Disabled Voices Anthology Book Review

The cover for upcoming anthology Disabled Voices, featuring artwork by artist Shelby Brown
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Rebel Mountain Press is a small independent publishing house based out of Nanoose Bay, BC. With a mandate to focus on Canadian authors who may not otherwise have their voices heard, Rebel Mountain has become known in recent years for its diverse anthologies, including In Our Our Own Teen Voice, Breaking Boundaries, and two volumes of In Our Own Aboriginal Voice. These books have provided platforms for teenage authors, authors of the LGBTQ+ community, and Aboriginal authors respectively to share their stories. Their most recent project in this line of anthologies, Disabled Voices, is set to hit shelves this March.

A mosaic of fiction and nonfiction, poetry, prose, and visual art, the works of Disabled Voices all fall under the genre of “criplit.” Criplit, or disability poetics, first began to emerge as a genre in 1986 with the anthology Toward Solomon’s Mountain, edited by Joseph L. Baird and Deborah S. Workman. Although disabled authors have written since the dawn of literature, Toward Solomon’s Mountain was the first known anthology to compile works engaging directly with disability without aiming to elicit sympathy or pity for the disabled community.

Crucially, works in criplit like Toward Solomon’s Mountain and Disabled Voices embody the mantra “nothing about us without us.” In governance, this is the idea that no policy should be decided without the full and direct participation of groups affected by the policy. In regards to the disabled community, these words often apply to the development of treatments and infrastructure; however, they are also critical in circles of art and entertainment. In creative work, abled authors can far too easily spread harmful misinformation if care has not been taken to properly research the people they are writing about. Particularly, stories involving disability are often either glorious or tragic. Either the disabled protagonist overcomes the impossible and lives happily ever after to accolade and applause, or they suffer a heartbreaking inevitable end with no hope of reprieve or salvation. The former is often called “inspiration porn” within the community, while the latter is milked for drama while real people struggle to receive basic accessibility in their actual lives.

Between these two extremes, an entire swath of the picture is missing: the day-to-day of people who have interests and experiences which both exist outside their disabilities and intersect with them, in positive, negative, and neutral ways. Unfortunately, the common narratives have fostered a very narrow view of how disabled people are “supposed” to exist.  There is a rampant double-standard that disabled people are expected to uphold, by which they are neither allowed to talk “too much” about their disabilities, nor expect basic respect without unwanted outside analysis and discrimination. The truth is, whether people want to focus their lives around their disability or not is completely up to them, and understandable either way—there is no “correct” way to be disabled.

With a compilation of stories that explore a broad range of experiences in both visible and invisible disabilities—including anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, spinal muscular atrophy, face blindness, and many others—the authors of Disabled Voices together present numerous facets, some similar, some opposing, that make up their actual, real lives. The book is a valuable record of these experiences and opinions, one that will promote awareness and add momentum to the accessibility movement. While changing social narrative is often a difficult battle, it is through works like Disabled Voices that things can begin to change.

However, as editor sb.smith says in the Editor note, this book is not for abled readers.

While valuable to the accessibility movement, Disabled Voices is above all a voice for itself, a self-celebration by a community which has existed for as long as humanity itself has. It features people speaking, not as case studies, inspirational miracles, or tear-jerkers, but as people, sharing the strange joys and pains and contradictions inherent to muddling through life on a strange rock spinning through space. This book, like all good books, is about connection, that aha moment when one life recognizes itself in another. Generations of literature have accomplished this epiphany time and again for abled readers, but for the disabled community it is, unfortunately, less common—and in modern Western culture, even ground-breaking. To recognize and be recognized is a basic human need, one which this book reaches for with no apology.

By nature, Disabled Voices is extremely varied in content, and while not everything may appeal to all readers, there is almost certainly something for everyone. My personal highlights include “Pill Poppers” by Fira, “Safe Hands: a poem for autistic youth” by Marrok Zenon Sedgewick, and “Horizontal Poet” by Jan Steckel. From describing the “fight for every pill that keeps [them] even keel” to the horrors of asking to “[lay] down in public,” all three poems, along with many others in the collection, challenge common preconceptions and unequivocally request that their own reality be respected. I also enjoyed Lee Rossman and Niamh Timmons’ explorations of what new technologies may mean for disabled people of the not-so-distant future in “The Falling Marionette” and “Storage;” and “Night Terrors” by Lara Ameen offered a thrilling glimpse into a story in which disability is not by a long shot the main concern of a disabled protagonist. (Hopefully, we will see a longer installment published in the future, for it is a narrative that Hollywood sorely lacks.) I also enjoyed the beautiful visual art pieces throughout the book: striking portraits that exude celebration and defiance.

While the above works do share many themes between them, crucially, the stories of Disabled Voices are not perfect, easy, or homogeneous in their messages. Nor should they be. The experiences of this community are not one-sided, and they are not universal; they are as diverse and complex as the people who belong to it. The experience of disability is a unifier across all cultures, all societies, religions, genders, orientations, and classes. It intersects with every other difficulty faced by marginalized groups and has always existed even when those issues have waxed or waned within societies. Yet, it is also an experience unique to every individual: some will receive crucial relief from medical intervention, others find its side effects unbearable; some wish to be cured of their disability, others need only acceptance and understanding as they make their own path. No experience is more inherently “correct,” and every voice is invaluable when constructing a mosaic of the community as a whole.

Disabled Voices is not for abled readers. Every abled person should, however, read this book. Understanding people with lives entirely different from one’s own is not always possible. Feeling empathy towards a fellow human, however, does not require perfect understanding, only compassion. As any reader knows, there is nothing like a good book to open your heart to new worlds.

Disabled Voices is set to launch in March 2020, and copies will be available in bookstores, or can be pre-ordered online at <www.rebelmountainpress.com>.