I’ve had this essay planned for the last month, but considering all the discussion about ableism in the bookish community recently it seems especially relevant. Disabled people are often left out of discussions of liberation, especially when considering how disability intersects with other marginalised identities. Ableism is so common people don’t even notice it a lot of the time. It’s an issue in publishing, in blogging, in the bookish community, and inside books themselves. So let’s have a chat about it! I don’t have all the answers to these problems, but it’s important to talk about them anyway. I’m going to breaking this down into different subsections, but do keep in mind that everything intersects. Although I mention certain situations, I am not naming any names as this post is to discuss the issue as a whole, not a callout.
Publishing is ableist
So, starting at the top, publishing itself is ableist. Stories about disability that are published are so often from non-disabled voices, often drawing on their experience of disabled friends or family members. It seems as if publishing believes the only disabled stories that are worthwhile telling are those that remind able-bodied people that we’re human beings. Published stories are about overcoming a disability or finding a reason to love a disabled person even though they’re so weird. We’re going to be talking more about how often books are ableist later on. The majority of the best selling books are published. The writer isn’t the only person involved; there’s a whole team of people who decide what books will sell. It seems like they’re often making the decision: disabled books won’t sell.
Over the last week, ableism in publishing has become a hot issue. I’ve known authors who were told not to include that they’re disabled in their bio. Authors whose concerns were swept aside because ‘other authors with the same diagnosis didn’t need those adjustments!’ A lot of authors won’t disclose their disability and have to struggle without any support. Authors who disclose their disability may be dropped because the support they ask for isn’t something the agent feels they can provide. Ableism starts at the top.
It’s important to remember that major publishers care about money first and foremost. They care about which books they can sell, which people can constantly produce content, which people require the least resources. All of these issues ultimately lead to disabled people being consistently blocked off from opportunities. We’re forced to hide, or we’re forced to give up.
Netgalley is ableist
Most people involved in book blogging, booktube, bookstagram, etc. will want to try and get a hold of advanced copies of books. Advanced copies go out before a book is released, for free, to people in the bookish community who then read, review, and promote it. The major way a lot of people start off getting them is through Netgalley. So, what’s wrong with Netgalley?
I want to point out here that I use Netgalley; it’s where I get most of my advance copies from, and it works well enough for me. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to criticise it.
The major problem with Netgalley is it only cares about the wellbeing of the publisher. If you aren’t aware, Netgalley uses a ratio system to provide publishers information on how likely it is the reviewer will read and review the book. The ratio is ‘how many books recieved’ to ‘how many books reviewed’. In theory, you might be thinking, well, that sounds fair! What if you have to take time off Netgalley because your health has fallen? When you get back a month later books you applied for were accepted, but they’ve already been archived. That means they’re still impacting your ratio (as you ‘recieved’ them), but you can’t review them because they can’t be downloaded anymore. What if you have limited energy and you want to support the books you truly love? Maybe you don’t have the energy to write a detailed review for every 3-star book you read? Well, your Netgalley ratio will go down, and you won’t be able to access the books anymore. Netgalley will block you if you send in too many shorter reviews with a similar message. Even if your bio (visible to publishers) states you’re disabled and you won’t be able to do a full review for every book (yes, this happened).
Other websites dedicated to giving out advanced copies don’t have this ratio system, but they often aren’t as accessible to small-medium bookish people. Most of us are doing this for free, and the ratio system places a lot of pressure and stress on us. Especially when something goes wrong. For disabled people, our medical crises may prevent us from getting access to advanced copies, and there’s nothing we can do about that. Netgalley has implemented a button that tells the publisher you won’t be reviewing the book, but it doesn’t do anything as that unreviewed book will still negatively impact the ratio.
To grow our platforms we need to be able to access new releases. Disabled people have high levels of unemployment and poverty so paying for new releases isn’t always an option. You might be thinking, well, it’s a privilege to get advanced copies. Are you saying disabled people shouldn’t have access to that privilege?
The Bookish Community is ableist
I’m going to be using the term ‘bookish community’ to refer to our platforms. Booktwitter, bookstagram, booktok, booktube, book blogs, whatever you may use, ableism is incredibly prevalent. Even within the book community that uplifts and discusses diverse books, disability is often left out of the equation.
There’s still a lack of captions on videos, a lack of image descriptions on pictures, and a complete lack of awareness of disabled issues. If your content can’t be accessed by disabled people you should be doing something about it. Videos should have captions if at all possible. Twitter has an ‘add image description’ section every time you upload a photo, and people need to start using them. If people who use screen readers can’t understand something without the picture, it needs captions. On that note, aesthetic fonts on Twitter may be pretty, but they’re completely inaccessible to screen readers.
Do you design graphics for your bookish content? Have you checked if colour blind people can see them? That the font is readable? That the background isn’t overwhelming? There are guides online about how to make your blogs and content disability accessible. Have you looked into that?
This isn’t even mentioning the ableist views held by people on these platforms. We’re failing in so many ways.
Books are ableist
So many books, so many, have ableist tropes hidden away in them. You’ve got books where disabled people die rather than continue living, books where disabled people exist only to be inspirational, books that focus very heavily on curing disabled people at the cost of their health (and lives). These are some examples that should be well known as ableist tropes. Disabled people have been talking about ableist tropes for a very long time (are reviewers listening? We’ll discuss that in the next section). How were these books published? Oh yeah, publishing is ableist. Publishing ableist books does not negatively impact the publisher, because no one cares. No one is uplifting or even listening to our voices, so why should publishing care about a couple of angry disabled people on the internet.
Then you’ve got covert ableist tropes. The ‘pretend to be a disabled person’ trope, the ”I’ll never give up hope you’ll be able-bodied again’ trope, the ‘magical cure’ trope, the casual ableist language, the ‘being disabled is the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone’ trope. Even the whole idea of ‘being weak is bad’ often links strongly into ableism. I read a book where the main character has a long-term injury on her knee but had to climb to the top of a tower every day to prove she wasn’t weak. Why couldn’t they have just installed a lift? They owned the building and had the funds? When another character in the same book lost the use of his legs they carried him up the stairs. And yes, I’m using that as an example of covert ableism. People are so bad at recognising ableism even when it’s staring you in the face. These books need to face some form of criticism for ableism, but they don’t because either no one notices or no one cares.
Reviewers are ableist
I’m going to give people the benefit of the doubt here and say you aren’t actively ableist. We have grown up in a society that oppresses disabled people, and we will have internalised that worldview. As with any marginalisation, people need to put effort into deconstructing oppressive thought patterns and actions. You can’t just say you’re not ableist and call it a day. You have to learn how ableism functions in society, you have to learn what ableist discourses are, you have to learn ableist dog whistles, you have to challenge your own internalised ableism (and what it looks like!). Even disabled people have to do this because you don’t wake up one day saying ‘ah yes my brain’s free from the shackles of systemic ableism’.
As we spoke about in the last section, a lot of books are ableist. These books don’t face much criticism. From ableist books that I was disgusted by to the small, honest mistakes that could be easily corrected, reviewers often don’t notice. How can it be that one of the biggest reviewers, someone who generally reviews diverse books and is engaged with liberation movements reviews the most ableist book I’ve ever read five stars? A book where a child is abused for years in an attempt to cure him, and when he dies people are mostly sad it wasn’t the other ‘more disabled’ children. I’m not saying reviewers who don’t notice ableism need to be cancelled or anything like that. It just shows how much reviewers do not know or care about ableism. If reviewers don’t notice ableism in a book where disabled children are being abused, in a book that says vaccines cause autism, in a book where a normal child is better than a happy child, what hope do we have? We need to do better. The state of things now is not okay.
What can we do?
We need to educate ourselves on disabled issues. We need to support disabled people within our community. We need to support disabled people in general. We need to unlearn the ableism that we’ve internalised. We need to challenge ableism when we see it.
Right now, people don’t notice ableism. Even when it’s shouting in their face. If every time you read something ableist you mentioned it in your review, perhaps publishing would listen to us more. If you support disabled voices, we’ll have more power to fight for change. So much ableism is accidental, and raising awareness of ableist tropes could do a lot for well-meaning authors/reviewers. Disabled people don’t have much of a voice right now, and we should all be doing our part to change that.
If you read non-fiction books, have you read one about disability yet? If not, what are you doing to educate yourself? There are tons of articles out there; have you looked into it?
Are you following disabled creators? Disabled bloggers, YouTubers, etc.? Are you trying to find and support disabled authors? The more we say we want and need disabled authors, the more support we give the ones that already exist, the safer they are. We need to prove that disabled stories and disabled people are publishable, are successful.
We are all falling at the moment; I don’t want you to think that this post is in any way a personal attack. It’s time for all of us to do better.