For Bryan Boyce, Cow Tipping Press started with his younger brother, Jay.
Jay has a developmental disability. Formally, his diagnosis is a mix of developmental and intellectual disabilities, dyspraxia, schizophrenia, seasonal affective disorder and bipolar disorder.
What does this all mean? To Boyce, it means very little — Jay is just Jay, and there’s more to Jay than his disability.
One winter when Boyce was a student at Grinnell College, he came home for break and saw Jay creating stories and reciting tongue twisters.
“The stuff he was coming up with (was) more inventive and imaginative and creative (than) I could do,” Boyce said. “A lot of my peers … are paying tons of money to try to train themselves to think creatively.”
With this train of thought, Boyce wanted to celebrate voices like Jay’s.
When Boyce returned to Minnesota after about a decade of living in other places, he started teaching creative writing classes for people with disabilities.
“I knew I was interested in doing something innovative or different … in the disability field,” Boyce said. “This is what stuck.”
His writing classes gained more attention and support. He started publishing his students’ work as a collection of poems, stories and essays.
That was the beginning of Cow Tipping Press. The name Cow Tipping comes from a poem from one of Boyce’s students. It is fun and mischievous, just like the authors, he said.
“The reason it’s called Cow Tipping is because … we want to put our authors’ voices front and center as much as possible,” said Boyce.
Now the organization has multiple books, news features and events for its authors. The published collection is now used as a teaching tool beyond Grinnell’s campus, including Carleton College, St. Olaf College and Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Today, Boyce spends his time training teachers. Inside Boyce’s classrooms, students are given the freedom to write and learn in whatever strategy works with them. Whether it is reading out loud, following along word for word or transcribing their writing, these strategies are targeted to fit their students’ needs.
“We don’t tell people, ‘Oh wait, actually (you) should fix this grammar’ or ‘no, that’s not appropriate don’t do that,’” Boyce said. “When they’re writing, it’s like, ‘You do you, take it where you want.’”
One of Boyce’s favorite poems is “Ghazal” by Mike Ruland.
“(It’s) hard to pick a favorite,” Boyce said. “But that’s one that’s standing out to me this morning … This one just kind of drifts off into daydreaming about cake.”
“Ghazal” by Mike Ruland
Oh my antlanta Someone ate
the plate of cake no one is Looking cake
my brother and me like to eat
I went to the store and bought cake
some food for the holiday to Celebrate John F. Kennedy
Ruland uses an Arabic form of poetry called a ghazal, Boyce explained. According to Poetry Foundation, the format of the couplets in a ghazal ends with the same word and starts the next couplet with a rhyming word. Bringing in their own ideas about what they want to write, Boyce’s students have a voice and Cow Tipping Press gives them a chance to express it.
Boyce said there are two ways of looking at a disability, the medical model and the social model. The medical model views disability as a diagnosed problem to fix. Boyce favors the social model, because it values disabilities as a piece of what makes that person an individual.
“We see disability as a form of identity,” Boyce said. “This is who you are … this is something that, sure, has some challenges with it, but also has a lot of really cool things.”
Boyce said high school students’ only exposure to disabilities might be through books like “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” by Mark Haddon and John Steinback’s “Of Mice and Men.” These books have characters with developmental disabilities, but Boyce feels these characters are one-dimensional because “they are a picture painted by nondisabled authors.”
“You’re learning that people with disabilities can’t speak for themselves,” said Boyce. “A lot of people would presume that someone with an intellectual or developmental disability like my brother either couldn’t write or create something or wouldn’t want to … and neither of those are true at all.”
Boyce is as critical of these stories that portray characters with disabilities as he is of how people with disabilities are treated in real life. While Boyce was in college, Jay was learning what the McDonald’s sign meant in his special education classes in high school. Boyce knew his brother was capable of so much more than that, as are the characters in Haddon’s and Steinback’s stories.
“You read a book and you (think) … ‘Oh, it’s so hard to be Chris,” Boyce said, referring to the character in “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.”
“(But) your special ed. peers are down the hallway learning what the McDonald’s logo says. They’re capable of representing themselves, but you’re down the hallway reading this book, and you’re like, ‘Oh, that sucks,’” he said. “It’s really stupid.”
“This is why we exist,” Boyce said. “To be a counter voice or counterpoint to those narratives.”