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

Disappointments, Direction and Decisions: Visiting the Musculoskeletal Clinic

Yesterday felt like a big, anxiety-inducing, sad-making day.

I woke up early knowing I had to attend my MSK Clinic appointment with butterflies in my tummy and a raspy dry throat. Perhaps it seems a little over dramatic to feel this way, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious.

Truth is, I had been waiting for this appointment for months, having had to be re-referred to a different service in a different part of the country since moving back after my university studies. This appointment would determine what kind of support I’d be entitled to back in my hometown, and having got used to the routine and effectiveness of treatment back in my university town, I was extremely anxious at the prospect of having no support at all, which seems like an exaggeration, I know.

You see, it is very much a postcode lottery when accessing healthcare.

As much as I love the NHS, I must say there really is a huge difference with regards to provisions and accessibility depending on where you are in the country. It’s all a bit touch and go with certain services, as each have different approaches. Back in East Yorkshire I’d been lucky enough to receive frequent acupuncture treatment, excellent mental health treatment through several talking therapies, and access to a neuro consultant, occupational therapy and physio. Though I’d seen a physio and neurologist a long time ago back home, I hadn’t ever seen an occupational therapist despite having cerebral palsy. I also hadn’t had frequent acupuncture, or had monitoring of my curvature since the age of sixteen. It made me anxious to think all the fantastic progress I had made in Hull could possibly be stripped away just because the services and provisions aren’t available here.

All of this explained the butterflies and raspy throat, I guess.

As I suspected, things have changed. Much to my disappointment, they don’t offer acupuncture here. This was a little hard to swallow (and accounts for my exclamation of ‘oh no!’ in the consulting room) and though I was offered facet joint injections back in East Yorkshire, I was told I probably won’t be able to have them over here for a few years owing to my age. I might also have to consider a spinal fusion in the future (eek!) so they’d want to reduce steroid exposure to a minimum.

Again, fairly disappointing.

It’s not all bad, though. I will be discussed at their monthly review -‘they’ being made up of doctors, spinal consultants, neurologists, nurses and pain management specialists – and it is likely I’ll be able to access support to help with the mental struggles of the cerebral palsy and scheuermann’s, which is really quite exciting considering this aspect has never been discussed. I’ll also have specialist physio, with therapists who know the condition, and will be able to advise me accordingly, a change from the ‘I’ve never actually seen scheuermann’s in a person before!’ physio I’ve had previously. So, I’m feeling a bit mixed-up about this one. I am seriously gutted I can’t have acupuncture, and will be looking into private treatment options.

However, I am feeling a glimmer of hope, and really feel that the mental health focus will help. It is also lovely to know I am not alone, so a big thank you to Ben for coming with me to my appointment. This is a start, and I have at least some direction, and I’ll just have to hang tight and see what’s in store.

I’ll get there, I’m sure.

Sending warm bear hugs on this chilly day…

Heather x

Scheuermann’s Kyphosis: the basics

This is going to be a relatively short post as I have work to be doing and I’ve already been avoiding it all day so I need to get back to it as soon as I can! I think I’ve mentioned Scheuermann’s kyphosis briefly before, so I thought it’s probably time to quickly introduce it. When I was thirteen, I was diganosed with Scheuermann’s kyphosis. Scheuermann’s goes by many names, and sometimes it’s simply referred to as Scheuermann’s, sometimes kyphosis (or Scheuermann’s kyphosis) and often people also call it Scheuermann’s disease, but I prefer to avoid this if I can because a ‘disease’ implies that it is contagious, and this not at all the case! So, I’ll refer to it as Scheuermann’s, kyphosis, or if I’m feeling really fancy, I’ll use both words together.

I was told by my doctor that, in really basic terms, Scheuermann’s is where the vertebrae (the bones in my spine) developed differently. As a result, when the bones are ‘stacked’ on top of each other, they form a curvature in my upper spine. If you look at me sideways on, my back looks like an ‘S’. Now, I was always told that it was probably bad luck to have Scheuermann’s because no one actually knows what causes it. All I can tell you for certain is it’s not at all pleasant. It’s extremely painful, as my muscles around my spine (so the clever ones holding you upright) have to work really hard around my curvy spine.  So, as they’re working really hard, they can get very painful and ‘angry’ (perhaps I have a similiar reaction to hard work!) and thus I live with chronic back pain.

This year, I found out that spinal curvatures and cerebral palsy are linked, and so I think that my Scheuermann’s is due to having cerebral palsy. I can’t say for certain, but it seems rather likely. As well as pain in the thoracic (upper) part of my spine, my lumbar (lower spine curves inwards to compensate, and my cervical (neck) spine also curves to compensate. So as you can probably gather, I’m dealing with a lot of angry bones and muscles!

There’s no cure for Scheuermann’s, and my curve measures 70 degrees (or at least it did when I last had it measured). To put that into perspective, a healthy thoracic spine should measure between 25 and 40 degrees. So you could say I’m pretty ‘curvy’.

I did use a spinal brace at the age of 14, but I will be sure to blog about that experience separately. It was an experience to say the least. For now I manage my pain with various methods, including heat therapy, acupuncture, analgesia and gentle exercises. I do have ‘good’ days, and I do have ‘bad’ days, but that’s to be expected with a condition like this. Chronic pain is a really complex subject, and I don’t want to write about it here, but it’s something I live with everyday. For a brief glimpse into chronic pain, check out my earlier post here: https://nosuperhero.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/life-can-be-a-pain-sometimes/

So, that’s it! A speedy summary on Scheuermann’s kyphosis. I’m sure it’ll feature again shortly. For now though, I’m going to attempt to get back to my reading. Today Im reading When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro. I haven’t quite finished it yet, but I’m enjoying it!

Until next time,

Heather

And so it begins…

I’ve always been one of those people who have started writing a blog, enjoyed it, then somehow let living my life get in the way of writing it. It’s a similar scenario when it comes to keeping diaries; I say I’ll aim to write a wonderful account in it daily, but then I realise that 1) my life isn’t really hugely exciting, and 2) I find other things to do.

I have tried to fathom out an explanation for my lack of progress many times to no avail, because despite the enjoyment of the blogging itself, I came to the realisation that I’d become disheartened with the whole idea. I never began blogging with the expectation  that I’d draw in plenty of readers from across the globe, (though I did get a fair few followers,) but I just stopped believing that what I was writing was a worthwhile (or even enjoyable) read.

I think the problem was that there was no clear direction for my last blog. It had an incredibly ambiguous and vague direction. If I remember rightly, I labelled the page as a space to talk about my life, which is, in all honesty, nothing more than ordinary. I could probably sum up the generalities (and banalities) of my life in no more than four sentences. I’m no super hero.

What I did find useful and sometimes even therapeutic however, were certain posts I featured on my blog. I live with cerebral palsy, in the form of a mild right-sided, spastic hemiplegia.  I also live with an abnormal increased kyphosis in my thoracic spine, sometimes known as Scheuermann’s disease, which is probably caused by me having cerebral palsy to start off with. These are both life-long conditions. They’re not always easy to deal with. Pain forms a huge part of my everyday life, and coming to terms with my conditions has been an arduous, emotional process. Blogging about my medical conditions helped me to fathom out my feelings towards them, and allowed me to share information with the world that I didn’t usually discuss. It felt good to discuss my feelings surrounding the cerebral palsy, as it’s something people aren’t always aware that I live with, and most importantly for me, those posts provided me with a place where I could be honest with myself. It was hugely cathartic.

In light of this, I decided to start this blog specifically for talking about my disabilities. I hope it will be (at the very least) 1) informative, and 2) as cathartic as previous as attempts.  It would also be fantastic if my silly posts somehow managed to help others in my position, because I know having someone to relate to has made my coming to terms with things a whole lot easier. I’m not going to claim I’ll be updating this daily, because I don’t really know yet, but I will do my best to post whenever I can. It’s a start, and I promise I’ll try.

If you’ve managed to successfully navigate through my (often pointless) ramblings, I applaud you! Before I make this far longer than it has to be, I’ll stop myself right here.

Until next time,

Heather