Essays - Winter 2010

Wrestling with Two Behemoths


A longtime New Yorker, and New Yorker writer, gets the cold shoulder from powerful New York cultural institutions

By Ved Mehta

December 1, 2009

I have kept clear of advocacy for the blind, feeling that a public role for any cause would be uncongenial to me and that, in any case, a writer does his best work when he sticks to writing. Yet literature is full of characters who forsake the world, with its brutality and violence, to cultivate their own garden, only to have the garden invaded by the very forces from which they were trying to escape. I’m thinking in particular of Axel Heyst, the protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s Victory, who withdraws from the world only to be pulled back into it by the arrival of love and concomitant violence. In my case, I now find myself engaging in public advocacy because of my wish for certain amenities, commonly taken for granted but denied to me because I am blind. Even so, I am reluctant, finding it on the one hand distasteful to campaign for something that would redound to my benefit and, on the other, embarrassed to ask for any special consideration for my blindness. Asking for special consideration has always seemed to me a violation of the spirit of my independence and self-reliance, which I have painfully and truculently acquired since I lost my sight at the age of four. Yet my reluctance has its own ambivalence, since among my heroes are great social reformers like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But I do sometimes wonder what would have happened to Gandhi’s memory if the Mahatma had devoted himself only to the uplift of his own particular, shopkeeper caste, or, for that matter, what would have happened to Roosevelt’s memory if the president had devoted himself only to the March of Dimes.

During the 10 years I spent studying at colleges and universities, a private room or a corner in the library was made available to me as a matter of course, so that I could work with an amanuensis, dictating and being read to without disturbing other students or scholars. At these institutions, the attendance of my amanuensis was accepted much as a typewriter was for other people. Indeed, the librarians were aware that not only John Milton after he went blind but also Henry James and Joseph Conrad, among others, dictated their books to amanuenses. Everyone accepted me as an ordinary student and silently and discreetly catered to any special need I might have. In 1961, I left my graduate studies at Harvard and became a staff writer on The New Yorker. I had an office of my own, with a window, which I could open and shut, a radiator and an air conditioner, which I could control, and a door that I could shut against the world. Though the office seemed no more than twice the size of an upended coffin, I counted myself lucky. How many writers had a place of their own in which to indulge their passions and pursue their explorations?

Indeed, to be a writer at all, to be an apostle of self-expression, and still be able to support oneself–the privileges I’ve enjoyed for nearly 50 years now–is an elite existence that in earlier times was granted only to aristocrats. All the same, I discovered to my chagrin that, by leaving the cloisters of the university, I had inadvertently made myself an exile from the research library. And yet the New York Public Library was just a couple of streets away from my office. Over the next 40 or so years, as I was writing my books and articles, I was frustrated at not being able to use its resources properly. Because there was no room where a blind person could work, I had to shift with my amanuensis from staircase to landing, from this little perch between the stacks to that corner. The whole procedure was extraordinarily cumbersome. During those years, I published many books that required arduous research. One was on India, which required recourse to, among other sources, The Imperial Gazetteer, a 19th-century work on the geography, history, economics, and administration of British India, which runs to some 25 volumes; another was on Gandhi and involved consulting upward of a hundred volumes of his collected writings and having a nodding acquaintance with no fewer than 400 extant biographies. (Today much of this material is no doubt available in digital form, but in the 1960s and ’70s, when I was writing those two Indian books, there was no way to get at any of the material except in the physical volumes, some the size of a small tabletop.) In any case, all the volumes had to be referred to and mined. I bore up under what were for me humiliating conditions in the library, reasoning that my personal needs had to be subordinated to the greater good of the thousands of readers who read silently in the public rooms.

In the early ’90s, I mentioned my problem to Timothy S. Healy, then the president of the Public Library. He was extremely sympathetic, and volunteered to make arrangements for a separate room for blind people, but he died soon after, and that was the last I heard about Healy’s possible arrangements.

In 1985, the brothers Samuel and Donald Newhouse, the media barons, bought The New Yorker. For most of its history a family business, it became one of many publications in their vast publishing empire. When, in the summer of 1999, the magazine’s offices were moved to smaller quarters in Times Square, the squatting rights I had enjoyed as part of an understanding with the old New Yorker were done away with, and I became part of the flotsam and jetsam of the big city. In December 1998, when The New Yorker diaspora had long been under way, I wrote a letter to Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library, asking him if he could provide a space in the library where I could work with my amanuensis without disturbing anyone. LeClerc’s response to my approach was polite, but he seemed to miss the point of my request: “In our Humanities and Social Sciences Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street we accommodate readers with and without disabilities, including those with visual impairments, in our reading rooms, such as the Rose Main Reading Room.”

It was the closest he came to addressing my question, and yet oddly he did not address how I could work with a reader in a public room. I appealed to the Authors Guild. The people there grasped my needs immediately, and wrote the following letter to LeClerc:

Dear Mr. LeClerc:

Mr. Mehta has recounted to us the New York Public Library’s response to his recent request that you consider providing him an individual room to accommodate his needs as a gifted, blind writer.

We understand that while the Library provides some opportunities for blind researchers in the form of mechanical “readers” that enable the blind to do basic reading, the Library does not afford someone like Mr. Mehta the same opportunity to do intensive, scholarly research that similar–but sighted–writers are afforded by the library. . . .

Mr. Mehta’s research habits are similar to those of an extraordinary sighted writer. He informs us that he works for hours at a time, often consulting 20 to 30 books in one research session. To engage in the equivalent intensive research a sighted person could accomplish quietly, alone, and practically anywhere in the Library, however, Mr. Mehta requires a special space, due to his reliance on his computer and an assistant to read aloud to him and to take down his dictation of notes and manuscripts (most of the books he needs are not available in Braille or Talking Books).

We urge the New York Public Library to reconsider its decision and, consistent with its long history of supporting and inspiring the literary community in New York, grant Mr. Mehta’s request.

LeClerc wrote to me that the library would be pleased to “consider” my candidacy “for space in the Allen Room.” The Frederick Lewis Allen Room, a communal space, was furnished with doorless cubicles, which, according to the guidelines that LeClerc sent me, were awarded to various writers with book contracts at the discretion of the library. For some reason, LeClerc, for all my efforts, did not seem to grasp my problem–that I needed a private area to work with my amanuensis where our speaking aloud would not disturb anyone else. I called him, and also wrote to him, and emphasized that I was no more interested in entering the competition for the Allen Room than the one for the Cullman Center, a specially designed suite of rooms for scholars and writers appointed for an academic year to pursue their own professional work with a stipend and an individual office.

I of course had no illusions that I could expect to have in the library a work space comparable to the office I had at The New Yorker, but the prospect of losing that office made the need for my full access to the library that much more urgent. With my old New Yorker sanctuary near the library, I was able to manage a makeshift existence, sitting and reading in the stairwells of the library and running back to my office to make notes and write, but that would no longer be feasible. How could the Allen Room be deemed any kind of solution? Nor would the alternative of applying for a fellowship in the Cullman Center serve my purpose, since I could occupy an office there for only a year, and I was looking for a long-term arrangement, one that would last as long as I had the strength to write. After all, sighted people do not labor under time limits in their use of a research library.

It seemed that LeClerc, like many advantaged people, was not quite able to imagine the obstacles disadvantaged people faced every day. So, at the risk of embarrassing us both, I decided to spell things out for him in a letter:

When I was working on Portrait of India and Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles, each of which took four years to complete, I was not able to take advantage of any of the facilities at the Public Library. . . . I was forced to buy thousands of books from India and borrow books from university libraries to do my research. In the case of my recent book on The New Yorker, I was not permitted to work in the library on the thousands of pages of my own manuscripts and proofs in your archives. I had to resort to selectively Xeroxing a few sample manuscripts, at some expense, and then had to read them elsewhere. It’s hard for me to sum up the financial and physical hardship I’ve endured and the time I’ve lost in not being able to use the public library facilities as a matter of course. A sighted person might get some inkling of the problems I’ve faced over the last 37 years if he tried to work in the library with his eyes closed for just one day.

As I was writing, I recalled that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 had prohibited unequal treatment in public facilities, and I thought that would surely also apply to the New York Public Library. During one meeting with LeClerc, I mentioned the subject, but he ducked it, making me wonder whether I was right or not. In any case, there was no way that I, living on a writer’s income, could take on the behemoth of the New York Public Library in court. So although legal recourse was in the back of my mind, I dismissed it as a piece of insanity.

Originally I had wanted access to the library for myself; but during the long struggle for it, I’d persuaded myself that I was carrying the torch, as it were, for other blind writers and scholars. And yet I had long since renounced a life centered around public causes, even as I was realizing that, without The New Yorker, the cultivation of my private garden would require more labor and struggle than ever before. So I dropped my crusade, settled into my apartment, and went back to my intensive writing.

Recently, the whole issue of access was exhumed for me by the library’s campaign to modernize its roughly 110-year-old central building and consolidate its research operation with its lending facilities. According to a story in The New York Times of March 11, 2008, the project is slated to cost $1 billion, and was launched with a guarantee of $100 million from Stephen A. Schwarzman, the chairman and a co-founder of the Blackstone Group. He extolled the Public Library for helping “lower- and middle-income people–immigrants–get their shot at the American dream,” and the plans called for a new café, new rooms for children and teenagers, new computer stations, and wireless Internet access.

One group was overlooked, both in the Times coverage and in the library’s planning: the blind. No mention was made of a designated place for them anywhere, making me wonder if the slip was conscious or unconscious. The forgotten and ignored could perhaps take comfort from the names of the two stone lions that have always guarded the Public Library’s Fifth Avenue entrance, Patience and Fortitude.

In any event, the news of the projected construction reopened for me the whole question of access, and I once again wrote to LeClerc, first reminding him of our exchanges in the past, and adding:

The reason for rehashing our old conversations now is that, according to the press, the library facilities for individual “creative writers and scholars” have been greatly expanded in recent years thanks to the gifts of Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman, and, even as I write, are about to be further expanded thanks to the gift of $100 million by Stephen Schwarzman. I’m again wondering if there is any way of making a provision for visually impaired writers–and scholars, yes, scholars–to work in the library. The question becomes all the more urgent because we now have a governor of New York who is legally blind.

I want to emphasize that I’m not making any special plea for myself. If the library were to determine that there were scholars and writers out there who were better qualified than I and whose needs were greater than mine, I would be as happy as if the facility had been granted to me.

A couple of weeks later, I received this terse note from LeClerc: “I have received your letter of April 10, 2008, and the suggestion it contained. We will take it into consideration as we plan our new facility.”

The Public Library is by no means the only institution that balks at accommodating the blind. The Metropolitan Opera has its own set of resistances, as I found out when, in 2007, I went to see Peter Gelb, the new general manager. The Met, beset by the ever-increasing cost of mounting opera productions and the need for correspondingly high ticket prices, had brought in Gelb to expand the reach of opera. It was taken for granted that he would help make opera more popular, and revitalize the art form (great European cities have several flourishing opera houses, while New York boasts barely two). As a way of reaching a larger audience, he successfully introduced live Met broadcasts in movie theaters across the country.

I had my own mission in seeking out Gelb, which was to persuade the opera house to install an audial aid, as an ancillary to supertitles, the electronic libretto system that the opera house had installed in 1995, which allows each sighted operagoer to read the translation of the sung words on the back of the seat in front of him. The system was so well designed that each person was shielded from seeing, and so being distracted by, his neighbor’s screen. I imagined that Gelb would immediately grasp the need for a comparable audial system. From days beyond recall, music has been the solace and profession of the blind–and for many years now, the availability of infrared audial aids in theaters and museums has become routine. Many theatergoers, young and old, who have hearing loss rely on such aids, and even people with good hearing find the aids useful for amplifying the voices of those actors who have trouble projecting. I fancied that Gelb’s only possible objection would be the cost. I had discussed my project with Paul Kellogg, a friend who had been the artistic director of the New York City Opera and also of Glimmerglass, the summer opera company in Cooperstown, New York. He said that, compared with other opera expenses, the cost of the kind of aid I had in mind would be minimal.

“If I were still running the New York City Opera, I know someone I could approach, who probably would underwrite it,” he said.

Buoyed by Kellogg’s words, I walked into Gelb’s office thinking that I would score a grand slam with him, a feeling that was heightened when his secretary brought me a glass of good white wine.

“I’ll look into it,” he said, when I’d made my case to him. “I’ll give it a shot, but I don’t think it will happen.”

A few days later I received this note from Gelb:

I consulted with Laura Sloate, a very important member of our board who is also visually impaired. Ms. Sloate is not in favor of your idea. She thinks that the majority of the few visually impaired people who attend Met performances (including her) would not appreciate such a system since it would distract and interfere with their enjoyment of the music. Given her objections and the cost of such a project, I’m afraid that I have decided not to proceed further in exploring it.

Gelb didn’t explain why Sloate thought the aid would distract people from their enjoyment of the music. I have listened to recordings of operas with someone reading me the translation, and found it helpful. Anyway, if such an aid were available at an opera house, people could choose to either use it or not, just as sighted members of the audience can choose whether or not to view the Met’s supertitles at all. I called Gelb, and tried to argue him out of his decision, saying that Sloate’s view was only one opinion; that anyway she might be a professional and not require an aid, but that for many visually impaired people, an audial aid would tremendously enhance enjoyment of the opera. I went on to say that I imagined there were many more visually impaired people, especially the elderly, at the opera than Sloate allowed for, and that the translation in one ear need not interfere with enjoyment of the music. If he were concerned about sound spillage from audial aids, I said, that problem had been conquered by technologically advanced earpieces. What’s more, since it was legally mandatory for the opera house to provide access to people in wheelchairs, by extension it must surely be legally mandatory for it to provide the blind with an audial aid as a counterpart to the supertitles.

Gelb was unyielding.

I got in touch with Opera America, a service organization, to find out what provision, if any, other opera companies in the country had made for the visually impaired. I spoke with Marc Scorca, the president of the organization, who had his offices in Manhattan. He canvassed his constituents and, in the spring of 2008, informed me that the Pittsburgh Opera, the Portland Opera, the Cincinnati Opera, the Utah Symphony & Opera, the Central City Opera, the Arizona Opera, and the Virginia Opera all had one kind of aid or another, providing translations. “But the Met is a law unto itself,” Scorca said. “They have their own way, and are immovable, whatever the argument.”

Throughout, I had worried whether Gelb had thought of me as a self-appointed representative of a marginal minority. I thought I perhaps should remind him that there were blind people now in high places, who might also be interested in my campaign. I had one final go at Gelb, alerting him to what Opera America had found in its survey, and reminding him of the governor’s blindness.

There have been huge advances in services and facilities for the blind since I came to America from India for my education in 1949. In those days, any book that had explicit sexual material or four-letter words was not recorded on Talking Books or generally embossed in Braille, with the result that a blind student could not read classics like Joyce’s Ulysses, never mind Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In fact, the whole corpus of postwar literature from Faulkner to Updike–not to mention postmodernist European writers–was banned from the ears and fingers of the blind. Now there are computers and programs, like Jaws, that can virtually read any book in print. The march of Kindle, with its audio capabilities, may make it possible for any blind person to read anything at will. I received my training at a time when such technologies were not even dreamt of, and compared to younger blind people who were schooled taking computers for granted, I feel rather like a Neanderthal–indeed, even laptop computers were unknown when I started my campaign with the Public Library. Whatever the advances in technology, blind people will need a place to work and access to reading and music to enjoy.

As of this writing, my struggles with the Public Library and the Met have had not an iota of success, but I know, as surely as I now recognize the voice of our black president on the radio, that change can come when one least expects it, that it might even be inevitable, like day following night.

Ved Mehta was born in India and has been blind since the age of four. He was educated at Pomona College; Balliol College, Oxford; and at Harvard. He is the author of 25 books.

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