Growing Up Disabled in Australia amplifying voices of disability
Edited by Carly Findlay OAM, Growing Up Disabled in Australia is a new anthology featuring stories of disability. For Inform, Haley Zilberberg reviews the collection.
Growing Up Disabled in Australia highlights the stories of 47 disabled people from varying backgrounds across Australia, amplifying the voices of a group of people who are often silenced. Each contributor explores their own unique experience with aspects of disability, whether positive or negative, through their own lens. The anthology contains stories by well-known writers, activists, and political figures alongside stories written by emerging writers without previous publication. The stories are written as essays, memoir, poetry, letters, and includes one graphic story too.
There are contributors from different cultural backgrounds, with varying sexualities and gender identities, and across several generations. All these writers share disability in common, but even so, we are exposed to all types of disability throughout the anthology. We learn about individuals who are Deaf, blind, and those who live with genetic conditions, acquired disabilities, chronic illnesses, episodic disabilities, intellectual disabilities, mental illness, neurodivergence, and so much more. The variety of ways a person can be disabled challenges readers to redefine their own assumptions of what an able body is.
The social model of disability
There are a wide range of stories written about things like disability pride, intersectionality, struggling to get a diagnosis, friendships, treatments, romance, being in denial, internalised ableism, and discrimination. Each story is written viewing disability through the social model of disability. The social model asserts that people are disabled by society through barriers like attitudes, discrimination, social exclusion, and physical barriers rather than their own physical impairments.
But even so, ‘Growing Up Disabled in Australia’ challenges the way we consider the social model of disability. In El Gibb’s story ‘Forever Fixing’, she writes, “Was there space for both disability pride and finding my disabled body literally hard to bear?”, later asking “Did this mean the medical model was right? That I had to focus on a cure?” We learn throughout the anthology that you can seek cures and diagnoses or be happy to accept your body as it is, and neither choice is wrong.
There is space for a disabled person to be many things at once. They can struggle because of society and because of their body, and it still doesn’t give society the excuse to create barriers. In Robin M. Eames essay ‘Et Lux (also, light)’, they write “We are given many societal narratives framing disability as a fate worse than death.” Disability can be a source of pride and pain all at once. That doesn’t mean disability is a bad thing, something to fear, or that it makes life not worth living. Disabled people can live meaningful lives, and often the only thing holding them back from doing so are barriers created by society.
Growing Up Disabled in Australia provides a comprehensive picture
This book is many things at once, too. For some disabled people, it might serve as a catalyst to demand access and inclusion and find a sense of community and disability pride. For those who haven’t given much thought to disability in the past, it is a wakeup call to start thinking differently and create space for disabled people who are being forgotten and discriminated against, whether intentionally or inadvertently. Each standalone story provides a glimpse into specific experiences of being disabled, and layered together, the collection of stories takes another shape. This anthology achieves the difficult feat of painting a comprehensive picture of nearly all aspects of living as a disabled person in Australia.
There are very few things I disliked about this book. However, since the book is based around the social model of disability and the barriers that are created by society, I was perplexed by how small the font was and the frequent use of italics. While reading the book, I couldn’t help but think about how many people might feel disappointed that they’d struggle to read a book meant to help dismantle inaccessibility and bring light to societal barriers. Fortunately, there are other formats available and if the physical copy isn’t accessible for some, they might still be able to enjoy the eBook or audiobook version.
The power of Own Voices
As someone who works in the disability sector and often writes articles about disability and accessibility, I consider myself to be well-read on the topic of disability. I often scour articles about disability, read memoirs by disabled writers, and seek out “Own Voices” books with disabled characters. Even after deeply exploring disability writing, ‘Growing Up Disabled in Australia’ managed to challenge me with new perspectives and information I had yet to consider. Never have I been able to find so many stories written by disabled people in one single place. It left me both wanting more and wondering why it’s taken so long for an anthology like this to be made.
The stories weren’t always easy to read. Some explored heavy topics like abuse, grief, depression, doubt from medical professionals, and being treated poorly by family, partners, friends, employers, educators, and medical professionals. Even though these topics can be hard to read about, they’re important to understand. If we want to make positive change, we need to confront the things that need to change.
I hope that I start to see bookshelves flooded with stories like these. I would be thrilled to see ‘Growing Up Disabled in Australia’ become an annual anthology. And even then, I’m not sure we’d ever run out of poignant, powerful, and important stories about what it means to be disabled in Australia.
‘Growing Up Disabled in Australia’ is published by Black Inc. and is available via Black Inc. in print or ebook or in bookshops.
Haley Zilberberg is a Townsville-based freelance writer and social worker from Florida. She’s passionate about disability advocacy and currently works as the Emerging Young Leaders Project Officer at Youth Disability Advocacy Service. She recently graduated with her Master of Marketing Communications from the University of Melbourne.