When poet Stephen Kuusisto was 38 years old, he found himself unemployed, legally blind, and lonely. He made a decision that would radically change his life: he got a seeing eye dog.
On this Talk of Iowa, Charity Nebbe talks with Kuusisto about how his dog, Corky, opened up the world to him. His latest memoir, Have Dog, Will Travel, details Kuusisto's transformative decision to work with a guide dog after 38 years of downplaying his limited vision.
Kuusisto grew up in the 1950s after the polio epidemic. Radio shows like "Man Against Crippler" depicted disability as a menace. People with disabilities were not expected to live in the community. Instead, the idea was "that blindness was a black and white world in an institution behind a hedge row with a big iron fence," according to Kuusisto.
"We now call this the 'medical model of disability' in the field of disability studies," Kuusisto says. "We know that it's a pernicious idea. It still exists though we're making radical strides to eliminating it."
It wasn't until Kuusisto lost a job at age 38 that he was able to buck this narrative for himself. He had memorized his environment, but knew that this would not be enough to help him land another job. In fact, Kuusisto says, 28 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 80% of the blind remain unemployed.
"I was trapped in the neighborhood of my own devising," Kuusisto says. Corky's arrival changed everything for Kuusisto.
“It was like flying and swimming and skydiving," Kuusisto says. "Once you trust that dog looking for everything and it’s making decisions and you realize you can count on this, something happens inside you. It’s a transformation, a switch is clicked."
"Corky had my back. And I had her back."Kuusisto will read from Have Dog, Will Travel at Prairie Lights on Monday, April 9 at 7 pm and will give a lecture on Tuesday, April 10 at 4 pm at the Rosenfield Center at Grinnell College.