One of the more well-known slogans of the disability rights movement is “Nothing About Us Without Us” – the recent closure of ABC’s “Ramp Up” accentuates the fact that there are very few of “US” in the Australian media, literature and writing sector.
For many years, South Australia was the only state to run a program, through the SA Writers’ Centre, for writers with disability. In 2012 Arts Access Victoria and Writers Victoria took up the baton by launching the Write-ability project, supporting Victorian writers with disability to develop their skills and writing careers. At the 2014 Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne, Write-ability proudly showcased six of its emerging writers.
Accessible Arts NSW began the process of addressing the barriers faced by writers with disability in NSW by organising the SCRIBBLER – Literature Forum at the NSW State Library, on 24th June this year. I was pleased to be invited to convene this event. Writers with disability gathered together with industry professionals to hold critical conversations around what we see as key concerns. Examples of these concerns are leadership opportunities in the sector, inclusion in festivals and on writing platforms, and changing the culture surrounding disability in the arts.
The keynote speaker at the Forum, Writer and Editor, Gayle Kennedy described in detail some of the access barriers she has faced as an award-winning writer who uses a wheelchair. One example she quoted was organisers refusing to pay her carer’s airfare, which meant Gayle was prevented from attending major events:
[As a] David Unaipon Award winner ‑ I did not get to go to any other writers’ festivals. Year in and out every award winner is invited to the festivals. But I didn’t. I didn’t get to go to Melbourne. I didn’t get to go to Adelaide. I didn’t get to go to Perth.
The presenters on the “Writing the Boundaries” panel gave specific examples of the discrimination that effectively nullifies or hinders equal opportunity within their chosen occupation of writing. The experiences are complex and varied. Georgia Cranko, a writer and performing artist talked about privilege and oppression in her life, “…I am often marginalised in situations, but I have been fortunate to be equipped with tools that allow me to push through that oppression and neither be crippled by it nor defined by it. My intellect has always been doubted by strangers.” She feels lucky that she can prove her capability through her academic work and writing, not only to others but also to herself. She related how the physical manifestation of her impairment sometimes offers her privilege in comparison to people whose impairment is invisible but “It also underscores the social issues that I deal with. If employers were willing to hire someone like me, I wouldn’t need to rely on the government for the pension or be terrified that it will be cut…”
Amanda Yeo, a writer from Sweatshop Western Sydney Literacy Movement, refuses to be defined by her impairment, and does not accept the limiting inspirational, tragic or superpower tropes that are used to characterise people with disability in the media and literature. She has found writing to be an excellent way to explore her identity and learn to be comfortable in her own skin. She said,
I’m not saying we should write about people who find their disability a constant factor or concern, and I’m not saying we should only write about people with disability…I’m not saying we have to write about people with disability all the time; I’m just saying write about people.
In describing our embodied experiences of trying to work within a disabling world, the writers rejected posturing on disability by writers without disability. Historically people with disability have been the objects of research, not the researchers. We have not been seen as writers but have been written about and acted upon. The obvious way to change this is for writers with disability to write about disability themselves.
Gayle Kennedy called for affirmative action in relation to creating disability leadership opportunities, and dedicated disability access and arts funding. Affirmative action is a concept that is shied away from when discussing solutions to disabling experiences of discrimination in the arts. It is possibly the idea of quotas and succession plans that scare organisations. I think there should be a focus in Australia at this time on meaningful employment targets for artists, arts managers, arts organisers and arts workers with disability. I think we should also be focusing on effective leadership succession plans for people with disability in arts organisations, especially arts and disability organisations. But I would also emphasise that affirmative actions include training programs, outreach efforts, and many other positive steps. Jane McCredie, Executive Director of the NSW Writers’ Centre suggested that writing and literature organisations should include an access component in their budgets. I would love to see the creation of a national literary prize for writers with disability. Some publishers are beginning to actively seek out manuscripts by writers with disability. Every small step is a welcome contribution to shifting attitudes, and to creating a critical mass of people with disability in key positions in literature organisations, performing on literature festival platforms, and publishing their work.
To bring about change to the disabling aspects of our industry, I think we also need to develop a more precise understanding of how gatekeepers determine who becomes literate, who learns to write, who gets funded, what the funding criteria are, who publishes, who gets publicised, promoted, invited to read. The gatekeepers are in the media, in schools, community centres and arts organisations. They are publishers, festival directors, book reviewers and event organisers. Gatekeepers may also include parents, carers and community capacity officers. They are the people who decide. They are the people who assist in forming understandings of disability, the value and often the content of our work. They form the dominant norms of the system we live in. Gatekeeping can be subtle or blatant. We hear story after story of young people with disability being told by a parent or a teacher that they can never be a writer. Many publishers are known to prefer promoting an author who fits snugly into the narrow physical realm of normalised beauty. Festival organisers prefer a writer who can travel freely without extra accessibility costs rather than a wheelchair user. By understanding how gatekeeping works we are in a better position to design affirmative actions. In terms of creating leadership that will bring about change it is already clear that writers and arts workers with disability need to access positions of power. These include positions such as publishing editor, publicist, festival director and policy maker. We need to be on the employment interview and funding assessment panel, and the board of arts organisations.
Although I’m not sure how literature as an art form fares, the Australia Council for the Arts is leading the field at the moment in providing dedicated funding for artists with disability and a focus on leadership and disability. The Council sponsored the UK based artist and disability activist, Jo Verrant’s recent talks on the transformational potential of employing disabled people in leadership roles within the cultural sector – not just for those individuals themselves, but for the invigoration of cultural strategy, and for the benefit of all. By including writers with disability we are opening up literature to diverse perspectives, writing that stretches beyond the boundaries of traditional literary form, writing that defies genre, and the way we receive and understand normalised bodies and language. Joanna Agius, a writer and Deaf Arts Officer at AARTS NSW argued the case for writing in AUSLAN and creating AUSLAN books, which brings a whole new dimension to the category of “literature”.
I recognise that discrimination is not always intentional. It can come about through fear and ignorance. In this respect writers with disability are crucial to shifting the culture that surrounds disability in the arts and in society in general. The power of literature lies in its ability to gradually shift perception, consciousness and then reality. To paraphrase the Belgian-Egyptian writer, Khaled Diab, the culture of power can at least be rattled by the power of culture.
There is a lot to be done. Many possibilities emerged from the Forum, including more genre specific discussions, regional forums, writer-with disability-led initiatives, the creation of writing resources for writers with disability, exploration and replication of the S.A. and Victorian mentoring programs, advocate/agents who approach publishers on behalf of writers with complex communication requirements, the development of diversity action plans. Many writers at the Forum commented on Executive Director of the Australian Society of Authors, Angelo Loukakis’, reference to the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 60s and 70s when “sisters were doing it for themselves”. There is a move amongst writers with disability to create their own writing groups, their own networks and their own performance and publication platforms. While writers with disability would like to find ways of sustaining these initiatives themselves, there is also a desire to agitate for taxpayers’ money to be distributed more justly across the arts.
It is essential for writers with disability, our allies in the sector, Accessible Arts NSW and industry professionals to follow up on the ideas and the momentum created by the Scribbler forum.
Sam Twyford-Moore, the director of the Emerging Writers Festival finished his presentation at the Scribbler Forum with a quote, “Festival directors are gatekeepers, but most enlightened gatekeepers take on the role because they relish opening the gates, not because they like slamming them shut. Most responsible festival directors are acutely aware of accessibility and diversity issues, and are driven by a desire to transcend those limitations, not to cement them.”
For the benefit of literature, the arts and society in general, let us now enlighten the gatekeepers. More importantly let “US” too become enlightened gatekeepers, attuned to the specific manner disability discrimination operates in the industry, and also to the form, content and location of discrimination against writers and arts workers who belong to other sections of society.
Links to organisations mentioned in this blog: