Diverse Bodies and Exclusion

“I still feel the impact of those words. I understood right away that this conversation could not wait another year.” – FOLD Artistic Director, Jael Richardson

 

In February, the FOLD Planning Team finalized the first Festival of Literary Diversity schedule. As the Artistic Director, I told the team, “This is it. We’re done. No more changes. No more sessions.”

We had revised the schedule multiple times, and we were all finally happy with what we had been able to do with limited resources as a first year operation. We knew we couldn’t please everyone or cover everything, but we had great authors and great sessions.

When the Quill & Quire story on the festival came out, we received messages from publishers and authors asking for great, recognizable names to be included in the first festival. But we turned them down.

“There’s no more room this year,” I said. And it was true.  We were pushing our budget limits already; we had more than 30 names to promote already.

And then I got an email.

It was polite, respectful. The writer congratulated us on what we were doing and what we had accomplished already. But in the email, they asked an important question: Where are the disabled writers?

We said what we had said to other complaints of this nature. We can’t cover everything, but that’s a great idea for next year.

We wanted to have a session on disability. We asked and researched and hit dead ends along the way. It was tricky. How would we (or the publishers) know if an author was disabled? How would we let others know if the author didn’t identify in their bio or in the subject of their writing?

I explained this to the writer of the email. I explained that in regards to the topic of disability in literature, in particular, we had decided to let the first year run with the hopes that writers would hear about the FOLD and self-identify to publishers and/or organizers so we could include  a panel for FOLD 2017. We would spend the year recruiting in advance for authors who were willing to talk about their experiences.

But the email was not just about our programming. The email also asked for more information for disabled attendees to make decisions about attending. How could they purchase a ticket if they didn’t know how far away the entrances and the buildings were? If there was suitable parking? How could they come if there was nowhere for wheelchair patrons to use a washroom or sit? If we wanted people with disabilities to attend, we would have to do better, the email read.

I promised I would get more information and post it right away. But I didn’t. I let it sit on my to-do-list with a range of other event related tasks. And when an email came a week ago saying that we hadn’t fulfilled our promise, that people were waiting on that information, I knew that I had messed up.

But it wasn’t the backlog of work and the poor prioritizing that hit me the most. I could get text up on the website quickly. In this second message, the writer said that while it was normal to be excluded and left unheard and without accessibility information for other literary events and festivals, being excluded from a diversity festival for marginalized voices was particularly hurtful.

I still feel the impact of those words. I understood right away that this conversation could not wait another year.

So I broke my promise to the programming team. We changed the plans and added another session, inviting the writer of the emails to participate.

The fantastic Dorothy Ellen Palmer is coming to the FOLD for an honest chat. We will talk about writing and how her experiences living with a disability impacted her life as a child, as a woman and now as a senior. We will talk about her book When Fenelon Falls, which features a protagonist with a disability living amongst a family of competitive athletes. We will talk about what it’s like to be excluded and how events and festivals continue to neglect an entire population of people. The session is called Diverse Bodies: On Ability and Exclusion.

We hope you will join us. We hope that in your towns you will reach out to disabled residents of all ages to ensure that your events are accessible and provide as much information as possible for residents. Feel free to use our accessibility page as a starting point. It’s not perfect. It’s not even complete. But we hope that it’s something of a starting point for this much larger and longer conversation.

 

The Festival of Literary Diversity is Canada’s first festival for diverse books and takes place May6-8, 2016 in Brampton, Ontario. For more information about the festival, including a complete list of sessions and events, visit www.thefoldcanada.org.