Disability is a complex and multifaceted experience, so it should be no surprise that it exerts profound influence on the way we write. It provides a well to draw inspiration, experience, and community from, but also comes with its own considerations: handling accessibility barriers and physical limitations in the writing process, balancing advocacy with writing, or being pigeonholed or stereotyped.
To discuss these experiences, I spoke with three disabled writers across genres: Keah Brown, known for her personal essays on disability and its intersections with being a Black woman in America; Esmé Weijun Wang, recent winner of a Whiting Award and author of the novel The Border of Paradise, now working on a collection of essays about schizophrenia for Graywolf Press; and Jillian Weise, a poet who has authored collections such as The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, and performance artist known for her satirical ableist character Tipsy Tullivan.
Alex Lu: How does the able-bodied gaze influence how you write? Even if you’re not targeting an able-bodied audience or writing directly about disability, it seems like most editors are able-bodied, and readers might still be evaluating your work in the context of your identity. Does this affect the way you write, or the topics you write about?
Keah Brown: For me, so much of writing and talking about disability, especially in larger publications, is about teaching able-bodied people about the vocabulary and experiences of my specific disabilities. I’m always thinking about the ways in which I can explain something without losing my style and personality in the process.
I make it a point to write about whatever I want, and to not focus on whether it’s being perceived in the context of my disability. As I grow in my writing, I am getting better at making my disability the lens through which I see the world, and not the subject. So, it informs how I approach my work, but not what I write about.
Esmé Weijun Wang: It’s pretty easy to learn from my social media and writing that I live with psychiatric and physical disability. But I don’t mention that I’m disabled in every piece that I write, and if someone is meeting me in-person and I don’t happen to have my cane at that moment, I don’t immediately come across as disabled, which causes a certain amount of decision-making about whether I should bring it up.
One reason I like to mention it myself is because it gives me a marginally greater amount of space to frame my own circumstances. I’ve been stereotyped a number of times when I’ve been profiled in publications, as an object of pity or as an inspirational figure who has “transcended” disability. I try to push back against that by being clear that yes, I am disabled, and no, I do not consider myself to have transcended disability because I still live and deal with it; it is a part of me.
Jillian Weise: I do not believe in an able-bodied audience. If the audience is larger than five people, then the audience certainly includes disabled and nondisabled people; whether Deaf or Hearing; neurodivergent or neurotypical; in chronic pain or, for the present, pain-free. Likewise, I doubt that most editors are nondisabled. They may be disabled but not willing to claim the identity; their own internalized ableism may prevent them from claiming; or they may have concerns about safety and/or stigma.
Often someone will whisper to me, “I have ____. Does that count as a disability? Don’t tell anyone.” This shows me two things: some people don’t even realize they have a disability, and disability shares space with the secret.
Over a decade ago, when I published The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, I certainly bought into the idea of a nondisabled audience. I was writing for them. My attention to them elicited amputee devotees, fetishists, and stalkers. So I had to reconsider poetry. I went to fiction for protection. At least in fiction, nothing is presumed factual. No truth-debt is owed to the reader.
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