REVIEW: Disability

Sunday – 12pm-1pm, Vinyl Cafe

By press room Contributor Bridget Lutherborrow

“Everyone’s very hungover,” begins Julia Pillai. “Let’s not beat around the bush.” The Vinyl Café is scattered with a modest but attentive audience and the panel coax them in closer. Lined up beside Julia are Will Egan, Britt Aylen and Kermie Bryden. Not to derail this thing before it begins, but their names have a nice assonance. 😉 Despite everything – the hangovers, the daylight savings, the unbearable whir of the coffee machine – this panel is engaged, thoughtful and surprisingly perky.

Things get started with Julia asking how the panel define and model disability. Having type 1 diabetes, Will has come to identify as “chronically well.” Kermie enjoys this definition, because it’s more about how you’re living than suffering. Julia works with a broad definition of disability. People will often say “you’re not really disabled” when a person’s disability is invisible, but Julia strongly identifies as disabled politically.

Disability affects each panellist’s writing in different but profound ways. Having borderline personality disorder fundamentally changes Britt Aylen’s fiction. Explaining that, “The way my brain works contributes to my writing. I tend to write characters who feel a lot or feel nothing, because that’s the only way I understand feelings.” But it also helps her process her condition. Kermie has a similar experience, at one stage being bedbound and struggling with memory issues. Writing, it turned out, was a good way to keep remembering. Julia mostly writes politics, but says her autism contributes to being such a stickler for facts. On the other hand Will writes to give positive role models to people with diabetes.

Julia queries the rest of the panellists about how politics fits into their ideas of disability. For Britt it’s very personal. The only proven way to treat borderline personality disorder is cognitive behavioural therapy. Therapy is expensive, and even with a medium level role at a national media company she can’t afford it. Will agrees that issues of access are fraught – “access to services shapes the way we manage our conditions.” Without access the outcomes for disabled people are poorer. This is how writing can be powerful – by making these things apparent. Julia is much more focused on the media portrayal of disability. A major issue is when people who aren’t disabled write disabled characters but won’t mention they’re disabled, distancing themselves from the political discourse of disabled communities. The stuff that doesn’t even touch disabled people is still political and relevant to disability, says Kermie. Not writing a disabled character adds to the canon of underrepresentation.

As a good example of disabled people Julia brings up X-Men, commenting, “I think it’s one of the best reps of disabled ppl ever.” Will notes that having a chronic illness is a lot like having a superpower. You have to do all these extra things to manage to live a normal life. Still on an X-Men bent, Julia notes that people only see them as superheroes when they’re helping the normal people. Otherwise they’re a burden. “You have powers or you’re deviant and dangerous.” When trying to get stories of disabled people right it’s important to treat them as real people, rather than examples, says Kermie. People get hung up on making a character someone people can look up to, thinks Julia. It’s important that disabled characters can also be flawed characters and not inspiration porn.

When asked about using humour, it seems evident what the answer will be, the panel having been warm and humorous already. “I think humour is always appropriate,” says Britt. The best way of dealing is to laugh. The disability community are some of the least PC people, notes Julia. Being down to earth grounds the discussion, says Kermie. And a lot of stuff we experience is really funny.

As if to prove a point the first audience question is “what did you have for breakfast?” Julia had a milkshake. Britt had a can of Diet Coke. We don’t get to find out what Will and Kermie had, but I bet it was great.