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.

A kindle cover made of fabric covered in books

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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‘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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What I’m Reading

Hello there. I’m writing on a crisp bright Tuesday, and it has just turned midday. I had a hospital appointment this morning and treated Drew to a cooked breakfast to say thank you for accompanying me.

It’s nice to get appointments out of the way in the morning, as it gives me plenty of time in the afternoon to study. For those of you unaware, I’m currently studying for my MRes degree in English Literature, and the majority of my degree classification relies on my 30000 word dissertation. I’m particularly interested in the depiction of difference through literature, and as such my wider reading reflects this concept. The books I’m currently reading are a mixture of books used for my dissertation and for pleasure, but admittedly they all have similar themes (mostly because I’m so interested in them!). 

(Ed.) Garland Thomson, Rosemarie (1996)

Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body
New York University Press

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As a collection of essays from various authors, Freakery explores the concept of freakishness through historical, cultural and literary perspectives. As the study of bodily difference is a new and dynamic field, this comprehensive collection of essays provides a brilliant introduction to the concept of the corporeal Other. Though it is useful to have an awareness of the work of Goffman and his theories regarding stigma and bodily difference, Freakery provides a great starting point for those wishing to learn more about the concept of bodily freakishness that continues to be of prevalence within contemporary society.

Nihn, Bao (1993)
The Sorrow of War
Vintage

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Nihn’s Sorrow has been on my ‘To Read’ list for quite some time. During my A-Levels I began to develop an interest in war literature, and Nihn’s novel is – rather sadly – based upon his own experiences of serving in the Vietnam War, where he returned as only one of ten survivors from his battalion. Incredibly moving and oftentimes disturbing, Sorrow has often been likened to All Quiet on the Western Front. I can’t wait to finish this , and I’m sure it’ll be a novel that’ll stay with me for a while after reading.

Wurtzel, Elizabeth (1998)
Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America
Quartet Books

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This was a charity shop find, and to be honest I picked it up on a whim not expecting an awful lot. My undergrad dissertation focused on the relationship between mental illness and the body, and naturally I was drawn to something like this. Prozac Nation is actually a memoir, where Wurtzel discusses her struggles with mental illness as a teenager. Described as ‘Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna,’ Wurtzel uses a no holds barred approach to discuss her struggles with mental illness and her progression to improved mental health. A couple of trigger warnings, however: she does discuss self-harm and aspects of her own suicidality, so do be mindful of this if you’re wanting to give it a read. A darkly-comic read that is sure to resonate with many.

I am reading lots of different books at the minute, but thought it might be good to share a select few. Are you into reading? Let me know what you’re loving at the minute.

Have a great Tuesday afternoon whatever you’re up to,
Heather x

Things I’ve been reading (and loving)

This week marked the final semester of my undergraduate study at university. I find this simultaneously scary and exciting; it provides a glimpse into the real world, yet I still find myself amidst the safe perimeter of university life. Third year thus far has been enjoyable. I’m lucky to have taken some fantastic, thought provoking modules on my English Literature course. A highlight has been Post-9/11 Literatures of the U.S, which has enabled me to study a variety of post-9/11 texts alongside a variety of philosophical and political texts addressing 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’ that followed. I have particularly enjoyed Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, a novel with an almost circular narrative, which explores the impact of the attacks using a plethora of characters and concepts. The final chapter is particularly hard-hitting, providing what one could mistakenly assume to be an accurate description of the very moment the plane hits the first of the towers to be attacked. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, though perhaps not strictly a post-9/11 novel as it doesn’t address the attacks specifically, imagines and creates a post-apocalyptic American landscape where one assumes human conflict to be the contributing factor. It follows a nameless father and son, journeying down a road amidst the barren and desolate land. Save for a few precious relics of a life they once knew, the country is completely unrecognisable, and thus survival becomes increasingly difficult for the two. The narrative is littered with unimaginable horrors, yet the enduring love between father and son keeps them moving on the road. I was also introduced to  Jean Baudrillard’s  The Spirit of Terrorism, and Slavoj Žižek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Each provided very interesting seminar discussion, and allowed us to analyse the novels on the module with alternative theories. Judith Butler’s Violence, Mourning, Politics further added to this, and much like Baudrillard’s and Žižek’s work, became a highlight of my studies on the module. We were also lucky enough to participate in a skype call with Alissa Torres, author of graphic novel American Widow. American Widow is an autobiographical work, documenting Alissa’s life before and after her husband’s death on 9/11. Intensely moving and in an unusual and interesting format, the book provides an alternative means of documenting the impact of 9/11 itself; something that has perhaps proved challenging to render into words. Below I will provide a list of texts I studied on the module. I recommend each and every one of them. Some address the attacks directly, whilst some provide an alternative critique of the occurence of 9/11 and the events that followed as a consequence.

The Submission, Amy Waldman

http://www.thesubmissionnovel.com/

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/aug/24/the-submission-amy-waldman-review

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mosin Hamid

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/mar/03/featuresreviews.guardianreview20

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/jun/04/featuresreviews.guardianreview22

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

http://www.cormacmccarthy.com/works/the-road/

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/nov/04/featuresreviews.guardianreview4

American Widow, Alissa Torres, drawn by Sungyoon Choi

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/07/books/review/Taylor-t.html?_r=0

Falling Man, Don DeLillo

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/may/26/fiction.dondelillo

The Mutants, Joyce Carol Oates (short story)

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/07/books/07novel.html

The Things they Left Behind, Stephen King (short story)

http://stephenking.com/library/short_story/things_they_left_behind_the.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/23/books/review/Taylor-t.html?pagewanted=all

The Spirit of Terrorism, Jean Baudrillard

http://www.versobooks.com/books/1197-the-spirit-of-terrorism

Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Slavoj Žižek

http://www.versobooks.com/books/1137-welcome-to-the-desert-of-the-real

‘Violence, Mourning, Politics’, Judith Butler

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/jun/05/politics

Holy Terror, Terry Eagleton

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/dec/16/martinamis

Do share any thoughts you have, it’s really interesting to hear from you. I hope you have a fantastic weekend!

Heather