Introducing the Crip Collective: interview with Ever Dundas
What is the Crip Collective?
Crip Collective is an informal Facebook group for disabled people working in the publishing industry in the UK (including emerging writers and publishing students – all welcome!). The group is there to provide mutual support, share resources, and discuss the challenges we face in the industry.
I was partly inspired to set it up by author Kaite Welsh – she’d set up a group for women and non-binary people in the publishing industry in Scotland and I saw how well it worked, with people supporting each other, sharing opportunities and advice. I just thought something similar would be perfect for disabled people in the industry.
It’s only been going a couple of weeks and I’m already seeing good things come out of it – writers discovering each other’s work, people sharing events, resources, contacts, and general solidarity.
I know Facebook isn’t ideal as not everyone is on it, but it’s an informal group, and it was the easiest way for me to do something like this on a voluntary basis. I do feel there’s the need for something more formal. I’d heard someone had attempted to set up a Disabled Writers Network in Scotland last year, but they didn’t get the funding support they needed. This is a real shame, as that’s exactly what we need.
What prompted you to set the group up?
It was badly needed. The past couple of years since my debut novel Goblin was published I was navigating the industry and feeling very alone in terms of the challenges I face as someone with chronic illnesses. Whenever I came across fellow chronically ill writers we’d immediately bond and understand what we were each dealing with. We understand that we can’t do things like pull all-nighters – we have to very carefully plan to meet deadlines, and we have to work round our illnesses the best we can.
There’s a general assumption in the publishing world that no one is disabled or chronically ill. This assumption is built into various things like events and residencies and so on. It’s ableist and exclusionary. I was chatting with someone who got in touch about joining CC and they said: “it doesn’t feel like there’s much space for people [in the publishing industry] unless they’re running on 100% energy and function.” This is so true. Even if you’re not disabled or chronically ill, that’s not a very healthy work environment.
What was the decision behind the name?
The word ‘crip’ has been reclaimed by many disabled people, and I personally use it and think it’s powerful and a bit punk. As Dean Strauss so eloquently puts it: “It subverts the idea that disabled people should hide their disabilities to comfort non-disabled people; it’s a way to preemptively address ableist assumptions head-on.” (from Queer Crips Reclaiming Language). The punkness of ‘crip’ rejects the idea that we have to be the ‘good’ disabled, that we should conform to society’s expectations. I interrogate normative society in ‘Frankenstein’s Children’, my epistolary ode to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
What changes do you think the publishing industry needs to make, in order to be a place that welcomes and supports people with disabilities?
Where do I start? When you’re talking about (and hopefully doing something about) publishing’s diversity problem, don’t leave disability off the list (as I find is often the case). Talk about it. Be open. Hire disabled staff and listen to them. Be flexible. If someone has additional needs, be open to doing things differently and provide support. Never make someone feel bad about their access needs.
Don’t publish inspiration porn (the capitalist individualist narratives where the disabled person makes it through sheer force of will, completely ignoring structural inequalities), or narratives where disabled people are positioned as burdens and better off dead. Those stories are damaging, clichéd, and extremely boring.
Events & residencies
If you’re organising an event (or a residence or fellowship), have a list of potential access needs both your audience and your speakers may require e.g. wheelchair access, BSL interpreters, quiet rooms, microphones (Lighthouse Books’ accessibility page is a great example of best practice) and note clearly whether you’re able to provide these when you first invite speakers. It’s exhausting being a disabled person and always having to check that a venue is accessible, so for you to tell people straight away in the invite (and then in the promotion) is good practice.
In terms of something like a residency, time could be a major issue for some disabled people (I know it would be for me). You might advertise a post that is a certain number of hours a week, but can that post be flexible for a writer who is (for instance) chronically ill? I’ve often de-selected myself for such opportunities, as I know I would struggle to do it as advertised. I realise I need to be more confident in approaching organisations to discuss access and flexibility, but if disabled and chronically ill writers are made to feel welcome in the first place, that would be a massive boost. You risk losing important insight and talent otherwise. Musician Amble Skuse wrote a brilliant piece about time and access.
Discuss with your speakers what they may need – if you are covering travel costs for them, it could be the case that they need a personal assistant to accompany them. If they are chronically ill, travelling and doing events can be exhausting, so they may need an extra night in a hotel to recover (this has been the case for me). Or they may not be able to travel at all – if this is the case, could they Skype into an event? (And along similar lines, for disabled audience members who are unable to attend – can the event be live streamed? Or recorded and put online afterwards? Can people tweet in questions for the panel?)
It’s incredibly difficult to earn a living as a writer, but it’s even more of a challenge if you have a disability or chronic illness. In my case, I have M.E. and fibromyalgia (main symptoms: post-exertional malaise, flu-like exhaustion, chronic pain, cognitive problems), and I’m unable to work full or part-time to supplement my writing income. I can take on some commissions and other opportunities, but I’m unable to do the (often exhausting, even if you’re not ill) freelance hustle. I was very fortunate to receive Creative Scotland funding to write my second novel HellSans (which has disability as a central theme). I would have really struggled without this funding, but it isn’t a longterm solution (there is, of course, a wider discussion to be had about the Tory government’s punitive benefits system, and whether something like Universal Basic Income is the answer).
Many disabled writers face this particular challenge in terms of income, but this isn’t recognised in the publishing industry or by arts funding (although, recently Creative Scotland has set up an Inclusion Fund, but ‘inclusion’ is still very wide – I think there needs to be something specifically for disabled people).
Development opportunities can be expensive, whether it’s doing courses, workshops, or attending book festival events (hearing other writers talk about their craft is very important). I think there should be more funded places available on Creative Writing MA courses, with places specifically for disabled and chronically ill people who are on a low income. Lighthouse Books offer free places at events for those on a low income, EIBF had a handful events this year that were pay what you can, and the horror, fantasy, and sci-fi festival Cymera (in partnership with Napier Uni) had a number of free workshops available.
YA writer Julie Farrell recently wrote a couple of pieces on being disabled and on a low income and trying to access writer development opportunities:
Disability and Low Income are Barriers to Accessing Writer Development
Access to Writer Development: Creating Change
On the whole, disabled and chronically ill people working in the publishing industry are being ignored, much to the detriment of the industry. This needs to change, and I hope the Crip Collective will contribute to that change.
Ever Dundas writes literary fiction, horror, fantasy and sci-fi. Her novel Goblin won the Saltire First Book of the Year Award 2017. Ever has recently finished her second novel, HellSans, a sci-fi thriller. Find Ever on Twitter at https://twitter.com/everdundas and on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/everdundas/.