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“If I’m not writing honestly there’s no point in writing at all” – Q & A with Author Holly Smale

Holly Smale is the author of the incredible Geek Girl and Valentine’s Young Adult series. At the age of 39, after decades of always feeling different, Holly was diagnosed with autism and everything about Geek Girls’ Harriet – and Holly’s life – made more sense.

Her new book The Cassandra Complex is her first foray into adult fiction and explores how an autistic and neurodivergent adults traverse relationships and life differently.

I’m overjoyed to share my Q&A with Holly below.


What inspired you to write The Cassandra Complex ?

I had the basic idea for The Cassandra Complex six years ago, after a particularly confusing break-up. It had ended abruptly, I had zero ideas why, and I spent a long time looping through the relationship in my head and trying to work out what had gone wrong and what I could have done differently. I blamed myself for it.

All I wanted was to travel through time so I could edit the relationship, and understand it better (and maybe create a different ending). When I finally emerged from my bewildered and obsessive ‘looping’, I realised that was an idea for a book: a woman who can time travel, and uses it to try and fix her relationship.

But it didn’t feel like a full story at that point, and a lot of the feedback I was getting from family and friends was why? Why would a grown adult loop backwards, obsessively, to unpick a short relationship that had fallen apart? Why can’t she just… move on?

It was only when I got my autism diagnosis, and I abruptly made sense to myself, that the story suddenly made sense too. It was about a woman who was stuck in a loop – repeating – because she’s autistic, and that’s the way her brain works.

The need for familiarity, repetition, and patterns – combined with this aching loneliness and deep need for human connection and love – was what drove her. And, obviously, it was more than just about a romantic relationship.

It was about all of her connections with other people, and it was less about trying to fix her relationship with her ex-boyfriend and more about trying to fix herself. 

Can you tell us a bit about the book in your own words?

On the third worst day of her life, Cassandra Penelope Dankworth is dumped by her boyfriend, fired from her job and told to leave her flat by flatmates who don’t like her.

When she discovers she has the power to turn back time, she uses it to try and fix her life: get her boyfriend back, save her job and fix the relationships she seems to have screwed up. And – as expected – nothing turns out quite as she predicts.

It’s a story about love, connection, grief and being human. With a rather large splash of Greek Mythology and a little bit of magic.

What difference has being diagnosed as autistic made in your writing style?

Honestly, there isn’t an enormous difference: my writing has always been about being honest, and exploring the parts of ourselves that we feel ashamed of and try to hide.

From the beginning, it has always been a conscious dive into the differences between us all, even when I didn’t know quite what that ‘difference’ was or have a ‘label’ for it.

I’ve always had an incredibly strong sense of self, and a recognisable narrative voice: even before I knew I was autistic.

I think the major change has been that – where a lot of my energy used to go into trying to explore that difference by essentially stabbing at it in the dark – now I know what I’m trying to say. I know exactly what those differences are because I know myself even better.

So there’s been a subtle shift: I’m spending less time trying to ‘work it out’ on the page, and more time expressing it as accurately as possible and essentially ‘unmasking’ in the process. 

It’s not an enormous change – I don’t write in a different way. Anyone who has read my books before will absolutely recognise my voice in my adult books. But the energy and the focus have been honed and sharpened. That’s been truly liberating.

Why was telling all sides of Cassie’s story – the good bad and in-between-  important?

Humans are multi-dimensional: none of us are all good, or all bad. We are all a fascinating combination of the awful and the beautiful, the shameful and the inspiring, and that goes for everyone.

I think one of the problems when you’re writing a minority – or anyone who hasn’t traditionally been given a voice – is that there are both external and internal pressures to slightly flatten this. And it makes sense.

As autistic people, we’re so used to awful stereotypes and offensive characterisation – the ‘autism is bad’ message – that the urge is incredibly strong to try and rebalance it.

You want to write an amazing, perfect, completely flawless and loveable version of an autistic person who in some way counteracts all the hideous stuff that’s already out there, in the public.

The problem is that, by doing that, we reduce ourselves to one-dimensional characters, and we reduce our characters to essentially positive PR stunts.

There are many, many things that I – as an autistic person, but also as a human – do that are unlikeable, unattractive, off-putting and frankly shameful, on occasion. If I wipe all of those out to create a character that feels ‘easier to like’ and ‘entirely relatable’, I’m doing a disservice to both humans and real autistic people.

The point of writing our experiences is, to me, to tell the truth. And, given that my character is – like many autistic people – told she’s ‘unlikeable’ by the rest of the world so frequently, it seemed like a massive disservice (and lazy writing) not to show why.

Instead of simply erasing those parts of the character, I tried to show the thinking and the emotion and the reasoning behind it. Showing behind the curtain, rather than pretending the curtain just isn’t there.

For me, if I’m not writing honestly there’s no point in writing at all. 

This is your adult debut how was it different to writing for children?

Honestly, it was an absolute joy. I’ve been writing children’s books for a decade, and I genuinely love it. But I’m also a 41 year old woman now and it’s been bliss to write about an adult, with adult content and adult issues.

I enjoyed swearing so much, my editor counted 224 F-words in the first draft (and made me take a lot of them out, obviously, because most of them were totally unnecessary).

I got to write about sex, and an office job, and pubs, and getting drunk. There was a real sense of freedom. I didn’t have to consciously step into a teenager’s mind anymore, or monitor what I was saying or how I was saying it: I could write as me.

It was a little like having the writing stabiliser wheels taken off my bike and I just shot straight out of the gate. I adored every minute of it. 

Relationships are a major driver in the story, why is it vital to show neurodivergent relationships and how autism can affect relationships?

For me, it was less important to show the impact of neurodivergence on relationships and more important to explore my personal relationship with them, as an autistic person.

A lot of neurodivergent people have very happy, very close relationships – particularly romantic ones – and I’m in no way claiming that this isn’t the case or that autism is some kind of general ‘barrier’ to love.

But my experience has been quite unusual, especially for someone my age, and it’s something I’ve historically been ashamed of and tried to hide. I struggle to connect with people, especially romantically, and I find relationships exhausting and confusing.

The ‘mask’ I wear in public just isn’t sustainable on a daily, intimate basis, and that has created difficulties in my love life, as well as with friendships. It was important to me that I write about that honestly, and reflect my experiences as brutally and candidly as I could.

I would never try to insinuate that my experience is across the board, or ‘an autistic one’: just that mine is one version of the impact being autistic can have on an individual. 

I think a lot of autistic people struggle with relationships in some way – even if it’s just in making friends – and that isolation and sense of ‘distance’ from the world seems to be quite a common one. It’s one that doesn’t get talked about enough, because we’re still ashamed and embarrassed about it.

I wanted to explore that, and the complicated dynamic between needing to be alone and also craving human connections.

Was that an intentional decision to focus on relationships?

Absolutely: everything I do and everything I write is intentional. In fact, the ‘shame’ that came from my inexperience in relationships – especially romantic – was part of what stopped me writing an adult book for so long.

It’s easier to hide this naivety when you’re writing from the perspective of a teenager who isn’t expected to know everything. It’s a lot more vulnerable to write an adult who still doesn’t know what they’re doing.

The idea of admitting that publicly – in creating a character who isn’t what we tend to see in fiction – was terrifying. Would anyone be able to relate? Would anyone find it realistic? Would I ever be able to expose myself like that?

But the truth is: I’ve spent a lot of my life, searching literature for experiences like my own and finding very little. It’s incredibly isolating, and seems to confirm that you’re a weirdo, a freak, an outlier. And, as a writer, I realised that all I could do was bring my experiences and my perspective to the table, and simply put it out there as honestly as I could.

It wasn’t easy, and there were a lot of passages in this book where I actively cringed while writing them. I know exactly how weird and annoying and unlikeable Cassie can be, and – by extension – I can too.

But, for me, writing is about shining a light on what it’s like to be a human, and the only thing I could offer was my truth and hope it connected with others. My ego – my need to be liked – had to be put aside if I was going to create anything worth reading.

Your hugely successful book Geek Girl is currently being adapted for TV, how does that feel? 

It’s the dream, obviously, and I’ve been vehemently manifesting a book-to-TV deal since I was six years old so I’m still pinching myself.

It’s so exciting to see something that has lived inside my head for so many years becoming real and three-dimensional, with cast and locations and stylists and an entirely brilliant team behind it. But I’d be lying if it wasn’t also a bit overwhelming and scary.

The world I built in Geek Girl is incredibly personal to me – it’s like my family – and Harriet is my fictional child. So I’m super protective, and also a total control freak: it’s a bit of an exercise in trust, letting go, and allowing other people to bring their visions and talents to the table.

I have total faith, though. They know what they’re doing, and I can’t wait to see my books come to life with an openly autistic female protagonist on a mainstream, worldwide platform. 

Why is it important to write about autistic and neurodivergent characters in all their forms? Especially those who are imperfect?

There really isn’t that much literature out there featuring autistic characters, written from authentically autistic perspectives. It’s changing, thank goodness, but it’s not a viewpoint we’ve seen much of, traditionally.

Representation – as we know – matters, because we all deserve to see ourselves in the world represented by books and television. We deserve to know that people like us, people built like us and wired like us, exist, and are valuable, and have voices worth being listened to.

We’re main characters too, and we deserve to be accurately written about, by people who have lived that experience. I want to celebrate neurodiversity, but I don’t think the way to do that is to create ‘perfect’ versions of us. We’re real humans – not flat tropes or ‘quirky characters’ – with flaws and issues and traumas and darkness, and we deserve for that to all be represented.

I will never claim to represent all autistic people – it would be impossible, even if I wanted to. I can only offer one autistic voice, from one autistic viewpoint. That’s the only accuracy I can rely upon: my own experiences.

The more true voices that are out there, the more the narrative around autism and neurodivergency will begin to shift from stereotype to real, authentic representation. And that’s a very exciting slice of history to be part of.


The Cassandra Complex by Holly Smale is published by Penguin and available now.


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ON HIATUS: Statement on the future of The Unwritten

Updated 28/08/23: Please note, we are on hiatus and emails will not be checked. Our Twitter is also not monitored so please follow editor Rachel on Twitter if you want to keep in touch.

I wanted to update you all on the future of The Unwritten. As you all know I started The Unwritten to give disabled people the space to tell our own authentic stories in a way mainstream media just wasn’t allowing. And though it’s only been a short time, I truly believe we’ve made waves.

However, as my career grows and my conditions worsen, I’ve had to make an incredibly hard decision.

From August, The Unwritten will be on a 6 months hiatus, during which time I will be assessing its and my own direction. 

In the meantime, we have a raft of content still to get out and will be publishing everything we’ve commissioned between now and June. To allow this to happen, we will not be accepting any more pitches. 

We will also still ensure that we pay all writers what they deserve. With this in mind, I’d love it if supporters still did so until July, to ensure all invoices can be paid asap. I want to stress that this decision wasn’t made because of a lack of funding, but because I need to listen to my own body. 

I’m so proud of the voices we’ve elevated and the content we’ve published. Since our launch in December 2020, we’ve published over 200 pieces on so many different aspects of disabled life, paying nearly 100 disabled writers over £3,000. 

The Unwritten from its inception has been a crowdfunded publication and while we’re so grateful for everything donated, this has meant I’ve never been able to pay editors, though I’m very lucky and thankful that Cath, Caroline and Hannah have donated their time. 

This has however meant the majority of running the site has been down to me – with the amazing Laura as inbox gremlin these last couple of months.

While I try to publish as much as I can, I am just one person and a disabled one at that. This is why, for the sake of my mental and physical health, I’ve made the decision to pause The Unwritten. This hasn’t been a decision I’ve made lightly, and I feel tremendously guilty about doing so, but I think now is the right time.

Thank you so much to all of our writers, supporters and readers who have always been there. This isn’t goodbye, it’s see you in a little while.

Rachel Charlton-Dailey

Founder and Editor-in-Chief

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Employers need to do more than just celebrate neurodiversity

This week is neurodiversity celebration week, a time when neurodiverse people show that we’re proud of who we are. It’s estimated that 1 in 7 people in the UK has a neurodiverse condition.

The idea of the week in essence is a great thing, but like most awareness weeks, without action it amounts to nothing.

I fully believe neurodiversity is a thing to be celebrated, without mine I wouldn’t be half as creative, straight-talking or able to chat to anyone about anything – all great skills for a freelance writer. 

However being neurodiverse in the workplace comes with challenges that neurotypical people (who don’t have a neurodiverse condition) don’t even have to think about.

For example, I have auditory processing issues, meaning my brain takes a minute to catch up to the information I’ve just been told and I often wont take in information first time. So if I’m being told something important I need it in writing and meetings or phone calls will often need to be recorded or summarised after. 

I also struggle with timekeeping and I’m nearly always late to every single thing I’m supposed to be at. I’ve tried not being late but inevitably it doesn’t work so instead I set alarms and manage people’s expectations. I’ve found for the most part people are understanding, but we need to change the narrative around lateness and the idea that it means not caring.

MP Emma Lewel-Buck previously told The Mirror that when she was running for office she found it difficult to access vital data because the membership list spreadsheet format was inaccessible to her “Campaigning was taking me twice as long because the format just didn’t function in the way that I do”

There are simple fixes to all of these things that employers can do to make life easier for neurodivergent people, but the fact they are still seen as “special adjustments” are holding disabled and neurodiverse people back. 

The problem here is that it falls to the individual neurodivergent person to inform and educate their employer or educator and many don’t have the confidence or feel like they can safely do that. 

There’s also the mental load this takes that many of us just don’t have the capacity for. If these actions are already in place for everyone, those of us who feel we can’t speak up can still be supported .

There’s also the issue with how neurodivergent people are still treated in society, autism is a punchline or synonym for unfeeling, and ADHD is constantly treated like it’s not real. Lesser known conditions like dyspraxia are still given the outdated label of clumsiness, which is then made fun of and often not associated with neurological issues such as problems with planning or processing.

While many employers and education settings now almost boast and how inclusive they are, the fact so many disabled and neurodivergent people are out of work speaks for itself

If we truly want neurodiversity to be celebrated, as it should be, we need to give neurodivergent people something to celebrate and the chance to thrive at work.

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The Best Fiction Books by Disabled Authors Coming in 2023

As it’s World Book day, we wanted to shine a light on some of the incredible disabled authors who are writing fantastic stories with disabled characters. It’s so important that disabled people see themselves in stories of all kinds without their disabilities being the main plot point, so here are some we can’t wait to read. Click on the titles to pre-order and buy.

Swifter than Starlight by Cerrie Burnell – 13th July

Set ten years after last year’s smash fairytale retelling Wilder than Midnight, this see’s a return to the faraway woods that have been changed by time. It’s the fascinating story of found family, smart girls getting in and out of trouble and stepping out of your comfort zone.

Like a curse Elle Mcnicollout now

The follow-up to Like a Charm sees neurodivergent and magical Rayma trying to rescue her beloved city of Edinburgh from the grip of sirens. The thrilling and heartwarming tale of acceptance follows Rayma rushing to learn the true meaning of her powers before she loses everything. This is the fourth book from the incredible Elle, whose novel A Kind of Spark will be getting it’s screen debut in the coming months.

The Cassandra Complex (UK title) / Cassandra in Reverse (US title) by Holly Smale – 9th May

The author of the outstanding Geek Girl has written her first adult fiction! This book sees Cassie stuck in an endless loop of a terrible day which includes being dumped and losing her job, but will things keep going wrong for her when she has infinite chances to get them right? Keep an eye on The Unwritten out for an interview with Holly around May time. We also can’t wait for the Netflix adaptation of Geek Girl!

The Stickleback Catchers by Lisette Auton – out now

The second book from the self-described “wonky author”, is an absolutely beautiful story about loss, family, and friendship. The story centres around Mimi and her Nan who has dementia. At the heart, the book is about accepting your circumstances and not letting your past stop you.

It’s a personal favourite of mine (Rachel) because Lisette always sets her books in the northeast so uses dialect I was ridiculed for. The way the kids use language that describes them instead of diagnosis is something adults could learn from, as is the love of gallows humour and poking fun at ourselves.

Vivi Conway and the Sword of Legend by Lizzie Huxley-Jones – 1st June

The incredible authors first middle grade book follows an autistic girl discovering she’s part of a magical destiny to save the world. The book combines welsh mythology, with friendship, science to tell a magical tale.

Adelaide by Genevieve Wheeler – April 18th

With a main character with Bipolar disorder, Adelaide is a modern love story from author Genevieve Wheeler. Channelling Dolly Alderton and shades of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, Adelaide has unflinching honesty, and zany warmth; this raw, vulnerable novel captures what it’s like to be young and in love—with your friends, with your city, and with a person who cannot, will not, love you back. 

Unseelie by Ivelisse Housman – out now

With an autistic main character and fae changelings in a YA fantasy setting, Unseelie has a killer concept. It’s the story of twin sisters, one a changeling and the other her human sister, as “they embark upon the heist of a lifetime for a mystery legacy”.

With a magical sister not able to fit in with the humans around her, this fantasy is placed to explore the fae and human world, as well as ableism in both, through an autistic lens. Housman makes sure to weave the real-world diagnosis into her fantasy world and mythology. 

Love Letters for Joy by Melissa See  – 6th June

A new highly anticipated LGBTQ+ romance story by the author of You, Me, and Our Heartstrings. A YA contemporary retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac sees Joy, a panromantic asexual girl with cerebral palsy seeking love advice from an anonymous student at her academy.

Melissa is known for her activism around LGBTQIA+ and disability rights, and this book looks romantic, fun, and full of the tropes that are making the romance genre a huge smash in publishing as of late. 

The Secret Summer Promise by Keah Brown – 9th May

Following the success of her memoir The Pretty One Keah’s YA debut is a summer read full of “nerdy queer love”. This is set to be one to take on your beach holidays for sure, and the representation promises to be great, especially as Brown is known for her activism in the disability space, creating the hashtag #DisabledAndCute.

The First Move by Jenny Ireland – 13th April

This debut novel combines chess, love, and navigating disability into one neat package, with a beautiful cover. Juliet believes girls like her with arthritis don’t get their own love stories. She exists at the edges of her friends’ social lives, skipping parties to play online chess under a pseudonym with strangers around the world. It’s this world, and the love she finds within it, that will spark a romance Juliet never expected.

Cosima Unfortunate Steals a Star by Laura Noakes – 25th May

Cosima Unfortunate lives in a Home for Unfortunate Girls – a school where any disabled children, or children deemed different, are sent, whether their families want it or not. There she makes new friends, and they begin to pull off small heists – of cakes, biscuits and other sweet goodies.

But it’s when Cosima discovers that she and her friends are going to be adopted by Lord Francis Fitzroy, the explorer behind the Empire Exhibition, they decide to steal Fitzroy’s prized tiara instead, all whilst discovering the truth behind her parents. This children’s debut sounds right up our street!


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The Best Non-Fiction and Poetry Books by Disabled Authors Coming in 2023

By Rachel Charlton-Dailey and Chloe Johnson

As it’s World Book day, we wanted to shine a light on some of the incredible disabled authors who are writing first-hand what it means to live their lives and offering support to others. It’s so important that these experiences are written by people who know what they’re talking about and we can’t wait to read all of these beauties.

Click the titles to preorder.

Non-Fiction

photo credits: Shona Louise

Living with Hearing Loss and Deafness by Samantha Baines – 27th April

Comedian and writer Sam brings us a guide to living with hearing loss and deafness that is packed full of advice and her trademark hilarious wit.

Some of Us Just Fall by Polly Atkin – 6th July

Combining memoir, pathography and nature writing to trace a fascinating journey from Polly’s childhood in Nottingham to her current home in the Lake District, where outdoor swimming is purported to cure all ills. Delving into the history of her two genetic conditions, Polly explores how these illnesses were managed (or not) in the past and how best to plan for her own future. 

This is a book dealing with not getting better, but living better with illness, and will speak to those with chronic conditions struggling in a world that wants to cure us. 

So, I’m Autistic by Sarah O’Brien – 21st June

Rachel may be biased here as Sarah (or Scaramouche as I know her) is one of their closest friends, but So I’m Autustic is set to be a go to handbook for anyone who has just been diagnosed with real life solutions. If you’re feeling lost after diagnosis or looking for help navigating the world, this is the book for you.

The View From Down Here by Lucy Webster – September

The highly celebrated journalist and activist is dropping her debut book, named after her newsletter of the same name that uses personal stories and observations from her life as a wheelchair user to empower people to be anti-ableist allies.

This book is an urgent call to arms in dismantling ableism and moving towards a truly inclusive feminism. 

See Me Rolling: On Disability, Equality and Ten-Point Turns by Lottie Jackson – 1st June

‘The world was sadly not my lobster, it was a skimpy crayfish from a petrol station sandwich and it was on the turn.’

This hilarious memoir is as playful as it is heart-warming, as Jackson recounts the somewhat-hilarious, sometimes-bizarre experiences that able-bodied people won’t have had.  

Moving Mountains edited by Louise Kenward – October

A brilliant, first of it’s kind anthology of nature writing by disabled and chronically ill authors. Louise says that it will “collate the relationship to the more-than human world from the perspective of those of us who cannot ignore the bodies that we live in”.

Poetry 

Too Hot To Sleep by Elspeth Wilson – April (preorder link to come

The debut pamphlet by Elspeth Wilson uses pop culture as a vehicle to explore the experience of growing up in a traumatised boy, finding joy and hope in the gaps. This looks to be a hopeful but ultimately defiant work of poetry, and one to watch out for.

Lying In: Poems by Elizabeth Metzger – April 11th

This poetry collection explores grief, high-risk motherhood and the complicated relationship with our past and present self. 

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Editors Notes: IPSO Told me Nobody Complains About the UK Media’s Ableism- so Let’s Prove Them Wrong

One of my goals this year is to make a lasting change in the reporting of disability in the media. So when I secured a meeting with the head of standards and regulation at the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) about guidelines for reporting disability I thought I was one step closer. Oh, how wrong I was.

IPSO regulates some of the biggest papers in the UK, including Daily Mail, The Sun, The Times, The Telegraph, and Metro – some of the worst offenders in the last decade of casual and downright overt ableism.

But instead of discussing potentially coming up with guidance, I was told by the biggest print media regulator in the UK that there was no remit for this.

Because apparently, nobody complains about the way the media writes about disabled people in this country.

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Christina Applegate and the Power of Disabled Hollywood Stars

Christina Applegate has rarely been off our screens throughout the different eras of her life and ours. After emerging in commercials and a soap opera as a child, she played a teenager on the successful and long-running American sitcom Married with Children. Then, she won an Emmy for her guest appearance on Friends. Other starring roles have included the Anchorman films.  

Over several years, as she recounts it, the tingling and numbness she was experiencing worsened. Finally, she was diagnosed during filming for another successful TV show, Dead to Me, that captured another era of life. She had Multiple Sclerosis.   

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Happy Holidays from Team Unwritten

As the festive period draws in for us we wanted to take a quick minute to wish you all happy holidays and thank you all for your support this year.

We hope that you have a wonderful festive period, that it’s full of rest, joy and not too stressful. If you find Christmas hard, as many do, we hope you can get through it in whichever way is best for you.

Thank you all for the incredible amount of support you have shown us this year, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do without our incredible disabled community.

Be kind to yourselves, remember to fight the system but always prioritise rest. If you need some extra ways to look after yourself, we recommend last year’s Happy Holidays piece.

See you in the new year,

Rachel, Cath and Caroline

The Unwritten editorial team


ps please enjoy Rachel’s dog and editorial assistant Rusty in his Christmas outfits

a black and tan dachsung wearing a rd christmas jumper that is decorated to look like santas outfit with a hood that has a white bobble on the end like santas hat
a black and tan dachshund is a green coat decorated to look like an elves outfit
a black and tan dachshund wearing a green coat decorated to look like a christmas tree

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The State Of This: How Much is the New PM Going to Screw Disabled People?

We don’t know about you, but it feels like the world is slowly imploding and with all the chaos going on, it can be quite tricky to keep up with it all. And news affecting the disabled community seems to fall between the cracks. So we decided to do something about it. Rather than rage to each other in WhatsApp, we (Rachel, your Editor-in-Chief and Cath, your Deputy Editor) decided to do something about it. 

And so this column was born; “The State of This”, because well, have you seen the state of it all?

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Editors Notes: It’s Hard to get out of “Work Mode” When it’s Your Life – but I’m Trying

I’m very lucky that I get to make a living out of something I’m passionate about. However, the fact that my job is so connected to such an important part of my life, is often a detriment to me.

I always wanted to be able to give my community a voice and be able to shout about the issues disabled people face on big platforms, but in doing so, I use a lot of emotional and mental energy. It’s almost impossible to stop focusing on the things that I do for work.

We’re always told to have a healthy work-life balance but this isn’t always the case when your work is about your community and directly about the issues you face.