"I think the idea of an emerging writer only being someone barely emerged from puberty is a problem. Some 25% of Canada is over 65. Where are our first time senior writers? The only senior writers we see are people who have had a long career. Who started in their thirties. And some of that is fueled by capitalism. I've had agents look me in the eye and say, 'You know, you're a fabulous writer. You're as good a writer as anyone I represent, but I'm just not going to take you on because I don't think you have five books left in you.'"
Dorothy Ellen Palmer:
I think the idea of an emerging writer only being someone barely emerged from puberty is a problem. Some 25% of Canada is over 65. Where are our first time senior writers? The only senior writers we see are people who have had a long career. Who started in their thirties. And some of that is fueled by capitalism. I've had agents look me in the eye and say, “You know, you're a fabulous writer. You're as good a writer as anyone I represent, but I'm just not going to take you on because I don't think you have five books left in you.”
You're listening to Parallel Careers where writers who also teach share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
Dorothy Ellen Palmer:
My name is Dorothy Ellen Palmer. To introduce myself, I would say three things: I am an adoptee, a disability advocate, and a very proud senior disabled writer. I've really taught the full range from K(indergarten) to older than me. I taught elementary school, including in a four-room school house. I taught in five high schools, including a brand new, diverse high school in Pickering where I spent most of my time, Pine Ridge Secondary. I taught for both universities of Ryerson and U of T where I taught teachers getting their drama certification. And I've taught creative writing, um, at various small colleges.
Sometimes I'm lucky enough to be asked to teach workshops. For example, I taught one for Grit Lit quite recently on including disabled characters.
I think people come to that workshop with a lot of interests, but with very varied backgrounds and very uneven understandings of why they're even there. Sometimes people come to a workshop like that because they're just curious. Sometimes people come because they're a raging zealot, as in they're the parent of a child with a particular disability, and they want to inform the world about that disability. So somewhere in between there, you have to find moments that work.
So what I always focus on is an understanding that we're 23% of the population, which means 23% of every population. And that's often a real shock to people who tend to think of disabled people as only being white, which is really, we know in this world of Black Lives Matter, one of the first things Black disabled activists say to us is that we have to also understand that Black Disabled Lives Matter.
One of the most important things to do is I talk about inspiration porn and how the traditional narrative of disability permits disabled people only to inspire abled people. We’re Tiny Tim we're cheerful, we're kind, we're accepting. We inspire them and make them thank God they aren't us. But boy, do we try hard that kind of inspiration and anyone who wants to write something like that needs to understand that that's a very dangerous and damaging historical trope that we don't need any more of. So I try to then turn people to, what do you want to write, how do your characters have agency, have you done the research--which is both book learning and interviewing real disabled people?
Dorothy Ellen Palmer:
I do sensitivity readings from certain disability angles and that's a kind of teaching. Absolutely. Especially in the exchange back and forth. Nobody asked me to do a sensitivity reading until about three years ago. The first question I got was to do a sensitivity reading about a novel written by a sighted writer where the main character was blind. And after I kind of stopped laughing, which probably wasn't the most appropriate response. Um, I politely wrote back to them that I knew nothing about being blind and it could not do a sensitivity reading for a disability I had no awareness of.
I've since had a number of really interesting requests. Um, one of the most interesting ones I got was somebody who, who sent me a short story, where they wanted to kill someone with their walker and couldn’t figure out how to kill someone with their walker.
And I phoned up a former colleague of mine, a physics teacher. And, of course, he did all the mathematics and concluded that if you dropped the walker off, say a second floor railing in a mall, it would fall and kill the person underneath.
I like it best when the sensitivity reading is an exchange of views, not me giving a stamp of approval. Like I always say that to them—I'm not giving you a stamp of approval. I'm giving you some ideas.
Dorothy Ellen Palmer:
Ethical representation by abled authors, I think is a really important topic. I think it's really important for every abled writer to include at least one disabled character in their book, in their secondary or cameo roles, because most CanLit books have zero. Theoretically, we should be every fourth character in every book.
Please don't write in the first person voice of disabled people.
And it's not just because you're likely to get it wrong, which they probably will. It's also because it's theft, it's theft of disabled vision. It's theft of disabled joy. It's theft of disabled pain. And it's theft of a disabled job opportunity because you can bet your bottom dollar that Can Lit, having to choose between an author who is abled to talk about disability and an author who is disabled to talk about disability—who might make some demands of you, who might insist that your stage is accessible, who might insist on captioning—they're gonna pick the one that makes no noise. And the disabled writer gets no job opportunity. They don't get to be the role model. They don't get to do the tour. Part of the ethics is including us. Part of the ethics is how you include us.
Excerpt from Falling For Myself: A Memoir
Let's all name the target of this story: ableism.
It's a word I didn't learn until my fifties, when I met the online disability community. Like all isms, ableism wields both a carrot and a stick. As a world view created by and for abled people, ableism normalizes, values, rewards, privileges, entitles, enriches, and empowers abled people. Ableism, shames, marginalizes, impoverishes, silences, punishes, incarcerates and kills disabled people.
The opportunity of the pandemic is to actually do some of the disability justice work that disability activists have been talking about for two decades. Pre-pandemic, I got really tired of sending off my checklist and saying, these are all the things I need, and getting there and maybe half of them were there. And I was, it was always my fault, right? And I was often treated like a last minute spanner in the works, when I had done my best to plan ahead and say, “No, I need a boom mic because I'm sitting down, the ordinary mic won't go low enough.” I had explained all that and I get there and there isn't one. I've gotten to festivals and there's been a step. “Well, it's only one step can't, you go up it?” No! And, of course, the reality is I could, if I really wanted to, it would put me in a vast amount of pain and a bit of risk.
But my point is that people in wheelchairs can't do it. I won't do it.
It's a very bittersweet thing for most disability activists to see how instantly and immediately virtual accessibility appeared in jobs, in education, in the arts, in sports, in everything that we've been asking for, you know, since the invention of the computer, basically. We were told that accessible literary events were impossible. We were told that accessible classrooms were impossible. So it's very bittersweet to think that these things only happen when abled people need them. But leaving that sour grapes behind and moving forward, the next question becomes, how do we keep it? How do we value it?
The story of how I became a writer is actually a very slow unveiling. In some ways when I was eight or nine on Christmas Eve, I got this incredible inspiration and I jumped up and I wrote this poem on the back of a Savette bag. And it began, Where has the meaning of Christmas gone? The meaning no one sees? Where has the meaning of Christmas gone? Has it floated away on the breeze? Anyway, at eight, I thought that was just the bee's knees, man. I was as good as any poetry I've learned in school in my thinking. And I loved the way I felt when I did that. For the first time, it felt like I wasn't supposed to be doing something else. It felt like I wasn't second best. It felt like I was okay at this.
I came from a working class family.
I didn't even think my parents would pay for university. And it turned out they didn't. I had to get myself there on my own. So it didn't feel like a possible dream. And when I finally retired, it was like, okay, you have done the second best job of your life really well—because the second best thing I always wanted to be was a teacher—let's try first best now. So when I retired was when I actually had the time to take it seriously and my career took off from there.
Dorothy Ellen Palmer:
My novel came out with Coach House in 2010. It's called When Felon Falls. It's the story of Jordan May March, who is an adopted girl in corrective shoes, stuck up at the cottage in the summer of the moonwalk. And it's about her relationship with her family, her relationship with a world that she knows is changing, but will not change fast enough for her.
I think when I wrote, When Fenlon Falls, I wrote it for 14 year old me. That novel is highly autobiographical and that little girl was so angry. I wanted to give rest, I think, and to give some righteous space to her anger.
So in the decade intervening, I think I saw myself writing more and more for my disabled community. And as a way of saying, this is still grounded in personal experience, but I want to talk about systemic ableism now. I don't want to just talk about personal experience.
When Stella Young died, I realized I had to write my memoir. Stella Young was a disability activist who I strongly identified with, who I really admired. She was Australian, she was a stand-up comic. She was a short red-head, she had a foul vocabulary, and she was so proud of her wheelchair, so proud of her disability. And she was the first person who said the problem isn't me. The problem is the world. The world isn't ready for me in every way.
And when she died very young at 32, I felt this immense responsibility to try to take what I had learned from her and pass it forward. So I started thinking about writing a memoir and I was terrified, um, because there were so many things in it that I hadn't ever talked about before, that I still struggled with the internalized ableism about. And as the memoir took shape, it became more and more clear to me that those were precisely the things that I had to write about.
One of the things I was the most frightened about writing about, because it is still such a taboo in our society, is the fact that I wear adult diapers. And I put it in the book and I took it out and I put it in the book and I took it out because I was so embarrassed. And don't you know, that is one of the things I've gotten the most positive feedback on from the countless other people who wear adult diapers or Poise Pads or some variation there of, and had never seen that in a book before.
Excerpt from Falling for Myself: a Memoir
We all have one true gift to offer the world, and now you know mine: I fall down. Repeatedly. Spectacularly. Like the pope, I'm forever kissing the ground. I trace my history by the scars on my body, by the times and places I've fallen.
Dorothy Ellen Palmer:
One of the writing exercises that I created and adapted for virtually every grade and every level of writer is something I call “Pass the Pudding.” And you ask every student to get a blank piece of paper in front of them. And in the centre, they draw a circle and they create an interesting character name. And then in a second bubble, like a little comic bubble, they give their character in age. Then they pass the pudding. Everybody trades papers. I would then ask a second characteristic to put in another bubble. So in someone else's paper, you would write, perhaps, their profession taking a good look at their age. Don't make them a nine-year-old brain surgeon, right? A realistic profession. Then pass the pudding. Someone else would write about their major relationship. Maybe their major relationship is their mother, their father, their coworker, their spouse. Pass the pudding.
And then I would start asking the class, what other category could we use here? What else might we include? And then once we had, you know, 30 some things on this one little piece of paper, it comes back to the owner. And then I say to the owners, “What would you like to do with this?” And sometimes they say, “Oh, well, I want to write a poem from this person's character. Or I want to read a play where this person is the main character.”
And then I talk about collectivity and how many hands make light work. And how any of the things that you got from other people here are the kinds of things you can get in discussion with other writers at any time. So it really helps people to understand that if you're working in community, that's about passing the pudding. That's about sharing.
Dorothy Ellen Palmer:
I think my activism intersects with my writing and my teaching because I'm a redhead. I think that anger is in some ways my natural state. And I also think that if you aren't angry that you aren't paying attention. I don't just write because I want people to be entertained. I want people to be entertained and behave differently.
I belong to the Disability Justice Network of Ontario. And I think that's an integral part of who I am as a writer because they teach me things all the time about what intersectionality means in a way that I might not have understood it if I were just operating on my own. So I think writers have a responsibility to join some kind of collectivity to help them understand what their own work is about.
One of the things that does encourage me a lot about Can Lit is that, although it's kind of like the tortoise in the tortoise and the hare, it's getting there. And I want to believe that the tortoise wins eventually. There have been changes in the last five, six years, in particular, about accessibility. It has become a lot more on people's radar.
I believe that disabled readers and writers can bring so many things to the table, but we have to be able to get to the table first.
You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Paul’s work, including his collection Shared Universe: New and Selected Poems 1995-2020. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
Dorothy Ellen Palmer shares her thoughts on the opportunities that the pandemic presents for advancing disability justice. In this episode, she discusses:
00:01 | Ageism in Can Lit
03:35 | Sensitivity readings…and how to kill someone with a walker
05:05 | Ethical representation of disabled characters by abled authors
10:27 | What inspired her books When Fenlon Falls and Falling for Myself: A Memoir
13:48 | How to teach character development with her exercise “Pass the Pudding”
15:35 | The importance of combining activism with an artistic practice
"You have met someone you really like on a dating site. When you meet for the first time, to your surprise, they arrive in a wheelchair. What happens next?"
Stanislavski's Circle of Attention
Stanislavski was a playwright who talked about the theory of teaching acting. One of his most interesting theories to me was that when an actor gets a script, the first thing they do is they go look at their role. That's their circle of attention. Teeny-tiny. What are my lines? What do I get to say? Oh boy. And then slowly that circle of attention expands. Who am I talking to? Where are we? What is the conflict? And that circle keeps expanding, um, to the point that only some of it gets displayed in the actor, but in the actor's head, they have a full and complete and larger circle of attention, which makes the small circle that gets displayed on stage realistic and believable.
What Stanislavski’s circle of attention tells us about character building, is that only a very small circle might make it into the novel or into the short story. Only two or three things from “Pass the Pudding” might actually physically get represented in the work. But in the author's mind, there's a much more fully expanded circle of attention because the author understands so many more things about the character that don’t necessarily make it into the work, but truly inform it.
Accessibility Tips for the Classroom
Practical tips for someone going back to try to bring more accessibility to the classroom or to Can Lit. If you get asked to do a reading or a festival, you ask the person, “Can a person in a wheelchair attend this?” And attend means get in the building. Attend means sit and here and listen, or see captions. Attend means being able to go to the washroom. And that is critical because so many public events are held in old buildings where the basement washroom is inaccessible and they think, Oh, well, you know, they can get in the door, who cares? No. If it's a public event, it must have a publicly accessible washroom. And that includes a sink, tap, towels that a person in a wheelchair could access.
I would say the next stage of accessibility is captioning and/or ASL. Ask if that is available. If it isn't available, you have a crisis of conscience. Do you attend or not? Do you give them your labour or not? Do you accept their money or not? Do you take a job knowing that a disabled person is being discriminated against because they could not take that job because the workplace isn't accessible.
Attitude is really, really important once we leave the pandemic. Abled writers have to ask those questions of themselves and ask those questions of any organizer or any event that they might be considering attending.