Back when I was legally blind instead of totally blind, I was lured in by covers just as everybody else was. If I spotted a brown boy on the cover, I’d eagerly pick up the book, wishing to read different perspectives and experiences, and even injustices. I knew a lot about my own injustices as a gay blind man, but I was very ignorant of the system’s ways of stomping on POC every chance it got.
My naivety didn’t just extend to my friend’s experiences of being people of colour. I assumed that, by in large, the publishing industry would welcome me with, at least, semi open arms. After all, I was writing diverse fiction featuring blind characters and characters that were unapologetically gay, and LGBTQ+ books were selling really well. We Are the Ants, Boy Meets Boy, and, of course, the classic. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.
LGBTQ+ books were selling. So, editors and otherwise would welcome my disability fiction, I thought. I learned very quickly that the publishing industry only wanted a certain kind of stories. Specific disability narratives that fell into a traditional erasure plot or, worse, disabilities as a token interest.
What was even more sobering was how the industry at large pushed me away with their actions while their words said something totally different.
Hosting reading events in venues with lots of steps. Claiming that hosting a virtual author panel rather than an in-person panel would be extremely taxing on their technicians. Plus, readers hate virtual events anyway. Not detailing the thousands of ways writers’ retreats would, proudly, remain inaccessible to me and so many others.
These are just some small things the industry does to push us away in the hopes that we will give up and suddenly stop trying to be included.
The slights and excuses wouldn’t stop. The inaccessibility just kept growing, not shrinking. At a local literary event in Chicago, for example, I couldn’t bring my deaf friend along to watch me perform because the coordinator wouldn’t hire a sign language interpreter. I couldn’t pay for it at all, so I had to be very selective on who I invited to my live literary performances.
Even though the industry tried extremely hard to keep me and others like me out of the way, a pandemic erupted in 2020 that would force people to take events virtual. While there are some major accessibility concerns with tools and platforms used, by and large, a gigantic barrier had been shoved aside by Covid-19.
The silver lining was exceedingly small, though. My days transformed from hopeful beacons of productive writing time to anxiously fretting as the body counts rose in the United States and globally.
Publishers, though, didn’t have any more excuses. They had to have virtual job positions. Literary events had to be virtual. Writers conferences finally didn’t take place in inaccessible hotels.
Finally, I could participate.
While others are eagerly awaiting the vaccine to reach them, I can’t stop thinking about how the world will go back to normal once the virus goes away. When the world goes back to the way it was, this will give the publishing industry even more chances to be the gatekeepers they’ve always wanted to become.
Event organisers will use the vanishing of the virus, I fear, as an excuse to not host virtual events unless absolutely necessary. I’m even willing to bet many will do it in the name of nostalgia, while casually uttering, “There’s no event like an in-person event!”
I hope things stay as they are – remote, and accessible to all regardless of geographic location. I’m dreading the day non-disabled people will go back to their normal lives because that will leave me, and so many like me, shut out to a greater degree than before.
I can’t deny Covid-19 is a tragedy. I also can’t deny the kick in the teeth it dished out to a subset of ableism in the publishing industry and the world.
Sure, we still have a long way to go, but the pandemic has proven that our system is deeply broken and can in fact change to make lives easier with very minimal effort.
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