What it like to be a Disabled Writer?

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From Book Riot:

As a writer who lives with chronic illness, I can confirm first-hand that there are many advantages in writing as a career for disabled writers. Working from home has been a huge help in managing my fibromyalgia — being in front of my laptop in my own environment, instead of commuting to an office, means I’m much less tired and helps me avoid triggers for my chronic pain. Removing the stress of a commute (and the inbuilt possibility of train delays or cancellations, as well as the inevitability of being squashed in the middle of a crowd) means that one of the major triggers for my anxiety is no longer a factor in my daily life. Writing allows you to choose the environment you work in, set your own hours, and take breaks when you need to.

There are a huge number of writing programmes that make writing more accessible, such as speech to text software, or assistive technology for people with dyslexia. Looking at the historical literary landscape, there are many famous disabled writers who have had a huge impact on the world of books. Lord Byron had a limb difference, while Rosemary Sutcliff was a wheelchair user as a result of juvenile-onset arthritis. Dostoevsky lived with epilepsy, Octavia E. Butler was dyslexic, and George Bernard Shaw had ADHD. In the modern day, we have writers like wheelchair users Alice Wong and Frances Ryan, Sara Nović, who is Deaf, and Holly Smale, who is autistic. All of these writers, working in a variety of different genres and eras, have changed the landscape of writing and have done so as disabled writers.

But is being a disabled writer easy? Far from it. Even though writing has the advantage of being more accessible than many other kinds of work for people with mobility issues, and the ability to work from home in one’s own space can be a huge advantage for anyone who doesn’t fit the neurotypical mould, this doesn’t mean that there are fewer barriers for disabled people in writing than there are in other fields. While there are many disabled authors, they are still underrepresented, and the writing world still contains a huge number of barriers that affect accessibility. As noted by Claire Wade, the founder of the Society of Authors’ Authors with Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses Network, ‘Being an author can be a lonely and isolating experience. Being an author with a disability or chronic illness is doubly isolating’. Financial barriers also exist — setting up a disability-friendly home office takes cash that many disabled writers may not have, and self-employed writing doesn’t come with the health insurance or job protections that some disabled writers need. However, writing can certainly be a great career path for disabled creatives who want to tell stories, as I learned not only from my own experience, but from talking to several other disabled writers.

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While some things about writing make it a great career for disabled people, there are many aspects of the publishing world that are just as inaccessible as other fields. In her article ‘The reality of trying to get your book published as a disabled author’, disabled author Rosemary Richings talks about receiving rejections describing her work, which centres disability, as ‘Not compelling enough for mainstream audiences.’ A survey published in Publishers Weekly showed that 89% of publishing professionals are abled, something that is bound to impact the experience of disabled authors. As with other kinds of marginalisation, the presence of disabled authors can only go so far in ensuring that disability is represented accurately and fairly in literature. If very few publishing professionals have comparable experiences, then there can be an impact not only on the accuracy of how disability is portrayed in books, but also in the experience of the authors working with those publishers.

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There is still more work to be done, and publishing would benefit from listening to suggestions from disabled authors on how to improve accessibility. For example, the anonymous author I spoke to had a simple, easy-to-implement suggestion that would end the literal sidelining of people with mobility issues at events: “Arrange 10 minutes for each of the celebrities, editors, agents and ‘people everyone wants to talk to’ to sit in the corners and let everyone come to them…That way the disabled  contingent get to feel part of the party and not on the periphery.” However, despite the ease of making this kind of change, many publishing events are reluctant to change the setups they’ve always had.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

3 thoughts on “What it like to be a Disabled Writer?”

  1. The presence of disabled people in fiction depends on how good the book is and whether consumers are interested.

    The Matthew Shardlake series by C. J. Sansom is an example of good stories consumers like. The protagonist is disabled. The old Ironsides TV series featured Raymond Burr in a wheelchair. Captain Ahab? Long John Silver? Jamie in Game of Thrones?

  2. Writing allows you to choose the environment you work in, set your own hours, and take breaks when you need to.

    Not in my experience it doesn’t. (Or should that be “lived experience”? It’s so hard to keep up these days.)

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