Review by Ethan Patrick
Growing Up Disabled in Australia is a collection of true stories edited by writer and disability activist Carly Findlay. This compilation consists of non-fiction accounts from more than forty writers, including Paralympian Isis Holt, Senator Jordon Steele-John, Todd Winther, Eliza Hull and Patrick Gunsekera (among others), who discuss their experiences of growing with disabilities or chronic illnesses in Australia.
Each author is given a separate chapter to outline how their disabilities have shaped their lives, whether this be related to their relationships, education or families. This also means that each chapter presents a new writing style and form, with some being written as short stories, poetry, diary excerpts and even a graphic narrative. Some of the included works were created from interviews conducted by Findlay, which allowed her to share voices that might not have had the opportunity to be heard before. The disabilities that each of these writers possess also vary from those that are physical, such as cerebral palsy and cystic fibrosis, to learning disabilities like autism or dyslexia. The writers consist of First Nations people, members of the LGBTQI+ community and migrants, to name a few. In fact, each piece in this collection is so unique that it is hard to encompass the breadth of the book in a single review.
One story that really resonated with me was ‘Hippotherapy’ by Alastair Baldwin, who writes about his experiences with Riding for the Disabled (RDA), which is a group that allows children with disabilities to come and ride horses for an afternoon and in some cases, compete in competitions. RDA was something that I also undertook in my childhood for similar reasons to Baldwin, and while there are suggestions that it improves core strength and stability, it was what Baldwin said about the experience struck me the most: ‘What I enjoyed the most was … I was, finally, in control of an able body’.
For Baldwin, RDA gave him the freedom of not having to hide his disability from others, as he was in a place where disability was the norm. It also allowed him to win awards in sport – just like his siblings – something that he’d never been able to do before. This was so much like my own journey with the organisation that I felt as though I was reading my own story.
However, the voices and stories of each writer are unique. This collection serves to highlight the diversity of disabled persons in Australia, which is important in a time in where we are beginning to see people of all different abilities represented in the media.
While many of these stories focus on the positives of living with a permanent condition, there are also frank discussions about the realities of chronic pain, bullying, expensive medical treatments and facing the possibility of death from a young age. Much of this collection acts as a critical analysis of the medical model of disability – the idea that those with a disability must be cured – and supports the idea that disability is not a flaw, but a variation in the human condition.
While many of the authors speak about learning to accept their conditions as a part of who they are in a society that often focuses on ways to fix them, the collection also gives weight to those who would choose to be rid of their disabilities if they could. This book is an invaluable resource to educate people about disability and is one that should become a staple in school curriculum.
However, there is also room for this collection to expand. While it showcases many different types of disability, it focuses on those who are considered ‘high functioning.’ It would be great to see representations of people who are unable to care for themselves, who rely on help from their families and carers. Also, while there is some discussion of mental illness in conjunction with disability, there is only one story that focuses largely on mental illness. It would be good to see an inclusion of more of these stories, or to possibly see a separate collection emerge about growing up in Australia with a mental illness.
This book is not an easy read, but writer Emma Di Bernardo probably puts it best in her chapter ‘Umbrellas in the Rain’: I’d never read a whole anthology of stories about other people’s disability and illness without drinking a strong cup of tea first.
It’s not because these collections are too sad, and it’s certainly not because they’re too boring. It’s because some tiny part of my chest tightens, my breathing pauses, and mentally I need to hold up a small umbrella. A nice little umbrella of emotional resistance that lets me sit through the rain of relatable stories about perennial grief, about finding beauty in ugliness, about never taking the little things for granted.
Overall, this book forces us to confront preconceived notions about disability that we might not have even known we had. Findlay herself speaks about having to battle her own internalised ableism when faced with her disability, but throughout the pain and struggle to be recognised in society, her novel provides a clear message:
Your disability does not define your worth.
Growing Up Disabled in Australia was published by Black Inc. It is available online and in most local retailers for an average retail price of $29.99.
Ethan Patrick is currently studying a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at The University of Melbourne. He is interested in the representation of disability in literature and the media.