Who can write disability?
By Penny Pepper


I’m a writer, I am – despite the earliest unhelpful pronouncements that I would never succeed. As a council house kid from a working class background it wasn’t the done thing. And to make it extra hard for myself, from my beginnings I acknowledged my own experience of disability within my work.

I got slapped down further because no-one wants to read about that, cripples and ill people, do they? They didn’t in the 70’s but punk lit a fire under my arse and inside my heart, illuminating my thoughts that flew as poems to endless fanzines. No one cared on those pages if I raged about the injustice that surrounded my life, that as a wheelchair user I faced barriers at every turn. Those days were fun and fierce, and gave me a safe, welcome arena in which to learn my craft and meet like-minded people. This also led me into the beginnings of the radical disability arts movement in the mid 80’s. It was here I started to earn a bit of money from my words, where I could write about the disability experience in a way that the mainstream still did not accept.

In my own space and time I wrote stories and novels. A sci-fi adventure where the lead protagonist is a female disabled space traveller. I sent it to agents, only to hear responses like a stuck record for years to come: Your writing is good but the story won’t sell. Disability is too negative. No-one wants to read about disabled people. One time an agent even said: Are you handicapped? Your signature looks a bit wobbly.

It’s not a matter of simply choosing to write about disabled people, but remembering that the experience of disability in its many definitions has always featured as part of the human condition. I’m not only writing what I know, and in defiance at being told I shouldn’t, but also in reaction to the scant levels of genuine, full bodied disability within fiction.

As a writer now, a punky 50 something, scraping a living, I’ll never issue edicts for what writers should write. But what I will say – and I’m hardly the first to say it – is know your character. I can tell you from the bottom of my rebellious bones that the overwhelming majority of disabled lives are not taken up entirely with obsessing about impairments and medical conditions. My memoir First in the World Somewhere comes out in September 2017 and it’s no tale of triumph over tragedy. There’s no formulaic process with an outcome where I fly from my wheelchair. I’m very at one with my wheelchair thank you, it’s liberating and to lose it would not be my happy ending. Maybe I am brave in my memoir – for standing up to the tyranny of Thatcher and the ideology that would crush me? That’s for readers to discover.

Non disabled writers must write whatever they need to write; censorship is not a thing I’d ever cultivate. But the churning out of clichés, of the tiny, liminal thoughts, of triumph, cure, inspiration and, of course, tragedy, grind me down. Naturally I get grumpy if there is no equality, no counterbalance for every Jojo Moyes and the sop-fest of Me Before You.

I’ll work on the counterbalance to my last breath and have faith that younger disabled writers will come through with their own new stories. After all, once upon a time women were consigned by society and its misogyny to only write about the domestic realm. I say, stuff that – with or without my wheelchair.

About Penny Pepper

A genre-defying and versatile writer, Penny Pepper’s work examines difference, diversity and identity. She subverts labels, breaks barriers and surprises at every turn. She wrote the taboo-breaking book Desires Reborn in 2012 and in 2013 she won a Creative Future Literary Award. In September 2014 her one-woman spoken word show, Lost in Spaces, premiered to great reviews at Soho Theatre, and toured the Midlands in 2015, after launching the Quality Writing for All Campaign for The Literary Consultancy.

As a performance poet, she has performed across the UK, including London, Edinburgh and further afield in New York. Besides guest slots on BBC 4, BBC Radio 4, Newsnight, Sky News, Radio5Live Hitlist, she writes regularly for The Guardian.

She is near the end of writing a one-of-kind memoir First in the World Somewhere recalling her early years in London as a young, passionate punky writer, poet, singer and disability activist which will be published in September 2017 by Unbound.