‘Fork Theory’ by Cade Leebron​

— Andrew Sargus Klein

The Tampa edition of AWP is in the rearview mirror. I’m grateful for the friendships made and the friendships strengthened and the good books purchased, but I’m also holding onto VIDA’s “Report from the Field: Behind the Scenes at AWP with members of The Disabled & Deaf Uprising” and the fact that the disabled members of the writing and publishing community are still fighting for absurdly basic considerations from the institutions of said community.

You should read the report, but I’m focused on Cade Leebron’s excellent lyric essay ‘Fork Theory,’ which takes you through several thought processes and scenarios of a disabled person and details how unjustly invisible their struggles are.

Pop Quiz:

Which famous writer is secretly disabled?

  1. You shouldn’t ask that.
  2. Hemingway.
  3. Everyone.

Replace the word ‘deaf’ in the following sentence: Her warnings fell on deaf ears.

  1. Different metaphor.
  2. Literally deaf.
  3. Maybe we need to talk about the difference between verbs, like what is hearing vs. what is listening vs. what is processing vs. what is understanding.

That this sort of essay needs to be written at all is itself an implication for me, the writing community, and broader society. It points directly at complicity in the form of non-confrontation, among others:

Ableism as daily practice:

—You are my partner and the worst fights we have are the ones where you tell me that the way I talk about ableism borders on moralistic, you tell me I am too quick to judge, too quick to dismiss. You are my friend and you tell me that I should give my peers with the Most Ableist Poems endless more chances. You are my professor and you thank me for the work I do weekly and I want to ask if you would have said this twenty years ago to a person of color forced to explain racism. Yes, I think yes. You are a person on the internet and you tell me disabled people are too sensitive. You are a comedian and you quote the definition of the word retarded at my friend on Twitter to explain to her why your joke is actually, in fact, and if she were less sensitive she would understand: it is really so funny.

—Shame.

In the same manner as most systems of dehumanization, ableism creates a vacuum of second-guessing: The week after I tell my students that I am disabled, eleven out of twenty of them show up for workshop. I tell myself there is a concert or a party that I don’t know about. This vacuum, too, is unseen by me and so many others; this vacuum, too, grows in silence and apathy. It grows in unchallenged poems that romanticize phantom limbs and blindness; it grows in literary readings without microphones and wheelchair ramps.

I can’t imagine living with that sort of uncertainty, wondering if the grouped actions of my students or my community are in some way a direct result of me being disabled. But I can imagine—with the help of activists and writers doing the real work—small things that can help release that vacuum, because sometimes the most radical forms of empathy are in making the smallest choices with our most unassuming patterns: how we write, how we talk, how we love, and how we respect one another.


American Literary Review