Disabled, Diverse and Talented: a snippet from the Children’s Media Conference 2018

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to speak at the Children’s Media Conference on behalf of Inclusive Minds. I used this opportunity to discuss the importance of authentic representation in literature. This is something I am incredibly passionate about, having studied literature at university, and this event gave me the opportunity to speak with like-minded individuals working in the media.
I just wanted to share the transcript of my talk with you. I hope you enjoy learning a bit more about my motivations for disability advocacy and campaigning and the profound effect representation can have on validating and acknowledging an individuals’ differerences.

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Disabled, Diverse and Talented: Media, What Are You Waiting For?

Diversity: it’s the word on everyone’s lips right now. And – whether you like it or not – the word is well and truly here to stay. Employers are asked to make sure their workforces are diverse; creatives are reminded that their content is diverse, and, perhaps more importantly, that it can be accessed by a diverse audience. As the field of disability rights becomes more and more prevalent, and as more people are finally becoming aware of the ableism and disablism that disabled people are subjected to, diversity is becoming an integral part of everyday conversation. So, that begs the question: as media professionals, what’s in it for you?

A story I often tell at events like these is a very personal one, focused on my own experiences of university studying English Literature. I’ve always been an avid reader, so a degree that consisted of hours and hours of reading seemed rather apt. I’ve always found books fascinating: I was captivated by the way that narratives were so carefully crafted and interwoven, and the ways in which such intimate expressions of the human experience can be portrayed through words alone. During my second year, I chose to take an extremely popular module called ‘Classics of British Children’s Literature’. I was expecting this – probably naively – to be a nostalgic trip down memory lane, but instead, it completely changed the course of my studies. We were asked to read Hodgson-Burnett’s The Secret Garden, something I was aware of during my childhood but not something I really ever read; or at least it wasn’t anything that really had an effect on me. I remember – incredibly vividly – sat in the newly-refurbished Brynmor Jones Library and stumbling across the following: ‘…he is a hunchback…[and] it is horrid,’. What I haven’t mentioned yet, which is very integral to my story, is that at the age of 13 I was diagnosed with Scheuermann’s Kyphosis, and I remember the words thay came out of the consultant’s mouth on that fateful day: ‘You have vertebral deformity…a hunchback, if you will,’. This, alongside my pre-existing form of cerebral palsy came as a real blow to me. Stumbling upon those lines brought that familiar sinking feeling washing over me. My cheeks flushed red. I felt a deep-seated shame emanate from the pit of my stomach: those days stood in front of the floor-length mirror trying to desperately straighten my back to no avail. For a long time, I hated the way my back looked, and amongst those pages, those words really hurt. what was worse about this, was that when I came to discuss my issues surrounding this book in the seminar that week, no one really batted an eyelid. Whilst I accepted that the book was written for early 20th century readers, I found it hard to accept that my concerns were not being addressed by my lecturer in 21st century Britain.

It’s said that there is no friend as loyal as a book, but right there and then, I felt betrayed by one of the things I loved the most. I’d worked for a long time to get to a place where I was comfortable and happy with my body’s differences and appearance. But those words spoke loudly to that internalised ableism I’d carried around with me for years, something shared by the majority of the disabled population. After my experience in that seminar, I made it a mission of mine to search out for more accurate representations of people like me. I wanted to find characters in pages and on stages that had disabilities and lived their lives in either ordinary – or extraordinary – ways. Maybe they were embroiled in a dramatic family saga, or went on fantastic adventures. Where were the protagonists who got up and lived their lives embracing their disability rather than following the typical narrative trope of bitter and twisted individuals desperate to be cured?

A woman stood at a lectern wearing green dungarees pictured mid-sentence. Next to her is a large board covered in pictures and there's a large screen on the right of the picture with a powerpoint presentation

We all know that media is one of the most powerful forces in the world. I’m sure most of you attending Children’s Media Conference are here because you are creative individuals with grand ideas and a view of changing the world, no matter how small. You strive to create a world of fun, education and interest for children. You know how much your creations have the ability to impact upon young children’s lives. You work to harness that spark of imagination within individuals’ eyes, and want to watch it grow into a fire roaring with enthusiasm and excitement. We all know that there is nothing more validating than seeing a reflection of your true self – differences and all – captured through the written word or lit up on a television screen. It paints a picture and conveys a message that says that you matter, you are worthy, and that, most importantly, your life and experiences matter. Nothing quite beats that.

This experience was perhaps the main catalyst for commencing a Master of Research postgraduate degree where I made it my goal to uncover lesser-known literary portrayals of disability that were more true-to-life and accurate in their manifestations. Imagine my joy, then, when I came across Emma Henderson’s protagonist Grace Williams, a girl with the same type of hemiplegia as me and a spinal curvature alongside it.

Behind the scenes and screens is a good place to start cultivating these characters and representations that have the power to bring so much validation and happiness to children and young people. I do not think it’s a prerequisite to have direct experience of each of the many facets of diversity to render it into media, but we need to acknowledge that consulting those with real, lived experience adds authenticity and insight to your creations. When you employ a disabled person, and ask them for their honesty and opinion with regard to ascertaining an accurate representation of their lives, you are unlocking a plethora of knowledge, which – when transferred and translated into whatever you’re creating – has the ability to validate the lives of thousands, if not millions, of individuals.

A woman stood at a lectern wearing green dungarees. You cannot see the front of her face. Next to her is a large board covered in pictures and there's a large screen on the right of the picture with a powerpoint presentation.

Now is a good a time as any to make truly positive changes, and in turn to shape perceptions and enrich the minds and lives of children and young people. I longed for characters to be like me when I was growing up, but they never materialised. However, organisations like Inclusive Minds – for which I am an Inclusion Ambassador – gives authors, publishers, agents and other creatives the opportunity to find out more about the lives experience of under-represented individuals, can help make this positive change a reality.

I know your work is devoted to making children’s lives richer by whatever means possible. You truly have the ability to enact real, meaningful change in your fields.

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Happiness is…

…soft lamp light, an abundance of throws, tea sipped at just the right temperature, scribbling on a crisp, clean page, crossing off items on my to-do list, the crinkle of a packet followed by a duet of wheeks, the light glinting off a freshly-polished table, sunlight streaming through the window in the early hours

Permanently Exhausted Pigeon

I always see a meme doing the rounds on social media that says something like ‘I’m not an early bird or an night owl, I’m some form of permanently exhausted pigeon.’ This is probably one of those memes everyone can relate to to some extent. But honestly, I cannot emphasise how much this resembles my life at the moment.

In September I landed myself a new job. This was a huge deal for me: after months of drowning in job applications, keen to avoid landing a job in the education sector, I found something I could really get my teeth into. The only catch? It was full-time. And getting my body used to the rigours of full-time work would be perhaps the greatest challenge of all.

Fatigue is a real sucker. Unless you’ve experienced it, it’s incredibly hard to understand. I am one of these people who can sleep for 12 hours or more and still nap for several hours during the day. And no matter what, I am always tired.

It’s generally acknowledged by the medical community that individuals with cerebral palsy use between 3 to 5 times more energy carrying out daily tasks than those without. On an average day, I walk a good 25 minutes during my daily commute. I also make sure to take regular breaks at work, and will frequently get up and go for a little walk around the office when I can. By the time I’ve come home from work and done the usual bits and bobs around the house, I am wiped. Sometimes, I will push through and make a meal from scratch. Other days, I’ll bung something convenient into the oven, or Ben or my family will cook something for me. By 8 o’clock, I am considering getting into bed. I feel bad about this though, so I’ll usually give it til half ten and then consider going about my daily bedtime routine before finally settling down.

Once I am in bed, I tend to do a little bit of reading, before falling asleep ungracefully, probably with my mouth wide open, snoring for all the world to hear.

Next morning, my alarm goes off at 6.45 and the routine begins again.

I’ve had to have a serious talk with myself regarding reserving my energy and managing my pain. I am awful and stubborn when it comes to admitting I can’t take on the world, but living permanently exhausted is just not cutting it any more.

Pacing is something I genuinely want to work on. I need to banish those guilty thoughts and accept that I am not a superhuman. I need to schedule in early nights, make sure I eat good meals and regularly snack on healthy things during the day to keep me going. Most importantly, I need to work on accepting that this is something I can and will work on.

I am enjoying my job. It is the right thing for me right now. Working in an office means I can sit comfortably with a hot water bottle on my aching back, endless cups of tea, with a view of the city around me. I enjoy the satisfaction of seeing a project come together, matters complete and people satisfied and thankful when it’s all over. I enjoy working with people based all over the world and I am lucky to have very supportive, lovely colleagues who put up with my endless yawning and stretching at my desk. I just need to remember give my body and mind the attention it deserves at all times.

I write this whilst snuggling under my heated blanket. My spine has got it in for me today and I haven’t done anything particularly spectacular. But that’s okay. Because right now, this permanently exhausted pigeon is all that matters, and I am going to make sure I spend more of my time with that in mind.

‘The Girl Who Took a Rocket to the Moon & Other Stories’*

Mental health.

It’s something we all have. Yet none of us seem to want to talk about it.

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‘The Girl Who Took a Rocket to the Moon & Other Stories’ is a book, aimed at adults and children alike, that attempts to break down the stigma surrounding mental health, creating a conversation within which individuals can discuss their own issues with others.

Jenny Eckloff, who wrote the book after seeing a loved one struggle with their own mental health, has written seven short stories that encompass all aspects of mental health. From tackling anxiety, to depression, to panic attacks, Jenny’s book – illustrated by the talented Sammie Ripley – showcases stories that are relatable, yet often poignant.

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Though it capture the multi-faceted nature of the human emotional experience, the book is very accessible. The stories are short enough to be read easily, and would make a great bedtime story for little ones. They address panic attacks, depression and anxiety in an open, non-judgemental way, allowing the characters to overcome their difficulties and with the understanding that it is okay to talk.

A particular favourite of mine – ‘The Fallen Star’ – addresses the difficulties individuals have in seeking help, and encourages others to be there when individuals do reach out:

‘…maybe sometimes, stars need to fall and even though he couldn’t fix it, he just needed to be for it when it did…it takes great strength to ask for help…and it takes equal amounts to fix yourself.’

As someone who made that very first step in addressing my own mental health, these words were particularly resonating. It is hard to seek help, and even harder to actually help yourself. The glossary at the back of the book is a wonderful, concise resource that can be used explaining anxiety, panic attacks, depression and more whilst reading the stories.

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Reading Jenny’s book – alongside Sammie’s whimsical illustrations – is a really lovely, affirming experience, and would make a wonderful gift to those struggling with their own mental health, or the mental health of their loved ones.

Thanks so much to Jenny for letting me review your book: it truly is wonderful, and I hope you continue to break the stigma and taboo of mental health one story at a time.

You can follow Jenny on twitter @Reckless_Winter, see her website at http://www.jennyeckloff.com .

You can also look at more of Sammie’s wonderful illustrations over at: https://www.instagram.com/samsillustration/

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I am writing…

from a sick bed. I have an horrendous cold. i am fevery, and sniffly, and all the not-so-great things that come with Being Ill.

I am surrounded by tissues, and empty tea cups, and Olbas oil is the fragrance of the day. It is far from exciting.

I just wanted to write a little something, though. You see, I’m awfully self-degrading. Sometimes I joke about it, but there is an element of truth to my self-berating insults. You see, I always feel I could do better. If only I could be better, be stronger, more intelligent, more compassionate. It takes a lot for me to sit back and realise that I am doing ok. So. I suppose whilst I’m ill, and already feeling sorry for myself, I’ll sit back and count my blessings.

This month I graduated. That’s right: I’m a Master of Research (whatever that is). I have a 120-page thesis and several publications and a lovely certificate to show for it. So, there’s that.

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Here’s me, looking uncomfortable in my graduation attire.

I’ve also survived a year in the workplace (hooray!). And though I’m currently in the midst of job applications and other job-related things, I feel positive that I’d be an attribute to most workplaces. I really like working. It gives me purpose, and something to aim for. I just need someone to realise that and to take a chance on me!

I am having a great time with Ben, and my friends, and I have a lot to be thankful for. There’s obviously a reason these wonderful people are in my life, and I should recognise that more often. I just need to take stock of things and realise that, hey: I’m doing OK. I actually am.

Anyway. I’m off to get another tissue, and make another brew.

Maybe we all need to sit and take stock sometimes. I recommend it.

Heather x

The Tea Shop X Trinity Market*

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love tea. Any type is fine with me: green, breakfast, black, white, green…I’ll give anything a go. So when I was asked if I’d like to sample some of the delights courtesy of The Tea Shop X Trinity Market, I jumped at the chance.

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Though I’m not actually a Hullian, I like to think of myself as an honorary Hullian since I lived there during my university years. Hull will always have a special place in my heart, and supporting small Hull businesses is something I will always be more than happy to do.

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I only discovered Hull’s Trinity Market in my final year of undergraduate study, and i was surprised how full it was of curiosities, antiques and interesting bric a brac. There’s also some fabulous food and drink kiosks, selling handmade, locally sourced produce made with love and passion. You can’t really beat that, can you?! I remember venturing into The Tea Shop briefly when my parents visited, but my student budget didn’t allow for much splurging and I had to make do with own-brand breakfast tea for a while. Well, fortunately enough for me, I’ve now had the chance to sample some delicious blends and they most certainly didn’t disappoint.

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The tea blends are: Elderflower and Green Tea, Honeybush Chocolate Cake and Blood Orange. Sound good, don’t they?!

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I got out my finest tea pot, and started brewing.

The Elderflower Green Tea is gorgeously floral and sweet, with a slight fruity aroma that couples well with the crisp, slightly bitter green tea. If you’re not the biggest fan of elderflower, I’d still give this a go. It’s a really great pairing.

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Honeybush Chocolate Cake is a wonderfully-unusual sounding tea, that includes chocolate chips, cream-caramel pieces and rosebuds. It smells exactly as you’d think: a deliciously chocolatey, sweet blend, with a floral note to finish. Another fabulous brew that is something a little bit special.

The final tea is a Blood Orange tisane, with lots of pieces of dried, sweet fruit. It contains apple, hibiscus, rosehip, orange, lemon and natural flavourings. I’m a really big fan of tisanes as a pre-bedtime beverage, and the fruity flavours – and gorgeous colour – is such a wonderful combination.

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As Hull is the City of Culture this year, The Tea Shop is also stocking some exclusively-designed, Hull-themed Moorland pottery mugs, alongside a selection of other Hull-themed goodies. Make sure you pop in when you’re on your travels. They have a Facebook page , website and an instagram account as @theteashophull . Why not check out Trinity Market’s insta, too? Find them at: @TrinityMarketHull .

I’m heading back to Hull for my MRes graduation (eek!) next week…I think I need to pay The Tea Shop a little visit!

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Thanks so much to The Tea Shop X Trinity Market for providing some truly delicious blends. I’ll be back!

Heather x