As a visually impaired writer, I often get asked how organisations can help me participate, what I need to get into the building, attend the social etc. What I don’t get asked is how my lived experience impacts both what and how I write. For disabled writers to truly flourish, we need to stop assuming a non-disabled gaze when we read scripts and teach playwriting. We need more disabled people on that side of the table.
When I mention making visually impaired accessible work, many well-meaning sighted people tell me I should write radio plays or that my work should go on the radio. I don’t want to be pushed into radio because it’s the most convenient way to be visually impaired accessible. I want to write accessible stage plays. I want the buzz of that live shared experience but written for people like me and with my voice accepted for what it is. Many people in the early stages of their disability journey will say that they don’t want to be treated any differently and in an ideal world, that would be great. However, until we have justice, we need equity and the internalised ableism that makes us just want to blend in is the same mentality that makes us blame ourselves when we are constantly misrepresented, misunderstood and ultimately excluded.
Workshops on how to write and talk on how to navigate the industry often presume a non-disabled experience, all while describing how hard everything is. Tips often include “work on the bar” or “be in the right place at the right time” and when this is flagged as possibly inaccessible, it becomes apparent nobody has considered this. Barriers to this can be impairment and access related as well as attitudinal (This is speaking from a disability perspective; there are many other barriers relating to other forms of marginalisation). Earlier in my career, I often received advice to “show not tell” “We need to look at what isn’t said”, “Too much talk, too little action” and my personal favourite: “They haven’t thought about how this is going to look on the stage.” It’s only recently that I’ve thought: “Why wouldn’t I tell? Telling is my primary method of communication. Why would I think about how it looks on the stage? That isn’t how I’m going to experience it.” We are told to present people as they behave, but by people, we often mean non-disabled people. Most social communication is non-verbal which is why visually impaired people report a high percentage of isolation, leading to anxiety and depression. Support groups tell us that this isn’t our fault and we should be supported to make whatever adjustments we need. This needs to be extended to our writing.
I’m not saying visually impaired people can’t write subtext or create something visually interesting. (My neurodivergence is another thing that makes subtext confusing). I’m saying that this isn’t always my first port of call. Something visual often impacts someone who can’t see it in a way the creator is not aware of. There are other cues I can pick up and other subtleties I can work with. Subtext and staging are elements of writing drama and I do experience and enjoy them but probably in a different way and I need you to work with me on that. We are taught to look for certain things in plays and the presumption of a sighted experience is ingrained in us, even if that isn’t our experience. I never write stage directions because I can’t see them. This isn’t a conscious thing; it’s just that action unravels for me verbally so that’s how I tell stories. To be told that I need to get better at writing in a way I wouldn’t be able to access seems oppressive.
Marginalised voices can feel obliged to explain themselves before telling stories: groups not raised alongside western storytelling, for whom a heterosexual love story isn’t romantic etc. It isn’t just about the stories we see on stage but the way they are written and the rules of writing we accept. Having a “want” and an obstacle is capitalist and disabled people don’t belong there as we are constantly being told. Art builds on what has gone before, and it takes a lot to say to the canon “I cannot write you because you are not accessible to me” or “I have learned to write you and it has made me realise I don’t want to.” Over the past fifteen years, I have learned a lot about myself as a writer and have become much less apologetic. I generally opt for sassy audio description as I am a sarcastic person and while Audio Description is still on the margins and unwelcome to a sighted audience, I want to whack them around the head with it. I like to think that in doing this I have at least provided a talking point for other visually impaired writers to build on or push back against so that we will have variety in visually impaired creative access.
Let’s not leave this to the visually impaired community. Let’s all learn everything.