The third article in a series by my guest blogger, Melissa Giles, about text, editing, and media accessibility.
For many people, career-building moments such as job offers and invitations to attend industry events are not only seized and accepted, but also celebrated. For others, including Sydney-based writer and editor Gaele Sobott, no matter how flattering or significant such opportunities might be, there may be no choice but to turn them down because of disabling transport systems, built environments and organisational cultures.
Sobott, who has a form of muscular dystrophy, usually works from home in a space designed for her specific needs. She received advice on aspects of the set-up from an occupational therapist whom she employed through the National Disability Insurance Scheme. As a member of the Australian Society of Authors, Sobott was also eligible for a benevolent fund grant to purchase an ergonomic chair that has subsequently relieved the pressure sores, neck spasms and migraines she previously endured.
Appropriate office furniture, computer hardware and use of the internet enable Sobott’s home-based employment. Her capacities are further enhanced with chat apps, meeting software, email and the track changes function in Microsoft Word. Being at home allows her to avoid ‘the stress of trying to negotiate a city and workplaces that are built for non-disabled bodies’. She says she can rest, sleep, eat, stretch and adjust the lighting as required, which helps her to better manage her energy levels.
During Sobott’s long career, which has included writing children’s fiction, editing publications, working on theatre productions and directing disability-led arts organisation Outlandish Arts, she has developed substantial expertise as a wordsmith. Because of her skills, she is sometimes offered projects that entail being onsite at other organisations. She now declines if her requirements – such as manageable hours, and toilets and buildings that are accessible with her mobility device – are not met.
‘The stress, physical pain and exhaustion I experience from [inaccessible workplaces] mean the work is not worth taking on,’ Sobott says. ‘I have learnt to say no, no matter how prestigious the work may be, how much I admire the organisation or people in charge or how much money may be offered.’
Her need to turn down otherwise beneficial opportunities also extends to industry events. For instance, a peak arts agency invited her to one of its meetings – in a room that she could only have accessed by walking up a long flight of stairs. The inaccessible location made Sobott feel like her presence was not important to the agency. She encourages event organisers to be mindful that venue choices can directly exclude people and devalue their participation.
Alternative linguistic paradigms
In contrast with the recommended term person with disability, Sobott calls herself a disabled person, as a political statement. She is comfortable saying that she has impairments, but refuses to say that she has disabilities because, from her perspective, she is disabled by society.
‘Although there is no doubt that I experience pain, fatigue and other difficulties due to my various impairments, the more distressing aspects of my existence and the factors that I find most damaging to my mental and physical health are social and economic,’ Sobott says.
She is committed to ‘developing a consciousness of how language is used to oppress disabled people and enforce disablism’ because, she says, language is never neutral.
‘We make choices about the words we use, and we have a responsibility to understand the connotation of the words we choose. I try to interrogate metaphors and other forms of speech in the same way I investigate and understand any theory or concept before I use it in my work.’
The political power of metaphors is important for Sobott. She would like writers and editors to replace ubiquitous and damaging pejorative disability metaphors with ‘innovative, politically accountable uses of metaphor that make people think more deeply and alternatively’.
New voices and perspectives
Much of Sobott’s recent work has involved disabled writers she has met through Outlandish Arts and /dis'rʌpt/ (Disrupt), a publication she co-edits with blind editor Amanda Tink, which was designed to showcase disabled writers internationally. Sobott says that such writers see many topics differently because of their embodied experience of life in a world that commonly excludes them.
When editing their writing, Sobott has noticed that, at times, she must ‘disengage from the dominant editorial and discursive paradigms’. One example is recognising that editors do not always have to enforce standard grammar and spelling when non-standard word choices are important for communicating particular emotions or affording particular rhythms.
Sobott finds working with writers who have disabilities rewarding for many reasons. In her experience, they often communicate new ways of thinking and are fearless about experimenting and improvising across a range of art forms.
‘They end up with exciting, surprising outcomes that often challenge the reader or audience to question preconceived notions,’ Sobott says.
For more people to access the richness of disabled writers’ work, of course, more work by disabled writers must be published. Sobott wants the Australian writing and publishing industry to be more inclusive and support this aim. She highlights Writers Victoria’s award-winning Write-ability Fellowship program as one outstanding example that helps emerging disabled writers to develop professionally.
To increase the number of disabled editors, Sobott advocates for the creation of dedicated internships with publishers and the introduction of employment quotas. She urges established editors not only to mentor emerging disabled editors, but also to use their position within their workplaces, unions and other representative bodies to agitate for affirmative action.
About the author
Melissa Giles is a copyeditor from Brisbane. She would like to advance the understanding of communication accessibility and related professional practices. This includes encouraging diversity within the editing profession and highlighting ways that editors and organisations can incorporate people who are often overlooked in the communication process.
This article was first published in the Editors Queensland July 2019 newsletter OffPress. Editors Queensland is a branch of the Institute of Professional Editors Ltd (IPEd) in Australia.