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The Berbellion Prize: A New Award for Disabled Writers

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Margaret Kingsbury

Contributing Editor

Margaret Kingsbury grew up in a house so crammed with books she couldn’t open a closet door without a book stack tumbling, and she’s brought that same decorative energy to her adult life. Margaret has an MA in English with a concentration in writing and has worked as a bookseller and adjunct English professor. She’s currently a freelance writer and editor, and in addition to Book Riot, her pieces have appeared in School Library Journal, BuzzFeed News, The Lily, Parents,, and more. She particularly loves children’s books, fantasy, science fiction, horror, graphic novels, and any books with disabled characters. You can read more about her bookish and parenting shenanigans in Book Riot’s twice-weekly The Kids Are All Right newsletter. You can also follow her kidlit bookstagram account @BabyLibrarians, or on Twitter @AReaderlyMom.

The Berbellion Prize is a new award for an author whose “work has best spoken of the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.” It will be awarded for the first time in February 2021 for a book published in 2020, with a cash prize of £600. The judges have yet to be determined. Jake Goldsmith, the author of the disability memoir Neither Weak Nor Obtuse, started the award to promote disabled voices, which so often go unheard. The prize is named after W.N.P. Barbellion, whose diary The Journal of a Disappointed Man, published in 1919, chronicles his life with multiple sclerosis.

“The awarded work can be of any genre in fiction, memoir, biography, poetry, or critical non-fiction from around the world – whether it is in English, in translation, traditionally published or self-published.” Publishers and disabled authors can find details about how to submit work for the prize here. Submissions are open now and end October 31st, 2020. While disabled authors will be given precedence over non-disabled writers, “[a]uthors – such as those in a carer’s capacity – who themselves are not ill may be considered for the prize if their work is truly exceptional as an articulation of life with illness.”

The award has yet to clearly define disability. This is what their website says:

“The Barbellion Prize is intended for people with chronic, life-long conditions – whether congenital, or acquired as adults. It’s never easy to define exactly who’s in, and who’s out. But there are already prizes for people with cancer or people with mental health conditions, and this prize is not intended to duplicate or overlap with those. Nor is it intended for those with disabilities that do not much affect their participation in society. Many, but not all of those eligible will live shortened lifespans, due to CF, MD, MS and other conditions.”

It seems the creator has a very specific definition in mind, but I would discourage any gatekeeping of disability. I would encourage instead using the American with Disabilities Act definition, which states, “The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” Disabled people are too often asked to “prove” their disability, especially people with invisible disabilities. (Note: I have an invisible disability.)

I’m also unclear about the meaning of this requirement: “What is important is not any particular moral or message in a given work but rather a genuine illustration of life with illness, disease, or disability.”

While I hope the award clears up and simplifies some of its terminologies, I’m glad the award exists. Currently, the only major award given to works with disabled representation, that I know of, is the Schneider Family Book Award, which is given for children’s and young adult literature.

The CDC estimates that 26% of adults in the United States have a disability. (These numbers seem to range wildly according to various organizations. This may, again, be an issue with how disability is defined.) While there is no metric measuring how many books with disability representation are published every year, I’m quite sure it’s nowhere near 26%. Every month, I roundup recent releases with disability representation for Think Inclusive, and it’s very difficult to find books with this very simple criteria.

I’m glad this award exists to raise awareness of works by and about disabled writers.

If you’re looking for more books with disability representation, check out these lists: