The writing world is home for a diverse family, and literary events are not only helpful for our careers or for improving our craft, but also to bond. For many, it can be a welcome opportunity to meet other writers, and to connect in person with online friends, but for disabled writers, these events can be complicated. Organisations opening the conversation about accessibility is a blessed relief.
The world is kinder to disability than it used to be. Most people are happy to provide assistance. Modern building regulations help, and attitudes are changing. No one is expecting personal transport to be laid on free of charge—however lovely that would be, most events would not have the budget—but there are a few ways to make literary events easier for disabled people to attend, and to enjoy.
The physical basics. Ramps, wider aisles inside the building, grab rails, decent lighting, clearly written signs, etc, including access onto the stage, if needed.
Fully accessible toilets. Some of us need to use a toilet more often, or more urgently, than you might expect. (Top tip, this isn’t a place to store a mop and bucket, or a vacuum cleaner). Not everyone with a disability has a wheelchair, and sometimes you might not know why someone uses the accessible toilet. Disabled people should not need to explain their disabilities.
Free tickets for carers. And free access to building services for carers accompanying the disabled writer for the journey.
If speaking at events, please make sure your face can be seen. People with full or partial hearing loss might need to see your mouth.
We need to be comfortable, please. We’re not expecting soft armchairs and fluffy carpets, but if we need a cushioned chair, please don’t dismiss the request. We’re not trying to be difficult.
If appropriate, please consider recording the event so it can be watched online by those who can’t get there.
In general, if you are running an event and you would like information on how to make it more accessible for disabled people, ask us. We’re good at this stuff. We do it every day.
There are many events being run with inclusivity in mind. Take the waiting lines at Hay Festival: chairs set away from the crowds, a separate door to the venues, understanding stewards. The Edinburgh International Book Festival is doing all kinds of things right, and making a big difference. Even smaller festivals often have quiet spaces available for people to take medication in private, or rest.
Earlier this year I went to a writing event in a castle. I walk slowly, with a stick, and I need to take regular rests. At first glance, an entire day in a building riddled with stone staircases would be impossible, but the organisers helped me map out a route I could cope with, and provided comfortable seating, and easy access to the bathrooms. The event was brilliant, and what made it even easier was in booking my ticket, they asked me if I had any disability issues that they could help me manage. One simple question. It might sound a little thing, but it isn’t.
Managing health problems can be exhausting. It’s not always having the wobbly legs, or a spinal injury, or being deaf, or blind, or having motor neurone disease, or lupus, that makes us feel different. If an entry form has a box to tick, or if an event organiser asks the question, then the disabled person is not always the one to push themselves forward.
The conversation about writing and disability might seem unnecessary, but to those of us in constant dialogue with the bits of ourselves that don’t work, it’s everything.
Murphy’s short story “Unclean” was published in literary journal Stinging Fly, and she is working on her début novel. She tweets at @scribblingink1