Succeeding on the Marginal Path

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.

Black and white headshot of Gaele, before a bookshelf. She has chin-length blond hair and glasses and is wearing a dark turtleneck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Interview with Adam Pottle

Voice: On Writing with Deafness

part of the University of Regina’s Writers on Writing series

RW: Your book Voice: On Writing with Deafness is rich with insights—not only about writing but about how your deafness influenced your writing path. As a book editor and a caption editor, I found myself nodding in agreement and recognition frequently.

AP: Thank you, Vanessa. It was a different and, at times, difficult book to write, so I’m happy to read your positive reaction.

RW: I’ve been taking American Sign Language classes for 18 months now, and between school and Deaf social events, I’m learning a lot about Deaf culture—albeit as a hearing person. But even though I know about De’VIA and try to support Deaf talent and so on, I think your book was the first time I’d come across someone speaking about Deaf culture with a sense of nationhood and citizenship. To you, is this a regional thing (e.g., in our case, a relationship with Deaf Canadians) or is it an international state (different sign languages aside)?

AP: Deaf communities are polymorphic. They include so many different dialects and iterations, yet Deaf people around the world unite through the common goal of accessibility and linguistic beauty. While individual dialects and languages may differ, the need to use Sign doesn’t. I’m not sure if nation is the right word, because Deafness extends beyond borders. Nations are divided and divisible. Deafness is not regional or geographical. It’s not bound in one type of body or one specific area of the world. It’s sensual. It’s physical. It’s linguistic. It’s cultural. Deaf communities possess a unique and beautiful character, and Deaf people use their language and their imaginations to eliminate divisions and create connections.

RW: You mention having varying degrees of control, focus, and effort but also being imaginative and creative. You say you’re straddling the hearing and Deaf worlds. And you talk about constructing boundaries, a bivouac, around yourself when writing, in an attempt to ignore outside distractions. Do you think all writers struggle with personal dichotomies and opposing forces, or are they more pronounced for you as a Deaf writer?

AP: All writers of conscience struggle with different forces. Whatever struggles I have are no more pronounced than any other writer’s. The only thing that separates me from most other writers is the way my deafness has calibrated my imagination and the way I think.

RW: The power and interiority of voice feature prominently in your discussion. But so does the role of silence, both as a muse perhaps and as a sociological trigger for discomfort. I laughed when the section on silence listed all the noises that bombard us and ended with “Not to mention fucking people.” I have hyperacusis, and my audiologist chastised me not to isolate myself from noise, but I admit I’m paradoxically uncomfortable with total silence when I’m alone. I agree with you that it can be sacred, but what is it with us and silence? Are we just too afraid of hearing a still small voice? Why can you embrace it for imagination and growth through writing, but people like me, a non-writer, eschew it?

AP: Most of us are afraid of silence because we don’t want to hear that little voice. I’m more comfortable with it by virtue of my occupation and my physiological makeup. My interior voice and I have a strong relationship. I work at it. Most writers work hard at it, I think. I can embrace it because I know what the end product looks like—if I listen to my inner voice, I’m better able to connect with people and ask questions that trigger my imagination and allow me to write stories. That voice is always yammering, questioning, barking. The inner voice is always curious.

The majority of people—especially hearing people—hate silence. They can’t be alone with their thoughts because they’re worried where their thoughts may lead. God forbid they experience a little self-discovery, so they turn to their phones or their computers or their video games. They need to be distracted. And the really frightening thing is that distractions are probably the biggest industry going right now. We love being distracted. People in power love it when we’re distracted because distracted people are easier to govern and manipulate. I’m hyperaware of distractions. We’re in an election year here in Canada, so we’ll have to watch for distractions leading up to October so we don’t end up with Trump 2.0 at 24 Sussex Drive.

RW: You write unflinchingly about suicide, self-harm, euthanasia of the disabled, anxiety, and other things that loads of writers wouldn’t put out there. So congrats on that: it’s really important that we normalize these conversations and own them honestly, as opposed to worrying about squeaky-clean branding.

But I want to bring up another wave of contention (especially in online forums): ableism. You talk about the artistic trope of the self-hating disabled person, disability–inspiration porn posts, and the absence of front-and-centre disability in Canadian (every country’s?) literature, which your PhD thesis addressed. We probably all unintentionally step on some toes with our ableist attitudes sometimes, whether a product of our socialization or our hurried and unthinking society. Aside from seeing the Deaf or disabled or other minorities better and more frequently represented in fiction, the arts, and cultural content, what else do we need to do to educate ableism away? Would writing about it more be effective because we spend a longer time in the consumption of words than we do on a streamed show, for example? I feel like writing would be a powerful vehicle for changing these world views.

AP: We need to recognize that most of us have internalized ableism, and we need to listen to Deaf and disabled people rather than dismissing them. Even in issues as simple as installing ramps, able people think they know better. Able people need to listen to their inner voices and ask, “Do I really know what is best for these people, even though I have no idea what it’s like to live as a Deaf or disabled person?” Pardon me for being crude, but able people need to unfuck themselves, shut the fuck up, and fucking listen.

[Vanessa applauding]

AP: I like your question about what is most effective. Written forms such as books and articles and essays are crucial. With streaming services like Netflix and Crave, films and television shows have become bonbons. We gobble them up, then forget about them. More films and television shows are being produced now than ever before because the demand for content—that is, distractions!—has never been higher. But they’re also more evanescent than ever before. They are much more liable to fade. Back when television had three channels, everyone was watching the same thing, and those shows lived on—and still live on—in people’s memories forever.

At the same time, these mediums reach millions of people, and if you produce it well and show people something they’ve never seen before, they’ll remember it, they’ll absorb its message. Hannah Gadsby’s comedy show Nanette is a great example because she deconstructs the foundations of comedy while she’s making people laugh. She delivers hard truths in that show, things that we need to hear. I remember my jaw dropping open when I first saw her show, then going back immediately and rewatching the important parts and screaming, “Yes, Hannah! You’re fuckin’ right!” She made me question many of my own experiences. Most shows on Netflix don’t do that, but hers did. She’s brilliant.

So the question becomes: How can you market books the way the Netflix markets Stranger Things? That is, as crucial information disguised as a distraction?

It’s a difficult question, a difficult issue. Writing is only as powerful as the people who read and absorb it. It’s a tough time to be a writer because there are now so many of us, and so many distractions, and we’re all clamouring to be heard, and we all deserve to be heard, but nobody gets heard equally, and some aren’t heard at all. There’s only so much time for reading and thinking, and none of us have anywhere near enough time. I can only create to the best of my ability and trust my perspective and my instinct as things that might help me stand out.

RW: Obviously, I was super interested in your take on captions and subtitles! You talk about the barriers they create as well as the doors they open for entertainment, personal, and professional situations. Can I say something a bit heretical here? As much as I advocate for access to and excellence in captioning, I sort of feel like captioning—even more than the broader term accessibility—has become the new shingle that everyone is hanging out to indicate how salable their product or service is. It’s like the feel-good sticker we can easily apply because YouTube autocaptions <insert eyeroll>. If I see one more person recommend a list of companies that produce less-than-stellar captions (and I know because I paid to test it out)… My takeaway from your writing is that, after improved access, your appreciation of captions is more aesthetic and sensual—as you say, synesthetic. But then, you certainly told it like it was with the dissertation defences and the book-festival experiences. How are you feeling about the State of the Caption and, for want of a better word, the politics of captioning right now?

AP: Captions are useful, but like all accessibility tech, they need improvement. People who don’t use captions are often the ones who take the most pride in them: “Look! Look what we have here!” But it’s not a catch-all. It’s a stepping stone. I see a lot of horror movies, and the captioning machine I use at the movie theatre always gives me a headache for the first fifteen minutes. Those little green letters, that long adjustable arm. We need open captions, but because hearing people bitch about them, we don’t get them. The one really helpful thing about these captioning machines is that they’re shaped like maces. The end is really heavy, so if any hearing punk gives me guff, I can beat him to death with it.

RW: Bahaha! And I know what you mean. I wrote about my experience using CaptiView and other assistive tech at the cinema.

AP: I feel like there’s an untapped artistic potential in captions. I was at the Saskatchewan Festival of Words last year, and I had a remote captionist typing from an undisclosed location. Who knows—it could’ve been a serial killer. Anyway, I was in a playful mood, and I said to the captionist, “We should take the captions and mix them up into a poem or something,” and the captionist typed, “Good idea.” Imagine that—watching TV or something and taking captions that are unique—like sound descriptions, or captions where the typist made an error, and combining them all into a long poem. It’d be the next Waste Land.

RW: I love that idea!

AP: But things need to improve. We’re a long way from equitable access. It goes back to ableism: as long as able people think they know better, and as long as they believe their needs are more important, and as long as they’re unwilling to relax their tight little egos, we won’t have the full access we need.

RW: My grandfather homesteaded out West, and my mum grew up in Saskatoon; prairie people are stalwart, perhaps necessarily so. I thought Voice was honest, rattling, and uplifting: very apt for your geographical home. There are insights in it that I’d like to include in my caption editing course because I think hearing about form and function is more effective when it’s given a face—or rather, a voice. Thank you so much for sharing about your writing and how it intertwines with your experiences. It makes a great read for students of writing or accessibility studies, folks in the Deaf community, and the general public.

AP: Thank you, Vanessa. I tried to be as honest as possible when writing the book. And yes, we have to be stalwart when it’s forty below without the windchill.

I’m not sure I agree that most prairie people are honest, though. Prairie people are, by and large, conservative, which means they hide. They hide their insecurities or cast them onto other people. They don’t like talking or rocking the boat—unless of course they’re publicly fantasizing about killing Justin Trudeau or murdering Indigenous people. Many writers on the prairies, such as Tenille Campbell, Louise Bernice Halfe, David Carpenter, Joanne Weber, Anne Lazurko, Brenda Schmidt, and Iryn Tushabe, are all doing crucial work to show prairie people (and really all people) how to be more open, how to be less afraid. I hope my book helps with that. I hope it helps by showing people—especially people who seldom get the chance to express themselves—that their voices are crucial and that what may be perceived as a vulnerability—whether it’s Deafness, mental illness, or disability—may actually be a source of strength.

Adam’s book is on sale as of March 2 through the University of Regina Press and other outlets.

Author photo by Deborah Popovici. Reproduced with permission.