Why Publishers Need to Make Room for Disabled Writers

In Books, Entertainment by Guest ContributorLeave a Comment

person sitting in a wheelchair looking up at the camera. The person is wearing glasses and has dark hair parted to the side.
Gabe Moses

I’ve always been a writer, and I’ve always been disabled. Those two parts of my identity are so woven into who I am that I never questioned either of them. I wrote my first “book,” about a giant spider who played basketball, when I was three or four, on blank white paper using crayon and my limited written vocabulary. My mother folded and stapled it into the shape of a book and for a moment, I was a real author.

My physical disabilities are progressive and weren’t as obvious when I was young, but because of my developmental disabilities, I was labeled “special needs” from an early age and placed in special education classes. I had a good time with other disabled kids in our class, but the rest of the world was often a lonely and scary place for me.

Disabled Writers Bring Comfort To Disabled Readers

Outside our classroom, I was bullied by other kids and misunderstood by exasperated teachers. I had a hard time making friends, so I found my comfort in books. I would hide between the stacks in the school library reading book after book, and that was how I found the writers who shaped me.

I loved Louis Sachar’s Wayside School books, Neil Gaiman’s otherworldly fantasies, Mary Downing Hahn’s ghost stories. I was enthralled by how the Wayside kids kept stumbling into everyday magic and absurdity, and it both introduced me to non-traditional storytelling structures and helped me learn to blur the lines between contemporary stories and fantasy world-building in my own writing.

The parallel worlds in Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Coraline fascinated me and led me to explore ways of subverting identity. Hahn’s books were great at invoking a creepy feeling that pulled me into the story – an atmosphere I work to conjure myself when I write about ghosts and paranormal creatures.

In my teens I fell in love with Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, with its incredibly relatable near-future world and themes of found family and hope amid destruction. I read it over and over, carrying my copy around with me and wishing that I could someday write something that gave someone the feeling it gave me.

Disabled Writers Make Needed Connections

In some way, that’s always what writing was about for me: imagining some past version of myself, or another kid much like the kid I’d been – curled up between library shelves escaping into worlds that were, if not kinder, at least places where they could imagine being braver. But the more I read, the more I started to realize how few books reflected a world anything like the one I knew.

On the rare occasions that I read about a disabled kid, the story almost always focused on someone else: the resentful sibling, the sympathetic classmate, the curious neighbor. Disabled kids in books, when they were there at all, were usually just plot points in somebody else’s story.

As I got older, I gradually lost mobility and began using crutches or a wheelchair to get around. I learned to adapt to the world as a mobility-aid user, but the difference between my life and the lives of the characters I read about became even more stark. Now, I would find myself picturing a character moving the way I did, until an action in the plot – encountering a hidden staircase, running from a scary creature, shimmying up a tree – suddenly divided me from them in my mind, pulling me out of an adventure I couldn’t take part in.

Disabled Writers Write for Disabled Readers

I decided writing books about disabled kids, for disabled kids who need to see themselves reflected in the pages of the books they read, was what I wanted to do. I stopped and started several drafts of different stories before finally settling on what became the book I’m now querying, a middle grade paranormal story with a protagonist who is a wheelchair user.

It was important to me to tell the kind of story I always loved growing up, but with someone like me getting to be the hero – succeeding against difficult odds not just in spite of their disabilities but, at times, because of them.

When I first started writing with specific focus of creating representation for disabled kids, I didn’t have a lot of roadmaps. There still weren’t many books with disabled main characters, and many of the ones that did exist weren’t great representation.

A lot of times, I ended up learning what not to do from the books that were out there. I wanted to write books where the characters didn’t (just) feel sorry for themselves, didn’t spend the whole story wishing they were “normal,” and didn’t distance themselves from other disabled people or try to boost their self-esteem by putting others down.

I didn’t want to write them as perfect and “inspirational” either – I wanted stories where being disabled is an essential part of who the character is, yet not their only defining character trait. I wanted to write disabled characters who were allowed to be as messy and flawed and complicated as abled characters, without their flaws being blamed on their disabilities. I felt like I’d found a “hole” in publishing, something there was definitely a waiting audience for if someone would only write it.

Disabled Writers Encourage Disabled Writers

During my drafting process, I started to connect with other disabled writers, most of whom also wrote fiction aimed toward kids or teens. I’d never realized how many of us there were. Despite having a wide range of different disabilities and coming from different backgrounds and experiences, all of us had a childhood love of reading and all of us had wished for books with characters who were disabled like us so much that we ended up writing them ourselves.

The stories we write are as varied as we are: I write stories with ghosts and monsters like my old favorites, while others write classical literature retellings or epic friendship adventures or young adult contemporary rom coms. The one thing all of our stories have in common is that they all feature disabled kids front and center, with all of the mistakes and uncertainties and growing pains that come with being a kid.

As I listened to my new writer friends talk about the struggles they’d had in getting their books published, I started to realize that what I’d thought was a hole was really a wall. It wasn’t that these stories weren’t being written; it was that publishing often didn’t want to buy them.

Some agents and editors didn’t think there was a market for our stories. Others had their one disability book already and didn’t feel there was room for another. I’d read many of my friends’ books; I knew they were good. We were all just waiting for the rest of the world to see it.

Disabled Writers Are Changing the World

Slowly, though, things are changing. Books are becoming more diverse on all fronts and giving more credit to marginalized authors who write from experience. It’s been exciting to watch stories outside of the dominant cultural narrative be given the support they need to succeed. And finally, I’m starting to see books, like Kati Gardner’s Brave Enough or Corinne Duyvis’s On the Edge of Gone, featuring disabled characters who aren’t there to prop up someone else’s story. Instead they are given their own rich, layered stories to act out on the page.

Several of my disabled writer friends have found representation or even sold books. I’m hoping that someday – maybe even soon – I will join them. I know one thing for sure, though: I’m going to keep trying. I’m going to keep writing these stories and fighting for them to be in the world. I still write so that maybe, someday, a kid who’s used to feeling left out of the adventure will see themselves in the pages and know they belong, too. But I also keep writing so that one day, if they want to, that kid will know they can write a story like that of their own.

BIO

Gabe Moses is a writer of middle grade and young adult fiction centered around disabled characters with recurring themes of small-town alienation and misunderstood monsters. He has contributed to The Body is Not An Apology and Original Plumbing. Gabe has written in several poetry and fiction anthologies. He probably wrote this with a cat on his lap. You can reach him on @mabegoses

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