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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Physios, pain and patience

Well hello, you. I know, I know. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?! I’d say I have a perfectly reasonable excuse, but all I can really say is that old little thing called ‘life’ got in the way. 
I know. Lame excuse. 
Anyhow, just thought I’d let you know about my most recent visit to the hospital. This is following on from my   MSK clinic post, which addressed plans for pain management. I was pretty disappointed;  my beloved acupuncture isn’t on offer where I am now,  and so we decided on a physio/mental health plan.

The appointment finally came around. Though my physio was super lovely, I just felt…well…really underwhelmed. To address the pain the approach seems to encompass a plan for exercise and keeping a record of how this affects pain and/or fatigue, but I am already really mobile considering. I walk a hell of a lot (that’s what not driving does for you), go swimming and gymming when possible,  and at least once a week, and keep active even on my ‘rest days’ as my boyfriend would tell you. I literally do not stop. I am always on the go. And whilst I know some people with pain and musculoskeletal conditions can’t be as active as I am, it just seemed to be an assumption that I don’t do anything,  and so need to increase my activity levels. I was given a few exercises to try and have given things a go, but all in all I just don’t feel like it’s been very helpful. I still have pain even after trying these things,  I still could sleep for days, and I’m still fed up of being told thay exercise is the cure-all even though I do exercise, and lo and behold, I still have cerebral palsy and severe kyphosis.

Sigh.

I am really grateful I got an appointment, and know I am privileged to do so. But I just can’t help thinking this approach is missing the point entirely. Maybe I’m still bitter about not having the acupuncture,  but I just don’t feel this is pain management.  Right now I miss Hull more than ever. 
So, that’s my little ranty update for you. I have a follow up appointment and will mention my concerns. As always, I’ll keep you updated. It’s been quiet on here I know, but thanks for sticking with me whilst I find my feet. I should be back to posting weekly very, very soon
Right, better get back to doing the washing…

Heather x

Happiness is…

Hot cups of coffee, guinea pig cuddles, the light of the moon shining through the window, getting lost in a good book, hot showers, sleeping in, relief from pain, finished work, colouring (and avoiding going over the lines) , good friends, big smiles, realising that things will fall into place.

Have a great weekend,
Heather x

I am feeling…

A little bit intimidated. Is this what your 20s are about? Do you just float around waiting for an opportunity to pass you by, praying one does and moaning when it actually happens? Are your 20s meant to be about panic and uncertainty and unadulterated fear???

Today all I can think about is what i’m going to do after study is over.

Okay so…what am I actually going to do?! What can I do that will make me feel okay and not in too much pain? How am I going to survive and all that jazz? I’m struggling to cope as it is. Being an adult is ridiculous.

I don’t even know what I need to do to get a job. I don’t even know what I want to do. (No. That’s a lie. I do want to win the lottery and pay for people to take me to hospital appointments and surround myself with fluffy cute animals and buy myself a house and put most of the remainder in the bank and live off the interest. That isn’t too much to ask, is it?? Surely not…)

Is it just me who is this confused? Will this pass? Will someone fix my body so I stop feeling scared about what’s going to happen to it? I do not want to adult today. It is not happening.

What Not to Say to Someone With Chronic Illness and Disabilities

Hello there, and thanks for stopping by! This is going to be a slightly unusual post today, but it’s something I’d really like to share with you all. As you may know, I have a form of cerebral palsy- mild spastic hemiplegia – and a spinal condition called Scheuermann’s kyphosis. These are long-term illnesses, with no cure, so it’s just about learning to manage and live with the associated pain and mobility difficulties to ensure I have a good quality of life. What has been really shocking to learn is that people assume they’re an expert of chronic illness and think it wise to give out tips and advice. I know, we’ve all been there, but it’s something that never ceases to amaze me! After all, I know my body better than anyone, and I know how my conditions affect my day-to-day life. I just thought I’d share a few snippets of advice I’ve often found funny, and usually unhelpful. Some comments are pretty hurtful, but I know some are simply well-meant.

Just to clarify, this is not a dig at anyone at all, and this isn’t intended as something to offend any well-wishers: I just think it’s helpful to realise sometimes things aren’t always what they seem and maybe we can all think before we say something to someone. You never know how your words are going to affect someone else.

‘Chronic illness? But you look so well! How is this possible!?’

I get this a lot. I really do. And whilst I can appreciate I do look ‘fine’ most days, it can be very frustrating to hear. Firstly, it makes me feel fraudulent. No, I don’t use a wheelchair, and even when I use my walking stick I appear able to walk normally and without difficulty. However, I spend the majority of my day in constant pain, and it’s really wearisome having to reiterate this. Secondly, there’s also the idea that if I’m dressed up nicely or have make up on, that I can’t really be that ill, because, you know, I’ve made ‘an effort’. Having chronic illness doesn’t mean you have no desire to feel good. I still want to look as nice as the next person, and when I feel like it I really enjoy wearing a little bit of lipstick now and again. It just goes to show that you never know what’s underneath it all. (oh, I also enjoy wearing a bright shade of red when I can…makes me feel I can take on the world, especially on bad days!)

‘Why don’t you try exercise? I’ve heard it really helps [insert illness here].’

I have couple of things to say about this one. What I do seem to notice is people often recommend exercise when they don’t really understand the condition. Last year, someone asked what cerebral palsy was. Immediately upon hearing this, they proclaimed that exercise would cure it. Funny…they didn’t know what it was prior to asking! Though I know exercise is fantastic, and I do exercise as much as I can to keep my muscles as flexible as possible (particularly in my hemi side) sometimes the nature of my conditions limits me in terms of exercises. Some I simply can’t do. Most others leave me in a lot of pain. People also assume that I don’t try/never have tried/that I’m unfit anyway. I happen to walk quite a lot, and considering walking is something I find challenging, (particularly with regards to the palsy) this can sometimes be very painful and very tiring. However, I always try. Sometimes I try too much, end up walking for miles (often in a bid to push myself) and subsequently suffer for it. What I’m basically trying to say is don’t assume exercise is the be all and end all. It can be brilliant, but think about it: if you’re in severe pain, would the first activity to spring to mind be a jog/some workout at the gym? No? Didn’t think so.  Also, I’ll add here that when I was at school I still used to take part in PE and sports days despite my medical conditions and difficulties. One memorable sports day I volunteered for a long distance running race. At school, very few people knew about my cerebral palsy, but when I crossed that finish line (I came fourth out of eight) it was amazing. I’d done it; I’d also competed against people with no mobility or pain issues. It was possible, but I won’t say it didn’t hurt. I can still think back to the feeling of intense burning, crampy, sickening  pain in my hemi leg that followed. The PE teachers gave me some little gifts to say well done: they appreciated how difficult it must have been for me and I’m truly grateful for that. It’s an experience I won’t ever forget.

‘Ah, get well soon!’

I feel bad about including this comment, because this is obviously well-meant and I appreciate the sentiment. However, it is difficult to explain to people that my conditions won’t get better. I have done this once or twice, and I’m usually branded a pessimist. I just call it being realistic: there’s no cure for either. They fluctuate on a daily basis. Yes, some days are better than others. But I will be living with these for the rest of my life, and I have (mostly) come to terms with that. I’m still sad I included this one but hopefully you’ll understand what I mean!

‘You’re just an old lady really!’

This really, REALLY annoys me. This reiterates everything I feel about myself. Some days I wake up in so much pain I feel like I’m years older. I can’t do normal household chores without intense back pain, I can’t go shopping without my body hurting and I can’t do ‘younger people’ stuff like clubbing without things becoming very difficult. Of course I enjoy a good dance every now and then, but it becomes extremely painful. The next day is an issue not because of the ensuing hangover (well, at least not the majority of the time) but because my body is tired…it’s tired of the pain. Don’t call me an old lady. It’s never okay. It’s one of these things that really get to me. Calling me an old lady basically confirms all my worst fears. I have a hard enough time thinking of myself in this way, and I’d rather you didn’t add to that.

‘You’re just lazy/milking it’

I just don’t even know what drives people to say things like this. I didn’t choose to have these conditions. I can’t help that sometimes I need rest and relaxation. Just try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes: do you think it’s easy living in pain every day? It is also well-documented that people living with cerebral palsy use more energy than an usual. It’s tiring stuff. The latter part of the above comment was one of the more hurtful things I’ve heard. When I was in school, I had to wear a spinal brace. This was extremely uncomfortable. I had to wear it 23 hours every day and the hour off was for showering/PE. Because it was hard plastic, it dug in everywhere, and I’d end up with bruised hips, itchy skin rashes and marks cutting into my skin from the plastic. It constantly forced my spine into an unnatural position, and this was painful. Wearing that brace was awful. I felt detached from my own life: it was like I stepped into a magazine and became someone else. ‘Will I have pain for the rest of my life? So, you mean it’s incurable? My spine might get worse?’ These were questions I found hard to ask and even harder to understand when I was thirteen. I was thrust into a world of painkillers, hospital checks, physio, pain management, and procedure after procedure. This was on top of my appointments for my cerebral palsy. Having people claim I was milking it was something I really didn’t need. How insensitive can you be?! The worst part is that a person who said this talked behind my back and told my friends I was ‘milking it’. At the same time, they’d be really lovely to my face and would offer to help me in any way they could. As you can imagine, hearing that was extremely hurtful, and I never really associated myself with them at all after that. I still avoid having to now, despite the fact we have mutual friends. Please don’t do this, ever. The last thing I’d ever want to do is feign an illness. If I had it my way, I’d be completely healthy and have nothing wrong at all. As it stands, I’m not. Don’t make assumptions because you don’t understand.It’s a comment that I haven’t ever been able to shake off since the age of thirteen, and I don’t think I’ll be able to forget it.

I know this is an unusual post, but I hope it has given you something to think about! On a light-hearted note, I have two huge bars of chocolate to get me through the last couple of weeks of essay writing. I know I can do this, but it won’t be easy. Wish me luck!

I’m getting closer to that finish line…

Heather x