What does it mean to build an Institute and a Legacy?

By: Catherine J. Kudlick, Director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability

I thought about the obvious parts of honoring Paul Kenneth Longmore: I was terrified at having to fill the shoes of such an amazing scholar, activist, and engaged policy wonk. Just maybe I could hold my own in terms of the scholarly part. We were, after all, close colleagues in the field of disability history, where we exchanged work, wrote a couple of things together, and counted on each other to share our outrage and dreams about the world of academia.

But though I identify as a person with a disability because of a significant vision impairment, I was never forged in the mind-numbing, Kafkaesque cruel service delivery system as living with the aftermath of polio had forced him to do. I never dealt with finding, hiring, (and firing) attendants to do the most basic intimate things for me. I never protested or testified at a hearing. I never burned the book to which I’d poured in a decade of my life as a publicity stunt to draw attention to the fact that my government disability support would be cut off if I earned royalties for my scholarly work. I’ve listened to my friends and colleagues who engaged in their own demoralizing struggles over the years, but we all knew that someone like Paul heard with his body, not just with his head and his heart.

The first day of my new job as director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability, I fought back tears as I set foot on the San Francisco State campus where I’d visited him hundreds of times, I missed him terribly, even though it was nearly two years since his passing. I strained to hear his chair whirring up to meet me - it had this chaotic bumping sound when he mounted curbs like all the precariously balanced crates on a flatbed truck were going to fall out yet somehow stayed there. He’s woven into the fabric of the place that named an Institute for him. With each day it gets a little easier, but ultimately there’s that intangible feeling of being somewhere familiar yet knowing that the force that gave it meaning has vanished.

Or has it?

San Francisco State remains a vital place. Even in summer and even despite a stubborn layer of ocean fog that keeps the temperature at a stable 60 degrees while the rest of the state and nation swelter, the student energy sizzles on an urban campus. I imagine them being glad to be there just as I am. I eavesdrop on their conversations about classes, jobs, boyfriends, politics, plans for the future. Everyone I meet, from the dean and the provost right down to the woman who gives me better doorstops seem eager to make it work, “it” not just being my new amped-up institute but also the whole university facing its toughest times. Sure, they’re grumpy and unpleasant sometimes, just as I am. But beneath it all is real engagement, a belief in something. What, I wonder?

Perhaps San Francisco State is to academia what the disabled person is to mainstream society. Like the wheelchair user who has , forced to be resourceful in ways that few appreciate, open to the misfits after years of not being taken seriously except for by those lucky enough to be in the know.