Category Archives: The Arts

Review: The Walking Stick Tree – A memoir by Trish Harris

I’ll begin this review with a disclosure. As the writer of positive remarks on the cover of this book, it might seem like overkill for me to write a review as well. After all, I’m already favourably biased. But The Walking Stick Tree warrants closer serious scrutiny and exploration from a disability perspective. This is an important book.

Book cover in turquoise, blue and white abstract with stylised wtree like walking sticks and title The walking stick Tree a memoir, by Trish Harris, in black.

This time last year New Zealand disabled people were demonstrating outside cinemas about the depiction of disability as a fate worse than death in the movie Me Before You based on the book of the same name. For the “hero” death was better than living with quadriplegia. At the time both in New Zealand and internationally there was much anguished discussion among disabled people about the need to tell better, more realistic and more nuanced disability stories. The Walking Stick Tree makes an excellent contribution to filling that aching void. It establishes a place for disability and disabled writers in the literary world in general, since the themes are universal, but it makes a place, with its familiar setting, in the New Zealand literary world.

There has long been a need for reflective writing about living the experience of disability in our local context, taking the reader beyond lifeless, stereotyped portrayals of the experience of impairment and disability. (I’m not including academic writing here). The Walking Stick Tree goes well beyond self-absorbed or cathartic writing about the disability experience, and isn’t about triumphing over disability. Nor, thankfully is there any inspiration porn. While there are excellent and thoughtful blogs written by disabled people online, there is something about a book that brings weight to the subject. The Walking Stick Tree is a disability memoir that gives that weight without stodge.

Using the paradoxical metaphor of the walking stick tree as a symbol of growth, development and creativity, Trish Harris writes thoughtfully and with insight about life lived increasingly on her own terms, as she comes to terms with living with juvenile onset rheumatoid arthritis from the age of six. She develops the story of a life well lived, not without struggle. The narrative is enriched by Sarah Laing’s drawings, which lightly and cleverly focuses the attention of the reader on the creativity which of necessity nearly always accompanies disability.

Her story resonates with anyone who has lived with impairment and disability since childhood. Trish Harris is unsentimental, difficult events and experiences are not sugar-coated, but nor does she dwell overly on the negative. A gentle humour adds a light touch to the straightforwardly written and engaging narrative.

Despite our different impairments, The Walking Stick Tree holds a mirror to some of my my disability experience, while painlessly teaching me about aspects I haven’t experienced. For other readers, it may open a window on an unfamiliar, but not alien world, as Trish explores universal themes such as coming of age, and finding her place in the adult world – experiences familiar to us all. The reader discovers that living with limitation, pain and impairment does not preclude living an ordinary life, in the best sense of the word

I enjoy a good story well told, but often look for more depth in books about disability. Trish Harris’s life story and the illustrations alone would have made The Walking Stick Tree a good read, but happily for those of us hungry for more substantial disability fare we are not disappointed. The Walking Stick Tree is greatly strengthened by the essays threaded through the text. In the four short essays Trish Harris steps back from the narrative and reflects on the meanings of the experience of impairment and disability,

The essays follow the structure of the book, with a short essay at the end of each section exploring in more depth themes threaded throughout. The first essay is about Pain, the second confronts Loss, Sadness and Grief, the third, my personal favourite, performs the Dance of Identity, and the last explores Body and Soul.

As a writer I am in awe of Trish’s ability to recall the events and details of her childhood. As a disabled person I am very aware of both the individual and the wider disability picture she creates, and is part of.  Her experience offers the general reader, an opportunity to explore one disability experiences.  When I finish a book with reluctance, and a feeling of wanting more, then it has been a satisfying read. That’s how I finished The Walking Stick Tree.

Published by Escalator Press. ISBN: 978-0-9941186-4-6

The print book is available from all good New Zealand bookshops and

Trish Harris is also a poet. She has a book of poetry due out later this year, written during and about her time as a patient in Hutt Hospital’s orthopaedic ward. That experience forms the basis for her debut poetry collection. She says, ‘I became a writer in residence by mistake. For eight weeks the hospital provided me with a room, a bed, and three meals a day.’ The resultant book,  ‘My wide white bed’, will be published by Landing Press in October.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Disability Issues, Disability Rights, Inclusion, Information Accessibility, Media, The Arts, Women

The right to read and The Marrakesh Treaty

Disability Issues Minister Nicky Wagner and Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister Jacqui Dean have announced New Zealand will ratify the Marrakesh Treaty to improve access to print materials for blind and visually impaired New Zealanders.

Literacy, and easy and universal access to printed material is something taken for granted and expected in developed countries. Yet even in developed countries such as New Zealand less than ten percent of print material is available to blind and vision impaired and other print-disabled people. In developing countries it can be a little as one percent. Millions of people worldwide, including older people, working people, children and university students are denied access to books and other printed material. This is the international book famine.

Blind and print-disabled people should be able to go to a bookshop or library to borrow and read the new bestseller novel or the latest celebrity memoir like everyone else. Blind and partially sighted people of working age need to access a wide variety of print materials, including books relating to the profession or job. Children and young people want to be able to go to school and university and develop high standards of literacy as much as their sighted peers do. But life choices and opportunities are limited by a lack or low level of literacy as a result of inaccessible books. Sometimes it is about teaching and opportunity, but more often it is about access to the same range of books as their sighted peers.

Access used to be much more difficult because blind and vision impaired people needed expensive specialised technology provided by specialist organisations to access reading material, books and magazines. Now accessible content can be read on accessible “out of the box” technology such as iPhones and iPads, although specialist technology which is slightly more affordable than it used to be is still available and widely used.

In New Zealand those who will benefit from the Marrakesh Treaty are the 12,000 members of the Blind Foundation. But Statistics New Zealand finds there are a further 168,000 (4%) of people with vision impairments. Their ability to read, even with correction, is affected too. They also need books in alternative formats. There are others who, for a variety of reasons cannot access print, for example, they are unable to hold a book.

The publishing industry and public libraries have traditionally taken little account of accessibility of print material until quite recently, seeing access for print-disabled people as a specialist and charitable endeavour. This has been partly because of technical limitations and the cost of equipment and production. Now readily available and cheaper accessible means of producing and distributing books accessibly, such as mainstream audiobooks and the ePub format for print has advanced to the point where the demand for access cannot be so easily ignored. Copyright remained a thorny issue for the various interests involved.

The Right to Read is an international campaign, and the advent of the provisions for access in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, (UNCRPD) has given focus and urgency to the issue. In New Zealand and similar countries there are still delays in accessing important education materials such as textbooks. Many specialist, literary and more popular general book titles are not available in accessible formats at all.

The World Blind Union and others have worked hard to combat the book famine. The result is the Marrakesh Treaty, developed by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which directly addresses the problems of copyright access. The treaty enables “authorised entities,” such as blind people’s organisations, service providers and libraries to more easily reproduce printed works into accessible formats (braille, DAISY, (Digital Accessible Information SYstem) for the production of talking books, large-print and e-books, for non-profit distribution. It will also allow authorised entities to share accessible books and other printed materials across borders with other authorised entities.

The Treaty, which came into force in 2016, will help avoid expensive and unnecessarily duplicated reproduction of the same books in different countries. It also means that countries with large collections of accessible books can share them with blind and print-disabled people in countries with fewer resources. This will help print-disabled people in developing countries, and save much-needed resources in all.

Cross-border sharing is essential for combating the international book famine, as blind and partially sighted people are among the poorest in most countries, and organisations for and of blind people often don’t have the considerable resources still needed to produce enough materials in accessible formats.

The Treaty came into force with the required twenty ratifications last year. Progress towards ratification here is slow, despite efforts by the Blind Foundation and Blind Citizens NZ. Similar countries to New Zealand which have ratified include Australia, Singapore, South Korea and Canada, The UK, EU and the US, sources of significant amounts of print material in alternative formats, are still to ratify. There is support from publishers, authors and copyright bodies in New Zealand, but ratification requires changes to the Copyright Act. With the dissolution of Parliament in August completing ratification is impossible before the parliamentary election on September 23rd.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Disability Issues, Disability Rights, Inclusion, Information Accessibility, Media, The Arts, Web Accessibility

Disability Pride Week 2 Claiming our place

Disability Pride Week launched at Te Papa in Wellington on Sunday November 27th. As part of the ceremony created and led by accessible celebrant Wendi Wicks, a declaration she wrote was shared. While the ceremony acknowledged and celebrated the inclusive space of the Te Marae at Te Papa, it symbolised a wider claim to place. The declaration deserves to be shared with a wider audience, and other disabled people who want to claim our place.

A Declaration for Disabled People Claiming our Place

Today we disabled people here in Wellington say “this is our place too”.

We say to you this house has made a space for us to step forward to claim our place.

We will aim to live out our place in the community of humanity, proud of who we are and how we are, and in all of our diverse ways of being disabled.

We do not back away from that word in fear, in shame, in a feeling of being lesser.

We call on others in the community in which disabled people are part to include, trust and respect us, to not tell us how inspirational we are for doing everyday things. We want a fair go and a decent job.

Live with us not in fear or contempt, but in peace and harmony. It is our world too.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Accessible Engagement, Disability Issues, Disability Rights, Inclusion, Media, The Arts

Disability Pride Week

Disabled people have been increasingly self-assertive this year, through Me Before You protests, a vigil following Japan’s disability mass killing, increasing arts activities and participation, LitCrawl, “outsider” art exhibition, book publishing etc, great success at the Paralympics, a learning-disabled New Zealander chosen for the UNCRPD committee and the Disability Strategy reviewed at long last. There’s lots to celebrate in the week leading up to the International Day of Disabled People on December 3.

I’m no Pollyanna, and recognise there is still much to be done before Deaf and disabled people achieve true equality, but a pride celebration can promote change, strengthen community, and simply be some fun together.

A group of Wellingtonians have picked up the concept of Disability Pride, first formulated and celebrated by a group of public servants in the late eighties. We said “who we are is OK, What happens to us isn’t” – in short the social model of disability. It separates a person’s impairment from the effects of a disabling society. We celebrated with a festival of film, debate, theatre and other events. Add to that a human-rights-based approach to disabled lives and a celebration sounds good.

Disability Pride is about valuing our whole selves and our experience, however we frame our identities, taking our rightful and equal place in the world, and drawing strength from one another.

Taking stock of the journey, celebrating what we have gained and looking forward to future change is a good way to finish up a shaky and tumultuous year.

Disability Pride Week begins this Sunday at Te Papa, claiming our place.

Disability Pride Week, claiming our place is written in large white letters on a square pink/purple background.

Disability Pride Week events 2016

All events are in accessible venues with audio describers, hearing loop, NZSL Interpreters present.

Sunday 27 November 2016 2pm
Launch of Disability Pride Week
Te Papa Marae (Level 4 marae)
All welcome.

Thursday 1 December
Tape Art Mural 10am – 3pm
Created on the window of Asteron Centre by disabled artists using tape
(Opposite Wellington Railway Station)
The Mural can be viewed by anyone for 5 days.

Saturday 3 December
Wellington Through our Lens 10.30 – 12.30
Odlins Plaza, Wellington Waterfront (near Mac’s Bar)
Open to disabled people and our allies.
Our open conversation about living in Wellington as disabled people will be captured by live illustrators.
Wellington City Councillors and the council Accessibility Advisory Group will be present.

Saturday 3 December
An evening of music and entertainment
Where: City Gallery, Civic Square
When: 7pm Saturday 3 December 2016
International Day of Disabled People
$10 per person RSVP Door Sales available.

Other events taking place:
Arts Access Aotearoa Auction
Thursday 1 December
CQ Hotel Cuba St Wellington
Doors open 5.45 Auction begins 6.00
$20 tickets from Arts Access Aotearoa.

Capital Support Morning Tea
A meet and greet with sharing of information
Friday 2 December 2016 10:00 – 11:00am
Conference Room in the Education Centre, Kenepuru Hospital
Parking: There are disabled car parks near the front entrance. If you don’t have a disability, please park in the public park on the left at the top of Hospital Drive
RSVP: For catering purposes or if you need support, please contact Nadine Martin: Email: capital support, (one word) at  CC DHB.org.nz; or Phone: 04 two three oh six four oh four. Space is limited, so please RSVP.

Check the Disability Pride Facebook page for updates.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Accessible Engagement, Disability Issues, Disability Rights, Inclusion, Media, The Arts