Women, disableism and literature

In my last blog post I analysed why disabled women are invisible in New Zealand. This time, since I am joining other bloggers around the world on Blogging against Disableism Day, I have selected a subject which, as a disabled woman, is dear to me.

Being denied something which is generally of value to others is disableism, (discrimination,) at work, intentional or not. This is particularly true for those of us born with disabilities growing up.

Children and young people as they grow see similar life experience to their own life experience reflected around them through all kinds of media. It helps them find out who they are, and how they want to be in the world, good or bad. If they love reading good books they will probably meet a range of life experience, similar and dissimilar to their own in books.

Disabled children are denied this experience. Problematic “inspiration porn” and other negative media depictions aside, there are few, if any, good books written from their perspective by disabled authors who understand this experience of growing up with a disability at a very deep human level. Disability is constructed differently in different societies. It is constructed from a generally unchallenged non-disabled perspective in western literature. There is no body of literature or debate beyond a struggling academia to support any change, at least in New Zealand.

I do wish I could find similar life experiences to mine reflected in our literature. It was bad enough growing up without New Zealand books as my generation did. But I often experienced feelings of isolation as I didn’t know anyone like myself. Nor could I read about anyone like me, except Helen Keller, whose life experience was light years away from mine, in ways other than time, geography and personal circumstances. Even her impairment was promoted as a non-disabled construct and largely remains so.

Mental illness does seem to be an exception to the rule of silence. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a powerful example. Closer to home I have of course read Janet Frame’s early books. But there is now a climate of denial around her experience. Whether or not she was mentally ill, she still had the searing experience of being labelled and treated as disabled. I am also interested in the experience of Robin Hyde, although some of her writing is out of print and not accessible. At that time she probably would not identify as disabled, a fairly modern concept.

Disabled Women’s experience is starting to be reflected in dance, and in art and crafts, although disabled artists are often referred to as “outsider” artists, which I don’t like. Another less discriminatory term should be used.

Literature seems to be more difficult to infiltrate here. While I can find some international non-fiction about disabled women’s experience, often academic, I long for some general well-written, thoughtful, crunchy, insightful and satisfying everyday accounts of lives lived in the modern everyday world of disabled women, whatever that might be.

Self-publishing may not be the answer either, as I have seen too many poorly written edited and presented books telling “inspirational” life stories. They are frequently self-absorbed and undisciplined.  Doris Lessing’s description of the writing process is my favourite. She says,

“The whole process of writing is a setting at a distance. That is the value of it – to the writer and to the people who read the results of this process, which takes the raw, the individual, the uncriticised, the unexamined, into the realm of the general.”

Has no New Zealand publisher ever seen such a manuscript written by a disabled woman on the subject of the lives of disabled women? Has none ever been written, or do publishers think there is no market for such books? This situation needs to change.

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

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