Almost two years ago, I walked through a forest and found myself thinking of fairy tales. The forest is a magical place, so perhaps this is not surprising; what was surprising at the time was the creeping realization, as I walked among the trees, of how inaccessible the forest is for those who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices—and from there, how inaccessible it can also be for those of us whose disabilities are invisible, or close to it. A realization that shouldn’t have been a realization at all, something I should have known all along. My own disability, cerebral palsy, makes my forest wandering a careful, studied thing. There is always a root I might trip over; there is always a dip or a hollow that might send me pitching forward into the dirt. It can be hard to enjoy the magic of the forest like this. I walk in the forest nonetheless.
I deserve to be here, I tell myself. No matter how hard it might be.
We often think of the literary world as a kind of fairy tale—a place where writers struggle and toil and then rise to acclaim. The forest through which we all make our way. Readings and conferences and festivals, publications and bylines and maybe, eventually, your name on a book. You, too, can make it here, if only you try hard enough.
But what happens when this world, just like the forest, remains closed to so many?
If you read and think about fairy tales long enough, you start to see them everywhere. I’ve been a lover of fairy tales all my life, but in the course of researching them for my newest book (this one! Out now! With Coach House Books!), these tales and their rhythms took on a whole new power. Quests and magic and helpers animal and non-. Happy endings and princesses who marry handsome princes. Stories where everything is nice and easy, where we know who the bullies and villains are because they look different in some way. Stories where the heroes always win. Stories where the world is just and fair. We suck fairy tales up like they’re air even as we tell ourselves that fairy tales are for children, and even as we play them out in our own lives.
But what happens when you’re the bully even when you don’t mean to be? What happens when you try your best to be kind and inclusive and still somehow manage to prop up the systems that perpetuate exclusion?
What happens when you’re in the literary world, that hallowed space of story and triumph, and you stick a DISABLED PEOPLE NOT ALLOWED sign on the door?
If you think about access long enough, you start to see it—and its lack—everywhere. In fairy tales, this happens when disabled characters are passed over or forgotten again and again and again. In the real world, it happens with the store that has steps up to its front entrance. The event space that has no wheelchair accessible washrooms. The movies that never have captions.
The literary events that almost always take place in bars, with washrooms located in the basement down a long flight of untraversable stairs. The readings that never have ASL, the panel discussions that are not captioned so that no one from the d/Deaf or HOH communities can participate in them in any way. The literary conference that places its Accessibility Kiosk at the far end of a room, forcing people with mobility aids to go the long way to ask for help. The festival that only has one scooter, or no scooter at all. The events that say yes, we welcome writers of all abilities and then have a stage with no ramp so that only those without physical disabilities can get up there to speak. The residencies that publicly state they cannot accommodate disabled writers and don’t even make motions to try.
Just under a year ago, an excerpt from my little fairy tale book appeared in Lit Hub as “Monster or Marvel”, an essay about superheroes and magic and my disabled life. That essay was my own superhero story, my own fairy tale—a story that ended happily not because a disability went away but because I finally learned what it meant to embrace it, to fully occupy myself. But my own happy ending is one thing. What does it mean to find a happy ending in the world? How do we reach for and find a happy ending for each other when the act of telling and sharing stories is something we gatekeep and hoard even without realizing it?
We welcome everybody, our literary events say, except when they don’t. We cherish all of your stories, except the stories that call us out, the ones that we don’t want to hear, the stories that belong to the faces we don’t want to see. We want to give everyone the opportunity to write, we say, except when that opportunity means more work than we’d envisioned. It isn’t our fault that the building doesn’t meet the ADA. We’re a small series; we have no money; we keep going only through donations and pluck. It isn’t our fault that your wheelchair can’t come up the step to the door. We are sorry!
We have a DISABLED PEOPLE NOT ALLOWED sign on the door, yes. But it’s invisible! That’s got to count for something, right?
I am sure, on some level, that the Queen who hated Snow White was sorry too. She was sorry that the existence of a beautiful stepdaughter threatened her place in the world. Sorry that the existence of someone different from herself made all that was special about her place in the castle suspect and uncomfortable.
I am not doing anything wrong, she might have said, even as she also knew it was untrue. I just want things to continue this way forever.
More to the point, I suppose: I bet the huntsman who let Snow White go in the forest thought he was sorry too. I bet he thought he was being magnanimous and kind. Never mind that he abandons Snow White, that he leaves her without any means of fending for herself in the woods. He doesn’t kill her—but he also doesn’t help her thrive. She’s not his problem, not anymore.
There’s only so much I can do, he might say, if we could ask him. I’m sorry. It’s not my fault.
One of the things I discovered anew in researching for Disfigured was the way in which society, in the fairy tales we read and love, almost never changes. Our protagonists might change—Ariel gets her legs and her Prince at the end of one version of “The Little Mermaid”; Cinderella is transformed from a scullery maid into a princess; in one of the tales from the Brothers Grimm, Hans my Hedgehog becomes a handsome human man at the end and gets the love of his parents as a reward—but the world never changes to meet them. It doesn’t need to—the world, such as it is, has existed perfectly well for centuries.
Enough people can participate, if not all, so why bother disrupting what already works? Who cares if a few people are left out? Why be bothered if the half-human boy is shunned in the town or the dwarfs are forced to make a life for themselves in the forest because they cannot make a life for themselves in the city? He is only half-human; they are only dwarfs. Snow White is the person we care about, in the end, and she gets her happy ending. In fairy tales, heroes transform so that society doesn’t need to change, and those who do not get their own transformation fall out of consideration.We welcome everybody, our literary events say, except when they don’t. We cherish all of your stories, except the stories that call us out, the ones that we don’t want to hear.
There’s only one step up to the stage, literary organizers have said to me before. That shouldn’t be a problem, should it? Here’s the thing: I can climb that step, but so many writers I know cannot. And every time they see a stage with steps, they see a message. You are not allowed here. You cannot come up.
Yes, one step up to the stage is a problem. People who ask this might as well be asking for magic. You do, in fact, need a fairy godmother’s magic wand if you use a power wheelchair and are faced with a step up to a stage. And still the literary world continues to use inaccessible stages, to hold events in inaccessible spaces, to forego things like captions and ASL, as though waiting for that magic to come true all on its own.
But what happens when we take responsibility—all of us, disabled and non-disabled alike—for ensuring that disabled writers can come to any literary event they like and know that it will be physically accessible and have everything that they might need?
The next time you go to a literary reading or event, watch and see: are there steps up to the stage? Are there accessible washrooms on site? Is the reading captioned, is there ASL? And if (when) these things aren’t there, ask yourself this: who is missing, on that stage and in those chairs? Who might want to take part in that event but can’t because of an invisible DISABLED PEOPLE NOT ALLOWED sign on the door? How much of the inaccessible forest do we as writers still carry into the spaces that we know and love? And what happens when we understand, collectively, that everyone deserves to be here? What kind of magic happens then?
Once you’ve asked yourself that, ask this: what are you going to do to change it? Will you pledge to read only in spaces that are wheelchair accessible? Will you advocate for captions and ASL at readings? Will you ask and see if your books can be published in accessible formats? Will you ask for a stage that has a ramp? Will you press slowly but inexorably, understanding that change takes a long time but is all the more powerful for those that join in its slow climb? Will you do some or all or maybe even just a few of these things, and in so doing usher in a new kind of literary magic, one that might be available to all?
Or will you say—like the Queen, like the huntsman, like so many others—that you don’t want the world to change, that there’s only so much you can do?
I hope it’s the former. This literary world we live in—this forest of words and reading and joy—belongs to all of us.
We all deserve to be here. It’s the truest magic I know.
Disfigured, by Amanda Leduc, is available now from Coach House Books.