BWS 09.01.19 report: “How Can We Work Together Towards the Respectful Representation of Marginalized Identities?” with Dorothy Ellen Palmer


Dorothy Ellen Palmer is a disabled senior writer, accessibility consultant, and retired high school Drama teacher and union activist. Her disability memoir, Falling For Myself, will appear with Wolsak and Wynn in Fall 2019. She can always be found tweeting @depalm.

At our last event, Dorothy shared stories of her experiences as a disability sensitivity reader, exploring the do’s and don’ts, the reach and limitations, the boundaries and ethics, of working collaboratively with abled writers. She also talked about how disability sensitivity reading has helped her to understand the need for sensitivity readings.

The What, Why, and How, of Sensitivity Readings 

What are sensitivity readings?

A sensitivity readings is another layer of research. After consulting traditional sources, books, journals, the internet, interviews, etc., it’s a decision to ask a living “expert” about the writing itself. It can be done for any piece of work– poems, short stories, blogs, interviews, podcasts, articles, and books. It can occur at the request of author and possibly editor and publisher.

When we think of sensitivity readings, we usually think of cultural and racialized sensitivities. We typically think of a white writer wanting extra feedback about a character who is Black, Indigenous or a person of colour, or a straight, cis writer wanting feedback about a transgender character. I want to be clear: I do not do sensitivity readings for cultures, races or identities not my own. I equally do not do sensitivity reading for disabilities not my own, for blind or deaf characters. I refer all those questions to those qualified to do so. In post 150 Canada, in respect for reconciliation, given the vile Appropriation Prize, and the current behaviour of Canadian Governments prepared to violate Indigenous land for oil, it is particularly important that settler writers seek Indigenous feedback about Indigenous characters.

In general, the need for extra research, awareness and sensitivity holds true for any writer wanting to write about any marginalized experiences not their own. I began referring students to seek out lived experience informally thirty years ago as a High School senior Writer’s Craft teacher. After I retired, my first novel When Fenelon Falls came out with Coach House in 2010. Because it has a disabled protagonist, and because I spoke openly about the fact that I am old, and both disabled and chronically ill, I began getting sensitivity inquiries on my experiences.

At first, I provided all kinds of advice for free. I loved it when it was a swap, where two authors could exchange work and help each other. As I became more skilled about how to help, and more aware of the concern of the disabled community that we are too often expected to provide our expertise and experience for free, I still do swaps, but when asked to read whole articles or books, depending on the author’s ability to do so, today I ask to be paid. I’ve accepted payments from $20 to $300 for three months feedback. Sensitivity readings will not make you rich.

 Why do writers and readers need sensitivity readings about disability?

All books produced in ableist culture will have some degree of ableism. It isn’t always conscious or overt. The use of stereotypes and tropes are often completely inadvertent on the part of abled writers, and sometimes even disabled writers. It isn’t about removing ableism so much as it it about how the author treats it. The real struggle with writing disabled characters is to give them enough of two sometimes contradictory things: realistic barriers and defeats that acknowledge their struggle with systemic ableism, and realistic successes which keep them from being tragic victims, or inspiration porn.

Depending on what the author has asked me to provide feedback about, here are five things I like to address in my sensitivity readings of novels:

  1. The use of ableist language both in narration and conversation
  2. The use of stereotypical inspiration porn, using disabled people as props to make abled people feel good about themselves
  3. The use of ableist tropes such as: making disabled lives tragic and pitiful, longing for a cure, the discovery of miraculous cures or killing us off
  4. The individual denial of ableism, creating supercrips who “overcome” all obstacles
  5. The erasure of systemic ableism, no portrayal/discussion of systemic barriers, omitting or white-washing bullying, insults, slurs, prejudices, and societal barriers

 How can we all best work together towards the the respectful representation of identities?

-Request a sensitivity reading after first draft or early enough that the author is open to change

-When other research has been thorough

– When the author’s questions are clear and they are willing to revise them and ask new ones

-When author and sensitivity reader collaborate, understanding that the book is the author’s

-When the author isn’t pandering or sanitizing, they want characters who aren’t saints, who fail, who are human beings who sometimes act badly

-When authors, editors, and publishers aren’t looking for a stamp of approval

-When sensitivity readers stay ethically in their own lane, don’t speak beyond their experience

-When we both learn things through our collaboration

When we all work collaboratively together, it is my firm belief that together we can build better books and a stronger more diverse and representative Can Lit.


Stay tuned for features on our upcoming writers! 


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