One of the foundational principles of Disabled Writers is connecting writers and editors with resources. That includes our database, but also mentoring and sponsorship (coming soon!) and our blog, in which experienced writers and editors talk about the challenges they’ve faced, dole out advice to help early-career writers and editors avoid their mistakes, and talk frankly about the media industry.
We’re pleased to host a variety of people on the blog from all walks of life and all stages of their media careers, and we hope that you find someone whose words resonate with yours or who offers useful insight into a frustrating process, whether it’s pitching or chasing down invoices. (Speaking of pitching, if you have a submission for the blog, email firstname.lastname@example.org — we pay $250 for 1000-1200 words.)
Check back once a month for updates (we’re a quality, not quantity joint), and follow us on Twitter (@disabledwriters) if you haven’t already.
The internet is a confusing place to be disabled. Disabled bodies are more visible than ever, and disabled voices are heard and amplified by social media. As a result, nearly everyone has a superficial understanding of disability, gleaned via progressive sportswear ads, public health campaigns, and tasteful, well-lit film portraits. But there is little understanding of what it is actually like to live in a body that requires special care and attention. The emphasis has been on normalization, which invalidates any meaningful discussion of difference.
I am an artist and I am disabled. I haven’t always been able to merge those identities. I used to emphasize the former at the expense of the latter. I shared my drawings and held my tongue. I got used to letting my work—and my internet presence—speak for itself. I got used to watching new acquaintances pull out their phones and look up my social media. In their eyes, I underwent a realtime transformation. My career rendered me valuable in a way that my personality couldn’t. I drew for hours every day, stubbornly ignoring the ache in my spine and numbness in my hands. My skills improved as my body fell apart. Pain infiltrated every aspect of my life, from my daily routine to my greatest ambitions. It was no longer something I could conceal, and so I began to tell the truth.
It took me a while to adjust to being publicly disabled. I learned through trial and error never to frame my disability as something that might prevent me from performing. My disability was to be an artistic theme, an impetus, not a barrier, to creativity. I began the work of transforming my personal struggle into neatly-packaged mass entertainment.
This new breed of public figure—the disabled influencer—is expected to tread a series of fine lines on the path to success. Her struggles are significant, but she inevitably triumphs over all of them. Her accomplishments are remarkable, but only in light of her disability, and not by able-bodied standards. She has her ups and downs, but she always ends her stories on a positive note. Ultimately, she is grateful for her disability, because it has taught her so much. It has given her access to a store of knowledge reserved for the wretched of this earth. Generously, she is willing to dole this knowledge out to you day by day, caption by caption, so that you can learn all the lessons without actually experiencing the adversity.
I too must maintain a careful balance in order to sustain my career. I must never appear too disabled, and conversely I must never appear so competent that my disability is called into question. Whenever I share a new drawing, my inbox fills with messages asking if I’m “better.” (I have an incurable and degenerative disease; there will never be a “better.”) Whenever I take time off, I must answer for that as well. “I miss seeing your art,” they say. “Where are you?” they implore. “Come back,” they demand. I see these messages and feel as though I’m seeing my own memorial from beyond the grave. And then I do what I will always do: I come back.
Making art for a large audience is a trade-off. In my case I traded anonymity and creative freedom for external validation and financial security. In the beginning, with only my friends and family for an audience, I explored all sorts of media—painting, collage, charcoal, or whatever I gravitated toward on a given day. I gradually narrowed it down to what performed best online. The dream of becoming a freelance artist was so appealing that there was nothing I wouldn’t sacrifice in pursuit of it. First I gave up my time, then my agency, then my self-esteem, and finally my health.
By the time the health problems began, I had already sanded down the edges of my life to fit within the influencer mold. I had been working from morning until night, posting religiously, promoting myself shamelessly, and drawing pictures that sold well but didn’t excite me—mostly baby animals. I was resigned to paying my dues.
My eyesight was the first to go. The ophthalmologist said I hadn’t been looking up from my work often enough to exercise my full range of vision. I received my first pair of glasses. Then my hands started giving me trouble. It felt like I was drawing underwater, like some invisible force was pushing back against my hands, resisting their movement. It became difficult to use my phone. Texts took ages to compose. My sleepy fingers failed to keep up with my inner monologue, and I watched them move in slow motion, the signal of my thoughts buffering like a film on bad wifi.
Then came the neck pain. At first, I attributed it to poor posture and overworking. But when I finally got a diagnosis, I learned that what I was dealing with was congenital. I’d been born with a spinal condition that would have emerged eventually, no matter my profession.
At the time of my diagnosis, I was new to “influencing.” My following had expanded from a few thousand to over 100,000 in a matter of months, following a series of viral drawings and features on high profile art accounts. My inbox was flooded with requests for portrait commissions, brand partnerships, and tattoo designs. It was impossible to conceptualize the fact that my thoughts would now be broadcast to complete strangers, people who wouldn’t recognize me if I passed them on the street. My audience was larger than the population of my home city, and yet I still treated Instagram like a group text, publicizing my emotional crises while still in the throes of them.
So when my doctor sent me a scan of my neck, I posted it online. It was the most intimate image of myself I’d ever shared—it showed the very shape of my brain within my skull. The response was immediate and overwhelming. As I scrolled through dozens of messages, I was confronted with a wealth of unsolicited and dubious medical advice. I had been hoping for emotional catharsis, but I was promised much more than that: I was promised a cure.
It took me hours to sort through the cures, which often contradicted one another. I was told to cut out dairy and also to drink raw milk, to take psychedelic drugs and to stay sober, to go vegan and eat only red meat, to get invasive surgery and avoid mainstream medicine altogether.
I tried more of these than I care to admit. I spent hundreds of dollars on supplements, books, diets, and exercise equipment. I made a chart to document my progress on a variety of scales—pain, energy, mobility—and taped the paper to my living room wall.
The results were far from conclusive. The chart looked more like an abstract artwork than the linear progression I’d been expecting. In the end, I felt about the same as I’d felt before trying all the miracle cures. The only significant change was that I was now spending much of my time coordinating my self-treatment. Just as I had done with my art, I had placed my disability in the hands of strangers on the internet and allowed their judgment to eclipse my own.
The title of “influencer” is misleading. I wield far less influence over my followers than vice versa. To them, I am a fleeting image on a screen, a few words skimmed and forgotten over the course of a day. But to me, my followers are everything. They determine my income, my outlook, and my creative choices. My career does not exist without them.
My followers encounter my writing as an impersonal announcement to the wider world, but their writing is personal and directed exclusively at me. I am a lone target, impossible to miss, a receptacle for the tastes and opinions of a hundred thousand people. I am tasked with digesting this noise to produce entertainment.
These days, I no longer feel caught between two incompatible selves. My disability informs my art and vice versa. But both remain private experiences. Sharing them does not render them shared. Sharing only creates a false sense of collaboration—art as democratic process, self-care as team sport. Like many disabled people, I have used social media to let the world in. The challenge is in determining when and how to shut it out.
August Lamm is an artist and writer from Connecticut. She illustrates for clients around the world in a pen and ink crosshatching style inspired by Old Master etchings. She is currently working on a memoir about her experience as a disabled artist.
When learning about a disability, there is an inevitable search for others who had or have it. Did you know Agatha Christie, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are said to have had dyslexia? I sought these names in high school and college, when I needed to remind myself that I — like them — could find success in writing despite my learning disability.
When I was diagnosed in the third grade, though, I did not care who else had it. I simply wanted to rid myself of the hot panic that descended whenever teachers called on me to read. Sitting at my plastic desk, my heart would thump, palms sweat, and stomach ache. I attempted to pre-read and memorize the paragraph I would be called to read aloud, but I always tripped on multiple words within the first sentence. How could I read a whole paragraph? Both the teacher and I would become frustrated, and they would feed me words when I paused.
Help did not arrive until the seventh grade. Before then, I had never successfully read a book alone. By definition, dyslexia is a learning disorder that impacts areas of the brain used to process language. Dyslexia presents itself in a plethora of ways; for me, I inverted, added, and dropped words while reading aloud. Decoding (sounding out) and comprehending text proved even more of a challenge. When reading silently, I could retain more — but often even that task stood too steep.
Growing up in the mid-2000s, news was changing. Accessibility to information through YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter coincided with my eagerness to learn despite my disability. I changed my morning alarm to the voices of NPR news anchors and dove into the online archives of CBS’s 60 Minutes. Any ounce of information I could consume without text became my raft in the unsteady waters of a learning disability. At home, while my peers read books like Captain Underpants and Junie B. Jones, I watched stories about the Egyptian Revolution, Wall Street’s meltdown, and cyber security. Had I the privilege to choose at the time, though, I would have read the books.
After long, seven-hour school days in the seventh grade, my mom would drive me to Central Michigan University’s Learning Acceleration Clinic. Jealous of my siblings, who were eating snacks at home, I spent two hours four days a week undergoing intensive psychological intervention with a phycology PhD candidate. After grueling work, she gave me access to the elusive books read by my peers. For the first time, I could choose, comprehend, and retain information from written words. One of the first books I grabbed was titled Impossible Odds: The Kidnapping of Jessica Buchanan. The story had been featured on 60 Minutes. At the time, my enthusiasm for my newfound ability to comprehend text blinded me from noticing how slow I read; a single page took me several minutes to read and comprehend.
Neuroscientist and dyslexia scholar, Guinevere Eden, understands the brain is malleable:
I compensated with strong verbal skills to make-up for my slow and confused reading. While I never received a brain scan, psychological testing proved Professor Eden’s thesis to be true for me.
While my peers read, I developed the ability to communicate and retain information orally. This skill set led me to WCMU and WUOM (Michigan Radio) — NPR member stations — where I wrote and produced audio stories. I continued to feel profoundly self-conscious about my reading, spelling, and grammar, but this clashed with my drive and desire to tell stories. Luckily, I could avoid some of my dyslexia provocations in radio journalism, since audio stories are told at an elementary reading level to help listeners consume complex ideas over the airwaves.
Journalism values creativity, curiosity, and content, and my unique perspectives as a dyslexic individual have led to unexpected storytelling. In one story, I described how climate resilience is being taught in a southeast Michigan high school; I thought it would interesting to insert multiple perspectives on whether people learned about climate change in school, since I know everyone does not learn the same way. In another story I produced about criminal expungement reform, I interviewed a woman who would benefit personally from new legislation. Her voice broke and carried emotion like no book I had ever read could do. I know the value of a raw auditory story, and the interviews I conduced and stories I told would not have succeeded had I not developed skills to listen.
My plan to avoid my disability in newfound workspaces did not come without error, though. Stories cannot be developed only in one’s head; they need to be written, edited, and rewritten — often again and again. Only then could a story be told orally. I continue to struggle, primarily with time, since it still takes me twice as long as my peers to read materials. Punctuation and syntax also present salient challenges.
Like anyone with a disability, I have learned skills to continue to compete with other writers. When a story requires more than a single page of text, I bring my own computer — which contains text-to-speech technology — to the office. I also rely on the Voice Dream app on my iPhone, which can recite any PDF I upload. If I need a book, Bookshare likely has the text and can read it to me aloud. If those options do not work, I use the Read&Write literacy software. Strong editors you can trust — Vince Duffy and Rebecca William at Michigan Radio, my sister Katharine Janes, and mother Dr. Patricia Janes for any freelance pieces — make a world of difference.
Today, if I don’t know how to spell a word, I say it into my iPhone. This method is certainly not foolproof, though. This morning, I did not know how to spell the word corroborate — I kept typing coberate, to no avail. I verbally asked Siri “How do I spell corroborate?” to which she responded, “This is how you spell cooperate.” My alternative route was to Google the word “coberate” which spit back “showing results for corroborate.” Finally.
As Stella Cottrell suggests, and I have experienced, many people with dyslexia get more worn out from a day of reading and writing than non-dyslexic people. It makes sense — our brains are doing a lot more work. When working at Michigan Radio, to build in a break to my day and receive some emotional support, I brought my dog to work. I would leave my desk every few hours to take him out and give my eyes, brain, and emotions rest. There are resources other than dogs for people with dyslexia too — specific fonts, colored overlays, quiet workspaces, graphic organizers, and many books. And while we are our best advocates, sometimes we don’t know about resources, until we do.
I did not have access to text-to-speech technologies until my sophomore year of college at the University of Michigan. It was amazing; for the first time, I did not have to simply read online summaries of a book but could wear headphones and sit with my peers to follow along with the text. Thanks to text-to-speech technology, I could major in English. What’s more, I could become a journalist.
For a long time, I would not tell my peers I was dyslexic. Sitting in the first days of any class in college, when instructors had yet to receive my individualized educational plan (IEP), I still felt like my younger self—afraid to be called to read, questioning if I belonged in this space. These same anxieties arise with a new article pitch or job interview. I internally debate: How long until I share my disability?
As my voice has developed as a writer, so have I as a person with a disability. Dyslexia did not stop authors like Agatha Christie, William Faulkner, or F. Scott Fitzgerarld—it perhaps even contributed to their success. This reminds me that my voice, too, deserves space, and I can use my unique lens to tell my and other’s stories.
Lauren Janes is a freelance writer and audio producer based in Washington D.C. Previously, she worked for the NPR member station Michigan Radio reporting on education, politics, and climate change. Check out more from Lauren at laurenjanes.com. Find her on Twitter at @laurenejanes.
When I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be a writer. There were always other careers sprinkled in there — surgeon, anthropologist, teacher — but I knew that whatever I did, I wanted writing to be part of my life forever.
But after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder during my freshman year of college, my relationship with writing started to shift. Writing became something I did poorly and prolifically during periods of mania and something I didn’t do at all during depressive episodes, which left a very small window of stability for actually creating things I was proud of.
When I started writing for a living as a freelancer, my relationship with writing changed even more dramatically. Now, writing wasn’t something I did to fulfill myself. It was something I did to feed myself, and that made a huge difference. Much of my time now had to be spent writing pieces that I honestly didn’t care much about. There are so many boring parts of freelance writing — listicles, shopping guides, quick news stories — that don’t make me feel creatively stimulated. There are also important pieces that I would love to spend more time on, but financial needs and the needs of my editors mean that I have to submit quickly, which can feel demoralizing for a creative who wants to spend more time with their work.
But as a bipolar writer, this path has served me well. For the most part. Sometimes, I feel I’ve found the career best suited to my perilous mental health. Other times, I’m aware that I’ve found a career with an entirely different set of stressors and triggers that have and could still send me spiraling into distress or crisis.
Writers and journalists often talk about the toll that this job takes on mental health. And it’s true. Being immersed in horrific new stories, receiving endless rejections, and often working alone from home are almost guaranteed to exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety. But for those who experience severe mental illness — including the oft-excluded obsessive-compulsive disorder, major unipolar depression, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder — the ups and downs of freelance life can be more extreme, perhaps even life-threatening. At the same time, this lifestyle has the potential to offer people like me multiple avenues for autonomy and flexibility, two things that are necessary for severely mentally ill people.
For me, freelancing gives me the ability to honor my depressive and manic episodes when they come. I can acknowledge when I can’t “fight” off what my brain chemistry is determined to do, leaving more room for me to actually get better. I don’t have to come and sit at a desk every day. I can take off as much time as I need, and I can even cancel in-progress articles with little to no consequences. But this flexibility requires money, something which is hard for many freelancers to come by in an industry known for paying abysmally low rates, often extremely late.
After a suicide attempt in November of last year, I was fortunate enough — due to years of splitting rent with a partner or then not paying rent at all— to have enough money to take three months off work. I don’t know how I would have survived those months had I needed to work.
However, I also worked intensely in the months leading up to the suicide attempt, which brought in a great deal of money (sometimes $10,000 a month) which made me feel burnt out and depressed, especially when I’d write about heartbreaking stories or the anxiety-inducing fascism enveloping the country. I need the freedom to be able to take off work when I need to, but that freedom doesn’t come without its own sacrifices. This is why I firmly believe that all freelancers — but especially severely mentally ill writers — should work as hard as they can to get as much money for their work as possible. Always ask editors for more money, and set firm rates if you can. That extra $100 here and there can be critical for your mental health in times of crisis, especially if you’re able to have an emergency fund.
Even though freelance writing may suit severely mentally ill people much better than staff writing jobs or other traditional careers, I often resent it, because I feel a bit forced into it. Staff writing jobs often don’t pay as well as I could make freelancing — especially having gotten two book deals during my three-year long career — and they’re often inaccessible to disabled people. For a lot of us, freelancing is not so much a choice as it is a requirement in a deeply ableist, classist, and racist society.
Freelancing also doesn’t provide you with healthcare, something that every human needs, but especially those with mental health conditions. I dread turning 26 next year, because the expense of healthcare will be astronomical, I expect. I still haven’t figured out what I’m going to do. All I know is I can’t survive without the anti-epileptics and anti-anxiety medications that help me manage the worst of my symptoms.
And then there is also the discrimination that comes along with being an openly severely mentally ill person in media. Mental health de-stigmatization has done wonders for mild to moderate depression and anxiety, but disorders like schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and bipolar disorder are still on the margins — or completely outside — of what society finds acceptable. For example, a writer with antisocial disorder recently penned a Modern Love column for the New York Times, about how her condition impacted her marriage. She was widely and thoroughly mocked by so many people on social media, quite a few of them people who have been open about their own mental health struggles.
As for me, bipolar disorder is less stigmatized than antisocial personality disorder or schizophrenia, but I still get taunting messages from strangers in my DMs, trying to pour salt in the wounds I carry from a lifetime of dealing with mental health issues, and seven years of dealing with bipolar disorder.
Overall, I think this is the right career for me. I feel a degree of freedom that I didn’t have when I worked at a non-profit or when I worked as a waitress. I get to explore my creative passions and make money. I have the opportunity to write books about mental health. But I also deal with intense periods of loneliness because I don’t have traditional co-workers. I get anxiety sometimes because I don’t have a stable income; invoices come in scattered and sometimes extremely late. I feel an immense amount of pressure when I write about my mental health issues, and expose my vulnerabilities for the public eye.
Nylah Burton is a writer with bylines in New York Magazine, British Vogue, and ESSENCE. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.