She says I am a furnace. In the shower I dig into my bestubbled cheeks. I scrape each fingernail against the right bottom corner of my upper left lateral incisor. My marvelous mouth pats the harvested skin into a soft dab. It rests tasteless on my tongue until I step out. My comb tickles my lips with a bouquet of pandemic hair. I sample the bitter end of a Q-tip and am satisfied. The fennel toothpaste searches me and tries me and finds me lacking in a few places. For Jael still sleeping I am a squeeze at their ankle. For Armand I am a known engulfment from behind. For Azel I am a quip and a laugh on his chest. For loafed and purring Angel I am a massive swoon. For hungry Nib I am two legs to rub against back and forth and to loop around with the most eloquently insistent tail in the animal kingdom.
I wanted to share this with Body Impolitic because it is so very deeply embodied. Clark doesn’t put his deaf-blind life front and center (why would you center the things you don’t have?). Instead, he puts his life, his engaged, loving, relationship-filled morning, out for us to see in a way that shares his day with those of us who can hear and see. The sharing is so generous, because we can read it without noticing what (for us) might seem like a loss. Full sensory life, without visual or auditory accompaniment.
I recommend that everyone read more of Clark’s poetry and (if you can see), watch some of the Protactile videos: a glimpse into another way of being in the world.
Thanks to Padraig O’Tuama of Poetry Unbound for bringing this one to me. In his insightful reading of this poem, Padraig also decenters deaf-blindness in favor of the richness that is in the poem.
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We have long known how disabled people’s need for ingenuity and bold solutions have unintended positive consequences for the rest of us. Wheelchair ramps are boons to able-bodied people pushing strollers, or travelers (remember travelers?) with suitcases. Closed captioning is invaluable to non-native speakers and people with auditory processing challenges. Since COVID-19 and shelter-in-place up-ended the world, disabled people have been repeatedly saying, “It’s about time you recognized what we have needed forever, and what we know.” This is nowhere more true than in education and distance pedagogy.
As Aimi Hamraie argues on their Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-19 webpage, “disabled people are leading survival practice in apocalyptic times.” When it became clear by early summer that the pandemic was accelerating in the United States, the Accessible Campus Action Alliance called for virtual modes of education to continue into the next school year as a matter of health and equity. …
Among disability scholars, most discussions of remote teaching have emphasized workarounds and accessibility for multimedia software like Zoom. We are interested, instead, in the possibilities offered through “platforming down,” or paring down the technology we use for online classes. …
Without being prescriptive about text-based teaching and learning—or distance education—we relay here our enthusiasm for writing together, DeafBlind pedagogy, and teaching things with text.
The article’s authors are building off the work of DeafBlind activist and teacher John Lee Clark, with whom some of them have taken classes.
The video above is one of many on YouTube which describe and demonstrate ProTactile.
Describing Clark’s course “Introduction to Protactile Theory” Mara Mills says:
Like any good syllabus, his had a captivating sequence: he opened with DeafBlind experience and critical theory, unsettling newcomers like me in the best possible way before proceeding to ethnographic and other synthetic explanations, and finally introducing some basic principles of the Protactile language. (This language is truly “born tactile” and hence distinct from translations of American Sign Language to the modality of touch.) Here, for instance, is a tiny gem from one of the first pieces we read, “My Dream House,” an unpublished essay written by Clark that transported us immediately into DeafBlind space and Protactile-design-to-come:
… Clark points out that text-based communication, even in the name of access, is one way that “English has colonized every part of our lives.” It was my turn, as an English-speaker (and typer), to only be “partially included” at the moments when Clark gestured toward other Protactile classes, other in-person events that are “wildly and joyously tactile” in their foregrounding of Protactile sign language as a language.
Mills, following Clark, wants to explore moving away from Zoom and Zoom-like classes to deeply engaging text conversations via listservs and the like, but her students are less interested.
Rebecca Sanchez dives deeper into the text-as-pedagogy experience:
One of the benefits of working in text-based formats that this semester highlighted for me is the flexibility they build into interactions, a flexibility that makes space for us to engage at different paces, for different durations, with different amounts of repetition, based on our own needs and preferences. When I type out a lecture, students can move through it at their own pace, pausing when they need a break (or are called away by caretaking or other responsibilities), returning as often as desired to the parts that are confusing or particularly interesting. Communicating in text (even in “real time”) also slows the speed of interaction. The pauses it inserts (especially notable at a moment where such emphasis is placed on the value of speed) offer opportunities to reflect. … These pauses (the equivalent of the blank space around the words on the pages of a poem) are much more difficult to create in a physical classroom. … I often break up discussions by inserting writing into those physical interactions, stopping class to give students a few minutes to record their thoughts so they are better able to engage in discussion. But there are limitations on the level of personalization that can occur when we are all proceeding at the same pace.
Communicating through text is not universally accessible; nothing is. But for some, it provides an opportunity to more fully organize thoughts before presenting them.
I had never heard of Protactile before I read this article, and had never thought about the value of teaching through text. But I struggle several times a week with facilitating and attending Zoom meetings for a political movement where people process at different speeds, have different priorities, and often find ourselves at cross-purposes. And I certainly know in my own life the value of pausing to think about what I want to say–often, I know it because I haven’t done it. Sometimes we do communicate best with emails and editable documents. So all of this strikes chords for me.
The authors conclude:
Whatever forms we as individuals or our institutions decide our classes will take in the fall, then, it is vital that we not justify those choices through repetition of the ableist misconception that one can only effectively teach, learn, think, or fully be in synchronous speech. The idea that we cannot meaningfully connect with our students and with one another through text devalues the interactions and lives of people who have been forming relationships in precisely those ways long before COVID-19. And it is simply false.