Culturally Relevant

What’s It Like to Be a Disabled Writer?

Alice Nuttall

Senior Contributor

Alice Nuttall (she/her) is a writer, pet-wrangler and D&D nerd. Her reading has got so out of control that she had to take a job at her local library to avoid bankrupting herself on books - unfortunately, this has just resulted in her TBR pile growing until it resembles Everest. Alice's webcomic, writing and everything else can be found at https://linktr.ee/alicenuttallbooks

As a writer who lives with chronic illness, I can confirm first-hand that there are many advantages in writing as a career for disabled writers. Working from home has been a huge help in managing my fibromyalgia — being in front of my laptop in my own environment, instead of commuting to an office, means I’m much less tired and helps me avoid triggers for my chronic pain. Removing the stress of a commute (and the inbuilt possibility of train delays or cancellations, as well as the inevitability of being squashed in the middle of a crowd) means that one of the major triggers for my anxiety is no longer a factor in my daily life. Writing allows you to choose the environment you work in, set your own hours, and take breaks when you need to.

There are a huge number of writing programmes that make writing more accessible, such as speech to text software, or assistive technology for people with dyslexia. Looking at the historical literary landscape, there are many famous disabled writers who have had a huge impact on the world of books. Lord Byron had a limb difference, while Rosemary Sutcliff was a wheelchair user as a result of juvenile-onset arthritis. Dostoevsky lived with epilepsy, Octavia E. Butler was dyslexic, and George Bernard Shaw had ADHD. In the modern day, we have writers like wheelchair users Alice Wong and Frances Ryan, Sara Nović, who is Deaf, and Holly Smale, who is autistic. All of these writers, working in a variety of different genres and eras, have changed the landscape of writing and have done so as disabled writers.

But is being a disabled writer easy? Far from it. Even though writing has the advantage of being more accessible than many other kinds of work for people with mobility issues, and the ability to work from home in one’s own space can be a huge advantage for anyone who doesn’t fit the neurotypical mould, this doesn’t mean that there are fewer barriers for disabled people in writing than there are in other fields. While there are many disabled authors, they are still underrepresented, and the writing world still contains a huge number of barriers that affect accessibility. As noted by Claire Wade, the founder of the Society of Authors’ Authors with Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses Network, ‘Being an author can be a lonely and isolating experience. Being an author with a disability or chronic illness is doubly isolating’. Financial barriers also exist — setting up a disability-friendly home office takes cash that many disabled writers may not have, and self-employed writing doesn’t come with the health insurance or job protections that some disabled writers need. However, writing can certainly be a great career path for disabled creatives who want to tell stories, as I learned not only from my own experience, but from talking to several other disabled writers.

Seen from behind, a white person in a wheelchair, with short brown hair and a pink hoodie, is holding a book and appears to be reading aloud to another white person with blond hair, a black baseball cap and a dark blue hoodie
Image from Pexels

Publishing and Disabled Writers

While some things about writing make it a great career for disabled people, there are many aspects of the publishing world that are just as inaccessible as other fields. In her article ‘The reality of trying to get your book published as a disabled author’, disabled author Rosemary Richings talks about receiving rejections describing her work, which centres disability, as ‘Not compelling enough for mainstream audiences.’ A survey published in Publishers Weekly showed that 89% of publishing professionals are abled, something that is bound to impact the experience of disabled authors. As with other kinds of marginalisation, the presence of disabled authors can only go so far in ensuring that disability is represented accurately and fairly in literature. If very few publishing professionals have comparable experiences, then there can be an impact not only on the accuracy of how disability is portrayed in books, but also in the experience of the authors working with those publishers.

Some of the authors I spoke to have had negative experiences with ableist publishers and others in the literary world. Katie Marie told me that “As a dyslexic person and writer, I’ve encountered various challenges…I thought my main challenge would be the writing itself, but it was managing other people’s assumptions. The main issue I have had is convincing people that I actually have dyslexia and that dyslexia is real. To provide a few examples, I’ve been told that ‘the reason you can’t spell is that you use a computer, and it made you lazy.’ I’ve had one editor tell me that dyslexia isn’t real and another told me that it’s no excuse and they know other dyslexic people who write perfectly well.”

Another author, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke to me about the difficulties of navigating inaccessible publishing events when you have restricted mobility: “Before I was published, I felt that the writing side of things was more or less a level playing field. Many courses were online, and webinars were easily accessed. What I found I missed out on was the networking and occasions to meet people and build contacts. I can stand for short periods, but my balance is poor and I walk with a stick…I’ve found that a lot of functions are the standing-around-with-a-drink-type things, and that is where you miss out. The agents and editors don’t sit in corners! This has become even more of an issue for me as a published author, as opportunities for marketing and getting around are limited.”

However, there is some progress being made. Vikki Patis told me in our interview that “I feel like the industry has come a long way in terms of representing own voice stories, though of course it still has a way to go. It seems to me that we’re starting to shift into a new era of accurate representation without unnecessary or gratuitous negativity — or toxic positivity.” This is also being reflected in the wider literary landscape. In 2022, the Society of Authors in the UK launched the ADCI Literary Prize for authors who self-identify as disabled or chronically ill and whose work includes a positive representation of disability. Similarly, the Barbellion Prize is devoted to promoting ill and disabled voices in writing. Disabled writers have also set up their own outlets, such as The Unwritten, a website dedicated to publishing articles by disabled and chronically ill writers, specifically ones that explore disability in all its facets without falling into either tragic or “inspiration-porn” stereotypes.

There is still more work to be done, and publishing would benefit from listening to suggestions from disabled authors on how to improve accessibility. For example, the anonymous author I spoke to had a simple, easy-to-implement suggestion that would end the literal sidelining of people with mobility issues at events: “Arrange 10 minutes for each of the celebrities, editors, agents and ‘people everyone wants to talk to’ to sit in the corners and let everyone come to them…That way the disabled  contingent get to feel part of the party and not on the periphery.” However, despite the ease of making this kind of change, many publishing events are reluctant to change the setups they’ve always had.

Disabled Writers and Disabled Characters

Many disabled writers have written stories that centre characters who share their disabilities, while resisting being pigeonholed into writing stories only designed to educate abled people about disability. In our interview, Patis told me that for her, “It’s really important to me to weave disability and chronic illness into stories without it necessarily being the main focus of the book. In my gothic thriller Return to Blackwater House, one of the main characters has coeliac disease and another is gay; two aspects that represent me, but neither of which are necessarily key themes in the book. In my upcoming historical fiction novel, The Darkest Night, Selina’s disability (in her case, Perthes disease, a condition I had as a child, but undiagnosed in her time) does take a more centre role, which meant I wanted to accurately describe the reality of living with a disability whilst ensuring it wasn’t the sole focus of her character.”

Some disabled writers have also worked as sensitivity readers, to help improve representations of disabilities in works by writers who are writing characters with disabilities that they haven’t experienced. I have done some of this kind of work myself, carrying out a sensitivity read of a book featuring a character with OCD. Sensitivity reading is another way that disabled people can contribute to the publishing world, if they are given the access that allows them to do so; once again, adapting publishing to be more inclusive of disabled people does not only benefit disabled people, but the literary world as a whole, leading to greater fairness and better books.

It’s clear that, despite the many aspects of writing as a career that may suit disabled creatives, there are still many obstacles to overcome before publishing can be considered accessible. Disabled writers face struggles that their abled counterparts do not, and work must be done in the world of publishing in order to make a level playing field for disabled writers.

To learn more about the work of disabled writers, check out our article 10 Books to Introduce Readers to Disability Literature. If you want to find out about disability rights movements, try A Book Lover’s Guide to Disability Pride Month.