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Diversity, disability and the industry: Lisa Clark interview

Lisa Clark is Senior Commissioning Editor at Jessica Kingsley Publishers where she commissions mainly in the fields of arts therapies, autism, and nutrition. Here Norah Myers interviews her on diversity, disability and the publishing industry.

1) How would you, as an editor, like to promote diversity, especially with regards to disability?

Disability is a really broad, sometimes controversial term. I’d like to talk mainly about neurological difference and, to a lesser extent, intellectual disability, as these are subjects I work most closely on. I am one of the commissioning editors for JKP’s autism list. Autism is a really interesting subject because it is a spectrum condition, which means it spans people with typical or advanced cognitive abilities right through to people with profound intellectual disabilities. It makes for challenging but very exciting publishing. I have commissioned books for a range of readers – books for professionals to help them work effectively with people with autism; books for parents that are designed as a source of guidance, empathy and support for family life; books for individuals with autism to help them cope with the particular challenges they face; books for children who have autism, to help them to understand themselves and the world; and books for children who don’t have autism to help them understand and appreciate their peers who do. So I feel, as a JKP editor, that this already contributes to the promotion of disability in publishing and I hope to be further involved with this as we stay at the forefront of the field.

2) Tell us about a recent book on disability that you commissioned. Why was it timely and important to you?

I commissioned a graphic book, Something Different About Dad, by Kirsti Evans and John Swogger, a new edition of which publishes this July. Following the story of Sophie and Daniel whose dad, Mark, is on the autism spectrum, the book explores the family’s journey from initial diagnosis to gradual acceptance of the fact that there is ‘something different about Dad’. It is a warm, funny story that helps readers understand the difficulties that someone with autism might experience in everyday life and celebrate the positives aspects of loving someone with autism (in Mark’s case, his loyalty, punctuality, ability to help with homework for hours on end – even his detailed knowledge of car engines that has saved day trips and outings from breakdown disaster!), as well as validating children’s feelings about their parent being different to others.

Our way in to publishing graphic books came when one of our existing authors proposed a comic to explain chronic pain. We realised how much interest there was in the new genre of ‘graphic medicine’ and informational comics more generally. Where comics were once seen as the domain of geek culture, people of all ages and interests are now engaging with the form and they are accepted as sources of serious and authoritative information and experience. JKP’s mission statement is to publish ‘books that make a difference’, both to individuals and society, and we could see that comics had started making a huge difference in terms of raising awareness and making information accessible to a broad range of people. The form is very democratic so information can be conveyed to people who are not traditionally ‘readers’, as well as those who are – it’s obviously a brilliant way to disseminate accurate portrayals of disability and difference.

3) How do you see the presentation of disability in literature evolving in the next couple of years?

In fiction, I would hope to see a great deal more characters with a disability/difference (physical, neurological or intellectual) that just happens to be one aspect of their character and not the focal point of the storyline. It would be great to see more protagonists who just happen to have autism or use a wheelchair to move around.

Thankfully, using tropes such as physical deformity to imply wickedness are now unthinkable, but literature still has quite a long way to go in terms of breaking down stereotypes around disabilities. Even when disability is presented in a seemingly benign way, it can be quite unhelpful. I’m thinking, for example, of characters with intellectual disabilities who are typified almost universally as being gentle giants, asexual and inherently ‘good’. Or take the film, Rain Man – it raised awareness of autism at a time few people had heard about it but, almost 30 years later, it is one of the reasons people wrongly assume that everyone with autism also has savant skills. I would hope that, in time, people with disabilities are reflected much more accurately in literature as multi-dimensional individuals.

4) What is the current market for books about disability and how can the market be expanded?

It’s quite broad, ranging from academics in psychology, psychiatry and disability studies, through to professionals (teachers, occupational therapists, speech-language-therapists, psychologists, health professionals and many more), parents and families of people with disabilities to individuals with disabilities, including children.

5) How can publishing work to positively affect the perception of disability?

In numerous ways: by breaking down stereotypes by giving a voice to real people with disabilities who have been made voiceless by society; by disseminating new research and theory in accessible ways so that incorrect information does not prevail; by accurately portraying the diversity of people with disabilities and featuring characters whose disability is not worthy of comment because it is secondary to other qualities or skills; by sharing information to raise awareness of rare disabilities. The list could go on…

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