• arts & culture

Writer’s Victoria has launched two programs giving writers with disability a chance to tell their stories and build professional careers.

Write-ability local mentor Thalia Kalkipsakis, program participant Kate Morell, of Wagga, and presenter Jax Jacki Brown, talking during the Writers Victoria forum at The Cube Wodonga in October 2018. Photo by Kylie Esler.

Write-ability local mentor Thalia Kalkipsakis, program participant Kate Morell, of Wagga, and presenter Jax Jacki Brown, talking during the Writers Victoria forum at The Cube Wodonga in October 2018. Photo by Kylie Esler.

Around one in five Australians has a disability however their voices are rarely heard in our cultural and media narratives. A report by Screen Australia found that only 10% of TV dramas included a main character with a disability, and within those programs only 4% of characters had a disability. People with disability are similarly under-represented in other creative sectors.

In an effort to boost diversity and inclusion in the creative industries, the Victorian Government announced a program of initiatives called Talent Matters earlier this year. One project funded under the program is Writers Victoria’s Publishability, an extension of their long-standing Write-ability program which seeks to remove barriers people with disabilities face in entering the writing and publishing fields.

Write-ability has been offering fellowships to writers with disabilities since 2013. Write-ability fellows receive a tailored mentorship program to enable them to develop their writing careers. The program also runs a series of writing groups where writers with disabilities get together once a month to workshop their works in progress. The writers groups expanded into regional areas last year, with a focus on NDIS regions.

The recently launched Publishability program supports writers with disabilities with manuscript assessment, helping them to take their careers to the next level.

Writer and disability activist Jax Jacki Brown first got involved with the program through the writers groups and then received a Write-ability fellowship in 2015. Now she’s a Write-ability mentor and the program coordinator for Publishability.

Jax worked with mentor Lefa Singleton Norton to discuss her work and get feedback on her project that looks at how her “lived experience of being a queer person with a disability can be understood through a political lens of feminism”.

“Having that touchstone of another feminist writer with a disability who is navigating similar issues in her life and her work to bounce my ideas off was really helpful,” Jax says.

One of Jax’s own Write-ability mentees, Fiona Murphy, is one of the inaugural Publishability fellows. “She’s an amazing Deaf writer who is looking at the role of society in shaping how we experience our bodies and minds when they happen to be different,” says Jax. Fiona is working on a collection of essays. “I’m really excited to see what she comes up with and what the full manuscript looks like.”

Macbook and glasses

Write-ability local mentor Thalia Kalkipsakis, program participant Kate Morell, of Wagga, and presenter Jax Jacki Brown, talking during the Writers Victoria forum at The Cube Wodonga in October 2018. Photo by Kylie Esler.

The other inaugural Publishability fellow is Mary Borsellino, whose young adult, speculative fiction novel-in-progress will explore what happens when queer, disabled teenage characters get a happy ending in their narratives. Both are Write-ability alumni.

Publishability will help participants move from completing the writing stage of their manuscripts to getting them ready for submission to publishers. “It just seemed like an idea whose time has come,” says Writers Victoria Director Angela Savage. “We’ve had this amazing opportunity through Write-ability to see some really talented writers emerge, and this is the logical next step to give them a boost and provide another level of support.”

Angela says the success of the Write-ability program stems from having people with disability involved at every level, including most of the mentors for the fellowships and writing groups.

“Having people who identify as having a disability at the helm of the project from the onset has been a really important factor,” says Angela. “It means that there are people who are very attuned to the kind of support needs that writers with disability have. It is clear that having someone like Jax in the role of project officer sends out a really strong signal about the level of support and understanding they can count on in the organisation.”

In addition to the fellowships, the Publishability team will also be working with Arts Access Victoria to create a resource to help publishers be more inclusive, based on AAV’s existing ‘Open Your Eyes’ disability awareness training program. Five publishing houses – Allen & Unwin, Echo Publishing, Hachette, Penguin Random House and The Lifted Brow – have signed up for live training so far.

“I think there’s some hesitancy for a lot of publishers in terms of what’s best practice language around disability,” says Jax. “How do you frame disability in a way that might be intriguing to the mainstream market, but not reinforce stereotypes?”

“[Publishers] want to support the manuscripts coming out of the Publishability program, but they also want genuinely want to do a better job of inclusivity on their own part,” says Angela. “We’ll be working with AAV to deliver something that’s really customised for the publishing industry, that will have a life beyond the project. Hopefully it will lead to not just a greater visibility of writers with disability in Australian literature, but also a difference in inclusive practices on the part of the publishers and the literary industry. That’s what we would really love to see.”

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Sources: Screen Australia Drama Diversity Report [PDF]