Many Deaf people are natural storytellers, with a flair for creative thinking. And yet there are so few of us in publishing. As well-publicised research shows, just as people of colour are grossly underrepresented in this field, so too are disabled people, making up only 6.6% of the entire industry.
I started as many of us do - as an avid reader. While at university, I tried to attend book launches across the city, to discover more about what inspired writers and the books that they created. However, I was told time and time again that there wasn’t enough money in the budget to facilitate access. When I persisted, I was told that my enquiry would be passed onto someone else, who would then pass it onto someone else, and then pass it onto someone else. Often, they would take so long to look into it, that the event would’ve passed by the time it reached the “right person”.
Sometimes, event organisers were downright hostile in handling my requests. On one occasion, an executive director at a literary centre told me that by fulfilling my request for a British Sign Language interpreter so that I could attend an event, they had to reduce their programme to cover these costs. In other words, my disability was an inconvenience. Their words were devastating and stayed with me for a long time afterwards; the publishing industry is so tight knit, that even now, I feel a persistent anxiety that I am burning the very bridges that I want to build when I ask for what I need to be a part of the conversation.
In recent years, there’s been more visibility of accessibility, though this doesn’t necessarily equate to actual accessibility. A literary festival that I attended two years ago was promoted as BSL-interpreted but it later transpired that only certain elements of the festival were fully accessible. Further, the workshops that were accessible were selected by the (hearing) organisers with absolutely no outreach work into asking the Deaf attendees what they wanted. In their flurry to be seen as inclusive, they had bypassed the very community that needed this access the most. Increasingly, event organisers are very keen to invite praise when they feel they’ve delivered on accessibility; but there is an incredibly thin line between tokenism and inclusivity.
As we move into an increasingly virtual age, with the impact of the pandemic leading to long-term work environment changes, absolutely everything is online. And yet, the number of (closed) captioned videos are few and far between. And whilst there are notable improvements in this area, the majority of auto captions are unreliable and inaccurate. To suggest that your Deaf attendee use auto captions that you haven’t verified beforehand is lazy and irresponsible; though when the biggest bookshop in the UK doesn’t bother to caption its online author interviews, how can we normalise this practice? Whilst captioning can take time and resources, it is a small and fairly cheap task to broaden your audience base.
Expanding upon this notion, I am conflicted by the increase of online panel events from publishing professionals offering valuable insight into the industry and much-needed transparency. This initiative is incredibly generous, but they are not accessible, and many disabled individuals are losing out on valuable content. The question persists: how can we make the publishing industry more diverse if we do not apply a diverse communication model to our content?
It is worth mentioning that whilst implementing accessibility post-event is a kindly gesture, it doesn’t enable Deaf people to be a part of the conversation in real time. This means that they will miss out on networking, asking questions, and learning from the organic interaction that naturally occurs in these spaces. And we lose out as well when we deplatform their voices.
Besides the moral duty that we have as an industry - and in our society - to make our businesses inclusive and open to all, we are losing a wide range of talent by continuing as we are. Not only does this apply to new employees but also those who have already managed to make their way in. Many workforces suffer from a stagnancy of diversity; wherein space is made at junior levels for working professionals, but they are not given enough opportunities to move upwards. You exclude your peers on the basis of their disability when your content is not accessible, and by doing so you stunt their growth. I have, of course, a personal stake in advocating for much-needed change, but it is indisputable that actively practising inclusivity would enrich the industry in many ways.
If we are serious about diversity, then we all need to do better.
Aliya Gulamani is junior commissioning editor at Unbound.