Categories
features

“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.


Love our content? Want to help us pay disabled writers and continue to build this amazing platform? Find out how you can support us

Categories
features

Welcome to the deaf club – Exclusive extract from Living with Deafness and Hearing Loss

12 million people in the UK are currently living with hearing loss and deafness, according to the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID).

That’s about 1 in 5 people in the UK. Look around you right now. Are you at work? On public transport? In a park? Find a group of around five people.

The likelihood is that one of them has hearing loss, because that’s how fractions work – and also I literally just told you that.

Chances are, one person in your family has hearing loss or is deaf. It might even be you.

Two people in my family are deaf, because we’re high-achievers. Yep, I have one hearing aid and my mum has two – she always has to go one better. You know mums!

Seriously, though, it is lovely having a family member who knows what I’m going through, but when I was diagnosed with hearing loss (yes, that’s the terminology medical professionals use) aged twenty-nine, it was a bit of a shock.

Not even my mother could really help me with my feelings of premature ageing and ‘otherness’. Turns out hearing loss isn’t just for people with grey hair and Werther’s Originals in their pockets – although, if that is you, I love you . . . and also please save me a sweet.

On average it takes TEN YEARS from noticing the first signs of hearing loss to actually doing anything about it.

Ten years is the time it takes to see at least two UK prime ministers pass through government, that’s 5 billion, 840 million miles the Earth will travel orbiting the sun, and that’s about a fifth of the time it will take me to pay off my student loan.

Wouldn’t it be great if this book encouraged someone to get a hearing test? Or, after reading it, someone noticed that a family member might benefit from a lip-reading class?

Or maybe it will help you – the person who has just been told they have hearing loss and are considering what that means for their future.

When I was told I needed a hearing aid, I cried in a bike storage room at Westfield Shopping Centre. It was the only quiet place I could find at the time and I didn’t really want to break down in the middle of H&M.

I was completely shocked at my own hearing loss diagnosis. I was utterly unprepared to be a thirty-year-old deaf comedian, actor, writer and broadcaster.

I worried that I would lose my job, that my life would become completely different, and that I would need a walking stick.

I’m not sure why I suddenly imagined myself with a walking stick; we know that they don’t aid hearing, but perhaps it was the idea that I was getting old before my time and that my body had already begun ‘failing’ me.

All of this came crashing down on me in that bike storage room in Westfield, and so I rang my mother and cry-mumbled to her until a bewildered cyclist walked in on my teary saga.

You may not have had as climactic a ‘diagnosis moment’ as I did, but it may have still been a difficult one.

You may have been born deaf and grown up coming to terms with an ableist society forcing you to live in a hearing world. You may even have breezed through all of it and only felt its impact later, like a hot curry.

Whatever your journey, the first – and most important – thing you need to know is that you are not on your own. There are 11,999,999 people in the UK – plus me – who can relate to what you’re going through.

No matter how ‘strange’ or ‘other’ or ‘broken’ you might feel right now (and, trust me, I felt all of those things), we’re all in this together and I’m here to remind you that you are not ‘broken’; you are wonderful and loved and you are deaf.

Yes, even if the audiologist tells you that you have ‘hearing loss’, you are allowed to call yourself ‘deaf’.

Deafness can actually be a strength: it can change your life for the better like it has mine (plus you will get a third off public transport, cheap tickets at the theatre, and can listen to Britney songs via your hearing aid without anyone knowing).

Welcome to the deaf club.

This is an edited extract taken from LIVING WITH HEARING LOSS AND DEAFNESS by Samantha Baines published on 27th April.

Categories
all features

Why chronic pain needs to be classified as a disability

15.5 million people in England live with chronic pain. Almost one-third of people with long-term pain experience high-impact chronic pain, which means it hinders their ability to participate in daily activities and enjoy life.

However, even though this condition is disabling, the government does not count it as a disability—and that should change.

Although there are various yardsticks to measure disability against, commonly assessed barriers are those of environment, attitude and institution.

Categories
features

What I’ve learned building a business as a disabled person 

Building a business as a disabled person has been both challenging and rewarding. The highs make it all worth it, even when the lows make you question everything. But it constantly teaches me valuable lessons.

Not just how to navigate the working world as a disabled person but also how to take up space and set boundaries – and stick to them! Most importantly how to spot and make the most of all the opportunities around me.

This article aims to share a little insight into what I’ve learned, in the hope that it will empower other disabled people to pursue their dream careers- whatever that looks like. 

Time is money

You’ll find no hustle culture here! Leaving behind the expectation of 9-5 Monday to Friday was the first thing I did. I have an energy disability, so in terms of resources, time is my most precious.

Take breaks, don’t take breaks, work from home, an office, or a coffee shop. Work with music, or don’t. Whatever you do, however you work- figure out your rhythm. It doesn’t have to look like anyone else, and it can change depending on what you need in that moment. 

I work best when I do three days a week, with two rest days. I need at least two of those days to be working from home. I make a long task list the week before to map out what the priority tasks need to be every day, what would be nice to get done and when I need to take a break.

Having this level of control is what I need to be as productive as possible, in as little time as possible. This has allowed me to produce a full-time equivalent worth of work in part-time hours. 

Even if one week, I have the energy to do more, I won’t push it and work until I’ve exhausted that energy. Having spare energy is great for picking up tasks from next week’s to-do list, but I also make sure I use that time for personal development, learning, networking or, most importantly, resting. 

Boundaries/ setting expectations

Setting boundaries is an essential skill for everyone, but it is particularly important for disabled people. Learning how to communicate boundaries professionally may seem like an overly formal practice, but it’s worth it.

Setting a boundary means being clear about what you can and cannot do and what support you need to do your job effectively.

It’s also important to stick to these boundaries, which can sometimes mean saying no to requests or delegating tasks to others. It might be daunting but remember that you aren’t going to get backlash or appear like you can’t do your job for setting a boundary.

It’s actually a really professional practice- you’re not just ensuring you’re going to be able to get the job done, you’re also outlining exactly what the process looks like for the others involved. 

If you’re nervous about giving this a go, you can start by changing your email signature. Here is mine: 

“I have an energy disability, and work part-time to allow myself the rest I need to perform to the high standards we promote here at SIC. If I don’t respond to you immediately, thank you for your patience- I will get back to you no later than 48 hours.”

You deserve to be there

Imposter syndrome can be particularly challenging for disabled people. We’ve been told that we don’t belong in this space, that we are ‘too much work’ or ‘ not the right fit.’ But know that this comes from a place of miseducation- and also that it’s not your job to educate the people around you about ableism, access and inclusion! 

We have valuable skills and experiences that can benefit the workplace. A great exercise I still do on the regular is writing down all my wins, and things I have achieved- think of it as a rolling lifetime CV. 

Another great exercise to do is to write down a list of all the soft skills you’ve learned from being disabled. For me, navigating an inaccessible world means I’m above and beyond in skills like problem-solving and conflict resolution. Maybe you’ve developed skills that have also been coping strategies. They are just as valuable as those you’ve learned through working, and need to be recognised and celebrated!   

Ask for help

I also know that I can’t do everything. Asking for help is one of the best skills you can learn. When I have a task on my to-do list, I know one of the SIC team can do better than me, I’ll delegate.

We also actively try to outsource larger tasks that will take time – not because I can’t do them, but because it will take me out of the business.

As a co-founder, I need to be mostly working on the business, not in the business. This applies to outsourcing support for market research, writing lengthy copy or marketing. However, as a small start-up, we can’t outsource the strategy, developmental and business-building activities only founders can do at this stage and that’s where I’m needed most.

There are opportunities everywhere!

As a disabled person, it can be challenging to find opportunities that are accessible and inclusive, whether it’s led by an organisation who have no idea about disability or neurodiversity, or the events are in person in the least accessible venue.

It can often feel like there is no help out there, but there is! And it’s important to keep a look out for them or actively dedicate time to searching them out if it’s important for you to find them. 

SIC recently won Disability Specialist at the RIDI awards, we’re on the Natwest Business Accelerator, and I have recently completed eight months of media training through Sounddelivery Media, all of which are hugely boosting the business and completely free. 

My biggest tip is to ensure you’re actively building your network and are open to opportunities. Anything that comes up, you need to screenshot it, save it, email it to yourself- anything that makes sure you remember to follow up.

We spotted the RIDI award application from following other businesses in our industry. The Natwest Accelerator had been recommended to me years ago, so when we saw it pop up in our area, we jumped on it. 

More tips: If you’re employed, tell your manager you’re looking to develop something specific. Look up free online courses. Contact your local business representative from your council and ask them to keep you in the loop with any upskilling/ development/ support initiatives. Look at local coworking spaces and see what free events they run. Ask for mentorship from someone in your field who is where you want to be. 

Community means everything

Belonging to a community that understands the daily struggles has been the most reassuring thing I could do- like a weighted blanket for the soul during the low times and the biggest cheerleaders during the highs. 

It was tricky at first to find the groups that are positive and empowering, as disability and chronic illness can be tricky topics to navigate- especially if you’re actively looking to push barriers, show up, and change narratives.

Be prepared to develop thick skin from people’s judgement or leave those spaces. Losing friends or followers is also tough, but it’s also important to remember that it’s also a natural part of growth. 

That’s not to say your community should be an echo chamber. Follow people who challenge your views in a healthy way, and be open to constructive criticism. 

The disabled community has supported me and SIC, and it has been a source of inspiration and motivation for me. Remember, you are not alone, and there is a supportive community waiting to help you achieve your goals.


Rachael Mole is the co-founder and CEO of Sic, which supports disabled and neurodiverse people in their dream careers and helps businesses be more inclusive. Check out the Sic Learning Hub for great e-learning resources and keep an eye out for it’s overhaul in the coming months. Rachael and Sic also regularly share great tips on Instagram.


Love our content? Want to help us pay disabled writers and continue to build this amazing platform? Find out how you can support us

Categories
features

When will disabled women in journalism get our Me Too moment?

Trigger warning: this article discusses in detail harassment, abuse and sexual assault of disabled women, including drink spiking and date rape. Please take care when reading


Every industry has grandiose ideas about its place in the world, matched by a sense of its own relevance; whatever that may be is exactly what recruits are told from the get-go, to bring them on side. 

Journalism is no different; the concept of ‘the watchdog’ for the underdog is embedded at a base level, ingrained everywhere you look. However, willingly lie to ourselves about the state of misogyny and harassment in this profession.

Categories
Columns features unruly bodies

Unruly Bodies; Remarkable Lives: Annette Kellerman- Nude film star and disabled mermaid

When I started to accept that I was disabled, one of the first things I did was turn to the internet for examples of successful disabled people. Perhaps this is a common experience — suddenly becoming part of a minority group, and needing to reassure yourself that people like you have thrived in the past.

What I discovered was a long history of collective and individual pain, but also of resistance and triumph.

Since then, I’ve collected a wealth of information on disabled historical figures. Some are well-known, while others have flown under the radar of popular history, forgotten by many and remembered by few. 

The more people I uncovered, peeling back histories that often erased their subject’s disability, or discovering names and lives that were entirely new to me, the more I wanted to share them.

So, Unruly Bodies; Remarkable Lives was born.  

There’s always a risk in writing a column like this, that it will veer into ‘superhuman’ territory. That in writing about disabled success, I inadvertently popularise the view that all disabled people can do anything, if we just set our minds to it. Of course, this isn’t the case. In the same way that it would be impossible for every abled person to run as fast as Usain Bolt, disability isn’t a monolith.

We all have different abilities, access needs, support systems, and environments, and each of these shape how much we can achieve.

I want to be clear from the beginning that exceptionalism shouldn’t be a prerequisite for access, support, and success. Disabled people, like every other person, shouldn’t have to be extraordinary to be worthy of equality or equity. This column, then, seeks to uncover disabled historical figures without shying away from the barriers they faced.   

It’s a celebration of the tenacity of unruly bodies, the political and social resistance inherent in disabled lives, and the exceptional figures who raised their voices against a world that was designed to silence them. After all, how can you be something if you can’t see it? I want these people to be seen, and I hope you’ll enjoy discovering them too. 

So shall we?


Annette Kellerman: Silent film’s disabled mermaid

“It’s the most ghastly thing in the world to be called the perfect woman,” Annette Kellerman (1886 – 1975) told an interviewer in the year before her death. “Every other woman was saying [of me], I don’t see that she’s anything.” 

Although they might not have seen her as anything, Annette Kellerman was an Edwardian trailblazer, who credited her success as a swimmer, vaudeville star, silent film actress, and swimwear pioneer, to her early years of disability. 

“My early physical misfortune turned out to be the greatest blessing that could have come to me,” she wrote in her book, How To Swim (1918). 

She was speaking of the childhood rickets that had severely weakened the bones in her legs, and left her needing steel braces to walk. At the time, doctors told her father that she would never improve. Despite this prognosis, a single doctor advised them that swimming might help her to build muscle, which would compensate for the permanent damage to her bones. 

Although she was resistant to the idea at first, writing of her “humiliation” over “exposing my weak and ill-formed legs,” this early hydrotherapy proved to be the start of a lifetime of performance and success. 

“Only a cripple can understand the intense joy I felt, as little by little, strength began creeping into my legs,” she wrote of those early years.

The necessity of building her strength meant that Annette rejected the ideal that women ought to be naturally slim and delicate. Instead, she defied convention to champion her body as something that was muscular, ‘masculine’ in build, and strong. 

“I’d caught the mermaid fever,” she said.

Pretty soon, she was winning major swimming championships in her native New South Wales. She even set the world record for the woman’s 100-yard swim at the tender age of 16. And in her late teens, she began performing as a swimmer and high-diver, delighting the crowds who came to watch her at the Melbourne Exhibition Aquarium — then the largest glass tank in the world. 

Already something of an outsider because of her disability and her gender, Annette first made her name in long-distance swimming. She was one of only a handful of women to attempt to swim the Channel between England and France, and in her first effort, she made it further across the water than any of the men who swam with her.

But despite her success as a competitive swimmer, performance was where Annette’s heart truly found its home.

In London, she developed a unique vaudeville show, pioneering the art of synchronised swimming, and incorporating diving, ballet — both on-stage and underwater — wire walking, comedy, and music into her acts. Multi-talented, she performed for the Queen of England at the London Hippodrome before moving to the USA in 1907.

Before long, “the human mermaid” had taken America by storm. Not only was her vaudeville act in high-demand, earning her many admirers and thousands of dollars a week, she also made her debut as a silent film star. 

Neptune’s Daughter (1914) — for which she dived 28 metres into a pool of live crocodiles — became one of the first films to gross over $1 million at the box office. And Annette broke new boundaries again, when in A Daughter of the Gods (1916), she became the first woman ever to appear nude on-screen.

Many years later, she would demur that, in fact, she had been wearing a pair of incredibly thin tights at the time, but the accolade stuck — and she did little to challenge it. 

In 1918, this fearless performer and athlete even incorporated an early Drag King performance into her vaudeville act. Becoming a character that she called ‘The English Johnny’, she wore a tailored suit, top hat and monocle on-stage in front of thousands of paying crowds. 

Such risqué choices did little to dampen her appeal, and she was later nicknamed the Queen of Modern Vaudeville.

But if Annette Kellerman challenged gender stereotypes on-stage and in-water, she was equally fearless in the real world as well. During her long-distance swims, she realised that women’s swimwear, which was designed for modesty and usually featured a bulky dress and pantaloons, was far more difficult to manoeuvre in than the men’s skin-tight wool. 

Frustrated by the restrictive material, Annette designed a new one-piece swimsuit for women. In 1907, she was arrested on Revere Beach, Boston, under a charge of “indecency”, for wearing her new design that ended in shorts above the knees.  

Eventually conceding slightly to the Edwardian demands for modesty, Annette sewed stockings below the shorts to minimise the amount of skin on display; although she remained firmly against what she called the “pseudo-moral restriction” of designs that discouraged women’s physical activity.

“There is no more reason why you [women] should wear those awful water overcoats — those awkward, unnecessary, lumpy ‘bathing suits’ — than there is that you should wear lead chains,” she wrote. “Heavy bathing suits have caused more deaths by drowning than cramps …Anyone who persuades you to wear the heavy skirty kind is endangering your life.”

Later, she would launch a radical new one-piece swimwear line, and within a few short years, her designs would become the accepted women’s attire for the beach or the pool, helping to usher in a new era of women’s freedom to swim.

From being a self-described “sickly child” who was never expected to walk without braces or pain, Annette Kellerman’s early access to hydrotherapy led to her becoming an international film star, an aquatic protégé, and the “Million Dollar Mermaid” who revolutionised women’s equality in sports, on-stage, and on the beach. 

Watching videos of her performing her underwater ballet in the 21st century, it’s difficult to imagine that this woman could ever have been anything other than a pioneer — or a mermaid. 


Further Reading and Watching


Is there a disabled figure from history you’d like me to write about? Leave a comment below, or come find me on Twitter


Love our content? Want to help us pay disabled writers and continue to build this amazing platform? Find out how you can support us

Categories
features

We Need to Make Sure Type 1 Diabetic Technology is Properly Funded

A couple of weeks ago, NICE announced the approval of the artificial pancreas on the NHS. A hybrid, closed-loop system, it will help Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) patients manage their blood glucose levels without the need to constantly monitor themselves with a continuous glucose monitor or a manual finger prick test.

A watershed moment in diabetes technology, the artificial pancreas could be prescribed to more than 105,000 patients in England. Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2015, I could form part of that statistic.

Categories
all features

Why New Years Resolutions are Harder if you Have ADHD

As the months fall away like snow, we come to the time of the year that involves reflection and being berated with media messages over why next year will be, ultimately, better, because you won’t do any of the terrible things you did this year.

The end of another year signals a wave of messages about what next year could bring and what we should be doing. New Years’ Resolutions are the culmination of this; a perfect snapshot into the relationship we can often have with life that is often rooted in a shame and guilt cycle.

For anyone, it can be a stressful time. Focusing on all the ways you haven’t achieved is not usually particularly satisfying.

When these resolutions and these shoulds look to diet culture, exercise, calorie counting, or overworking and productivity, they can become toxic affairs, leading to mental health problems, physical health issues, and burnout. 

For ADHDers, the likelihood of having an unhealthy relationship with these New Years’ Resolutions is heightened. 

It’s simple: ADHD impacts executive functioning, which helps a neurotypical person stick to routines, carry out tasks from beginning to end, and even start them in the first place. What are, at their core, resolutions? A resolution: to stick to a routine, carry out a task from beginning to end and start something new in the first place. 

“This year I’ll change,” you might say to yourself, signing up for that monthly book club, or the gym (again). You’ll invest in all the gear you might need, and then, one day, you’ll skip the class, and everything will feel like it’s over.

This is not just the experience of people with ADHD, but, for those with ADHD, it is this feeling of “failing” (which, of course, is not true) reverberating across their life that can make resolutions feel daunting, or shameful…because why try when you know you’ll never do it?

These problems only become confounded for those who are diagnosed later in life, or who may have co-morbid disorders which makes these resolutions even more difficult. 

ADHDers may have gone a large majority of their life thinking that it is a problem with them, they are the reason that sticking to their resolutions is so goddamn hard. Words like ‘lazy’ and ‘scatterbrained’, phrases like “not trying hard enough” float around like labels, and these critical voices translate to the inner critic. 

Hester Grainger, Co-founder of Perfectly Autistic, who was diagnosed later in life in her fourties, found exactly this problem: 

“I used to set myself resolutions and get frustrated when I gave them up after a few weeks. Simply by setting them, I wanted to rebel against them

“Resolutions are difficult for lots of people to stick to, but when you are neurodivergent it can all feel too much. Having Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria really can mean that you beat yourself up over them.” 

Not only can the idea of resolutions be trickier for ADHDers to conceptualise, but the actual resolutions themselves can often be a stopping point. 

What makes this worse is that, for some with ADHD, making lists and plans may be a way of overcompensating for symptoms such as lack of object permanence, and memory problems and is a way to give dopamine, what we notoriously lack, by imagining how our life will dramatically change. 

So, we very much go into the new year wanting to achieve these goals.

The problem is that the idea of resolutions are usually big issue things: get “in shape”, eat “better”, keep the house tidier, and there is no pay-off that ADHDers can imagine at the end of it.

When does being “getting in shape” happen? What does it do? ADHDers need clear, often smaller, goals with a clear motivation to do them that’s embedded in a reason why, something to be excited about, rather than “just because I should”. 

The way we frame resolutions can be a great starting point to make them inclusive for neurodivergent disabilities. 

“Ruthless reprioritisation is an ADHDer’s secret weapon to battle burnout,”  Julie Bee, an entrepreneur focusing on burnout suggests. 

“If you tend to procrastinate (like I do), ask someone for help with accountability on specific tasks. Give yourself a break from time to time. Some days you just cannot do the thing. The task will be there tomorrow – address it then.”

Reframing resolutions into ideas or themes we can then be flexible with as opposed to time-focused, unspecific, and often larger than life, goals allows us the space to give ourselves kindness. 

Keeping in mind the bigger picture, the why behind resolutions, is also important so we don’t force ourselves into trying to “fix” ADHD traits which will, inevitably, result in frustration, as well as focusing on smaller, specific goals. 

What’s the solution, then? Should we all be lazier? It sounds like a joke, but, perhaps. 

Perhaps we need to re-frame laziness to simple grace and kindness. Obsession with relentless labour and productivity does nobody any good

Overall, however, we need to rethink our mindset toward these resolutions and step away from constantly achieving for the sake of it. 

Instead, allow every individual a chance to decide if engaging in goal setting this way is healthy for them.


Hello Pumpkin Logo on a dark background. Text reads: Fairytale homeware and ethereal gifts. Link to website hellopumpkin.co.uk decorated with mushrooms, maple leaves, oak leaves and fairy wings in autumnal colour

This piece is sponsored by Hello Pumpkin, a wonderful shop full of magical handmade gifts, by our friend Anneli Roberts.

If you’d like to sponsor a post, advertise on The Unwritten or discuss sponsored advertorial content, get in touch


Love our content? Want to help us pay disabled writers and continue to build this amazing platform? Find out how you can support us

Categories
all Essays features

Scars are Beautiful, not a “Mark of Shame”

Last week, the popular BBC 2 quiz show, Only Connect, perpetuated a stigma we are all too familiar with: that scars are a shameful stain on our bodies. 

During the ‘Connecting Wall’ round of the game, the words “scars”, “stain”, “blot” and “stigma” were listed under the category name “marks of shame”. This language is an unacceptable display of the enduring stigma attached to scars and visible differences. 

Categories
all features opinion

Why British Cycling Need to Stop Using Disabled People to Distract From Their Partnership with Shell UK

It’s been accused of sportswashing, greenwashing and cripwashing; the fact that so many agree that the newly announced partnership between British Cycling and Shell UK is dirty in the first place speaks volumes. 

I don’t need to add to the existing commentary on greenwashing and sportswashing, but – as is often the case – the issues around how problematic this deal is for disabled people is on the periphery of the discussion.