Magazines give a voice to writers with disabilities

Both niche and mainstream titles provide outlets for writers to share their lives and their stories.

Magazines give all writers a voice
Magazines give all writers a voice. Photo by savitskaya iryna/Shutterstock

Freelance writer and blogger Melissa Blake was 25 years old and just out of journalism school when she published her first essay about having a disability, in Redbook magazine. In the piece, she wrote about being born with Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, which causes shortened muscles and bones, and described several of the almost 30 surgeries she endured before she graduated from high school. “I was born with clubbed feet and hands, a deformed face with an unusually small mouth and low-set ears, severe scoliosis, and knees that were bent back to almost 90 degrees,” she wrote. 

Blake found it thrilling to see something she wrote available on newsstands, and the feedback from readers – especially those with Freeman-Sheldon syndrome – encouraged her to keep writing. 

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Since then, Blake has published pieces about her disability in the New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Glamour, Wall Street Journal, Elle, and numerous other print and online publications. 

Both mainstream magazines and niche publications welcome fresh, thought-provoking pieces by and about people with developmental and physical disabilities. Megan Griffo is editor-in-chief of The Mighty – a digital health community including feature articles, personal essays, and blog posts that address everything from Down syndrome and autism to traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury. 

“The level of honesty stands out to us,” Griffo says about the submissions she and other editors receive. “The fact that people are willing to talk about difficult aspects of health and share intimate parts of their lives always amazes me.” 

One of these pieces – candid and laugh-out-loud funny – is Ardra Shephard’s “Honey, I Peed the Bed” (3/14/16) about the Toronto-based writer’s bladder control issues due to multiple sclerosis. She writes, “When someone is gently waking you because they’ve peed the bed, you expect to see the tear-streaked face of a child hovering over you. But we have no children, and the dog can’t talk, so by process of elimination The Banker (my husband) knew it had to be me. Plus, my dog is perfect. That b*tch would never pee in the house, let alone in her own damn bed.” 

Shephard goes on to talk about learning to self-catheter with all the stigma it entails, in her signature wry and witty tone. “I didn’t get there overnight. In the beginning I couldn’t bring myself to even say the word ‘catheter,’ and I personified the shit out of it, turning the whole thing into my new frenemy ‘Cathy,’” she writes.

“We don’t want to just leave people with a problem,” Griffo explains. “We want to effect change.” 

This mission was the motivation behind Jordan Davidson’s “Schools Aren’t Preparing Students With Disabilities for Active Shooter Scenarios” (3/14/18), which explores how individual schools and districts across the U.S. have or have not modified their emergency preparedness drills for students with disabilities. 

“Kids with disabilities and health conditions aren’t really thought about when people make the protocol for emergency preparedness drills,” Griffo explains. “Most protocols tell kids to run, hide, or fight. If you have any type of disability, one or all three of these things might not be possible for you.” 

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Editors at The Mighty want to leave readers feeling empowered instead of throwing up their hands in despair. To that end, links to information and school safety resources follow Davidson’s piece, including steps for how to create an emergency preparedness plan for a disabled student and a call to action for parents to request an individual emergency and lockdown objective from the school as part of an individual educational plan (IEP). 

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Mainstream magazines, always on the lookout for new and relevant stories, publish personal essays and articles from people with disabilities. But those writers interested in contributing to a specific community served by a literary magazine will find numerous opportunities that cater to their particular demographic. 

Zara Munro is editor-in-chief for Monstering – an online publication for disabled women and those who identify as nonbinary. “We believe in this: monster stories,” Monstering’s mission statement reads. “Which is to say we believe in monsters, which is to say we believe in their socio-cultural manifestation: women and nonbinary people with disabilities.”

Munro looks for submissions that offer an original angle, even if the topic isn’t particularly new. “The pieces that really get our attention are the ones that marry form and content in exciting and unusual ways, ones that offer a fresh take on something,” she notes. “We want to hear your voice in your writing. Having a really individualistic style is what elevates a piece of writing from ‘good’ to ‘great.’” 

Bronwyn Valentine has a poem titled “Movements of the Uncontrollable Body Part One” in Monstering’s inaugural issue (August 2017). In it, she writes: 

Spina bifida is always a disability / but whoever said that disability must by definition be corrected was wrong / I tell you that liberation comes when we recognize the body of disability as inherently a good body / still deserving of the full state of humanness and worthy of adoration.

Munro was struck by Valentine’s ability to combine form and content in an unexpected and elegant way. “The piece is an interrogation of what it means to have an ‘uncontrollable body,’ and of what it is to be disabled – more specifically, to have spina bifida – while at the same time trying to navigate society and abide by its rules, even when people do not see or understand fully one’s struggle with disability and identity,” she explains. 

Some Monstering writers may decide to explore disability from a more metaphorical angle. Liv Mammone, a Brooklyn-based editor and poet with cerebral palsy, has a poem in the 2018 issue about Melusine, a princess of French folklore, cursed so that she grows a dragon-like tail once a week. 

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Her poem “Melusine on a Williamsburg Sunday” describes the princess relaxing in a contemporary bathtub and enjoying a Lush bathbomb. “From there, the poem becomes a kind of meditation on monsterhood and loneliness,” Munro explains. “I love this poem for its juxtaposition of fairy tale with modernity, for the way it turns a relatively simple premise into something fresh and unexpected when it could easily turn into something trite and overdone; but mostly for Liv’s delicate use of language, the images and ideas she evokes with her word choice.” 

Interested in writing about your disability for a mainstream magazine or niche literary journal? Familiarize yourself with each publication’s submission guidelines and, especially, with their individual preferences in terms of style. “Use respectful language,” editors note on submission guidelines for The Mighty. “We welcome both person-first language (i.e. ‘person with a disability’) and identity-first language (i.e. ‘disabled person’).”

New Mobility, a magazine for active wheelchair users, includes this statement in its submission guidelines: “We tell stories directly and honestly, without sentimentality. We aren’t interested in ‘courageous’ or ‘inspiring’ tales of ‘overcoming disability.’” Many editors gravitate toward humorous personal essays, and most look for pieces that resonate with readers affected by contemporary political and social trends as they pertain to disability. 

Blake has become an expert at tying her personal story into personal essays with timely and relevant news pegs. In 2017, the New York Times published her piece titled “Disabled, Shunned, and Silenced in Trump’s America” (2/15/17). In it, she writes, “I sat there staring at my computer screen as the words ‘page not found’ popped up on the White House website. My eyes did a double take and then my heart sank. I felt like I’d just been punched in the gut as I realized that the Disabilities section had been removed from the site in the wake of President Trump’s inauguration.”

“We tell stories directly and honestly, without sentimentality. We aren’t interested in ‘courageous’ or ‘inspiring’ tales of ‘overcoming disability.’”

On March 20th of last year, Blake had a commentary in the Wall Street Journal about the death of Stephen Hawking, arguing that his wheelchair – like hers – didn’t represent constraint but, rather, liberation. 

As she wrote in her first published essay for Redbook, “As odd as it sounds, I’m thankful for my disability every day because it’s the one thing that has truly taught me how fragile life can be, and to always cherish those closest to me. We all have disabilities, whether they are visible or not. We all have things we are forced to overcome in life.” 

Blake would love to see people with disabilities featured more often in mainstream publications, with personal essays such as hers. “Of course it’s amazing that there are publications geared toward the disability community,” she says, “but it’s time publications were more inclusive.” 

 

Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of the award-winning middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and Better with Books: Diverse Fiction to Open Minds and Ignite Empathy in Children (Sasquatch, 2019). melissahart.com