Penny Pepper discusses the barriers she has faced as a disabled writer, as part of UK Disability History Month
This is a guest post by Penny Pepper. Penny is a writer, poet and performer, currently finalising her magical realism adventure novel Fancy Nancy and working on her memoir First in the World Somewhere.
I wonder if readers have heard what month this is? As in, from November 22nd to Dec 22nd. What do we focus on, celebrate and debate, this time?
It is UK Disability History Month, as chosen by disabled people as a time to bring attention to us, in part based around December 3rd being International Day of Disabled People. I’m privileged to be joining in the celebrations, performing at a number of events this month, as a writer doing readings, and as a performance poet.
The old chestnut remains, and it is a hard-baked conker. What on earth is there to celebrate about ‘disability’ you may cry? To answer that fully, could take some time and risks lapsing into dull academic-speak. I won’t do it other than to say this. We all have to find pride and acceptance in who we are, what we bring and what we give. We can find strength in how we fight and join together to dismantle social injustice, which for disabled people comes overwhelming in the form of artificial barriers imposed by society, consciously or otherwise.
Back in the dinosaur age, the young Penny was a shy little beast but bright. Despite a tricky home background and much casual discrimination as a wheelchair user from my teenage years, I did well at school and FE college in secretarial skills.
The day came when the chap from the job centre found a possible post for me. I was terrified and excited – this made me real, normal, acceptable, didn’t it? We arrived there at the building on the Special Bus, and…? There was a flight of steps. End of that possibility. It seems laughable now, but many barriers remain. Barriers that can be removed, situations altered, information given in other formats. Attitudes opened and awoken.
That’s just the bones, the bare basics. Fighting as we have, for access and equality, is something to be proud of, and I believe my sister feminists will be especially understanding of this.
On a personal note as a writer, I cannot count the times I have missed opportunities simply because of a barrier and a hostile attitude. Networking? What is that? Something that happens in basements and top floors, especially in the private sector. Performing shares the same issues.
Yet even BIG guys get it wrong. I did Story Slam Live in October 2012, at the Royal Festival Hall, London, and despite the best intentions of people involved, the ramp to the stage did not materialise. A month before, RFH was involved in a huge disability arts festivals, Liberty and Unlimited, tied in to the Paralympics. Enough said. I still managed to be a runner up at Story Slam – in front of, not on, the stage. I am proud of that!
As a writer, I face a thick glass ceiling within the very conservative publishing industry, which is one reason my current book Desires Reborn is an e-book. Not to mention the subject matter of disabled people, relationships and sex. Yes. We DO have sex and it’s as complicated, wonderful, miserable and disappointing as for anyone else. The media play with us and the topic in a way that is mostly patronising and voyeuristic, but there is nothing BY US ABOUT US, especially transmuted through fiction.
Publishers and agents all tell me I write wonderfully but my material makes them twitchy. Who wants to read about disabled people, anyway? What about offending with my language? I use words like ‘crip’, ‘cripple,’ ‘spastics’ and in the context of my work they are words we use – reclaiming, evolving, defusing. One small publisher had the nerve to say my work ‘used crass language about the disabled’. Humph.
This takes me back to a story I heard, possibly apocryphal, that some Victorian men felt women could not be MPs, because apart from their ‘delicate’ natures, they would need ‘special lavatories’. ‘Disabled lavatories’? Another time, perhaps.
But this is a month to be who we are, to enjoy what we have done, even as we face unprecedented attacks on our hard-won rights from the current government. Disabled women are especially at risk in multiple ways, along with family carers who are often women. You will be expected to take up the slack, a thought that must sober us all.
But I remain defiant. Watch me: plans are in motion to release my new novel onto the public, come hell, high water and a thousand barriers. All barrier-breakers welcome to help.
Celebrate with me, with us all, and all the disabled people reading this page on our month that says, We Are Here, We Are Proud – and We Are Staying.
The image at the top of this post is in the Public Domain and shows a collection of 4 pictograms. On the top left is the symbol for wheelchair accessibility; on the top right the symbol for sign language interpretation; on the bottom left is the symbol for low vision access; and on the bottom right the symbol for Braille.