Time flies! In 2015 several disabled writers began to publicly speak out about their experiences writing for and interacting with The Mighty. Reading about their activism and the pushback they received, I posted about it on Facebook with the hashtag #CrippingTheMighty on Dec 21, 2015 and co-authored an article about inspiration porn with Liz Jackson and Larkin Taylor-Parker.
The hashtag launched a discussion on Twitter about publishing, exploitation, ableism, and the continual struggle disabled writes face. Here’s a Storify of some tweets from the hashtag a year ago and an article in the Washington Post.
Have things changed? I got a chance to catch up with four disabled writers about the The Mighty and broader issues in the publishing industry: Carly Findlay, Kelly Ford, Michele Gruba and Dani Alexis Ryskamp.
Please describe your interactions with The Mighty in the past. How did they respond?
Carly Findlay: I wrote for them. They took out the swearing in my posts, americanised the language (I’m Australian). I called them out on their Inspo porn etc through tweeting and blogging. I tried to educate the writers about the problems in the writers group and sometimes I was valued and then I was thrown out.
Michele Gruba: I wrote one post for the Mighty and was in The Mighty Voices Facebook group. The first problem I encountered was my post and title were edited without approval. They changed my language from identity first to people first language. My title was Thank you for respecting my child but they gave it a title about how the dentist was a hero. The post was about my son advocating for himself at the dentist but I felt the changes they made changed the tone of the post. I requested the post be removed along with my name from their website.
The Facebook group was probably one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had on social media. The first post I read in the group was written by an Autistic woman who decided to leave the group due to being attacked by parents of disabled children within the group. It became clear that many of the parents were bullying and attacking disabled writers who pointed out lack of privacy and ableist views being shared by the parents. I have OCD and GAD, I was called crazy and threatened. This was a common occurrence ableist slurs used to attack anyone who stood up to them or disagreed with them. This went on until The Mighty kicked out several disabled writers of the group. You can’t claim to be a champion of the disabled community while allowing this to occur in a Facebook group for writers. The response I got from the Mighty was similar to what other writers received. It was obvious they respected the parents over the disabled community. I realize what I’ve explained sounds mild compared to how bad it actually was.
Kelly Ford: I wrote a piece for them that I demanded be taken down from their site when it became apparent that they were protecting parental voices (even when they were ableist and harmful voices) above the first person lived experience of the disabled writer as well as refusing to pay writers. They asked me (3 times) to reconsider, explaining that they were making positive changes.I watched for 48 hours and nothing changed. I demanded they take my profile and article down. They finally did and a few days later I watched as other writers were simply removed with no warning.
Dani Alexis Ryskamp: I wrote this blog post to articulate my concerns about not paying writers and not paying disabled writers in particular: https://autisticacademic.com/2015/12/31/if-you-like-it-then-you-shoulda-put-a-paycheck-on-it-my-real-problem-with-the-mighty/. In the year since it was published, it’s become one of the most-read posts on my blog. The Mighty, however, has never responded to it, and I’m not sure anyone there even knows it exists.
If you currently follow The Mighty, have you seen any noticeable changes or improvements in their portrayal of disabled people, hiring practices or recruitment of disabled writers?
Kelly Ford: I have not followed The Mighty. It has been too triggering. Their closed group writers page gave me serious trauma during that time (angry parent writers and bloggers attacking self advocates)and I have since not been able to fully engage with the kind of supporters of that page and writers that The Mighty support.
Dani Alexis Ryskamp: I now follow The Mighty only casually, but I’ve seen nothing so far that indicates their practices have changed in any way.
Carly Findlay: No. It’s still inspo porn, listlcle, woe is me, paaaaaarents.
Michele Gruba: I do not follow them and I don’t believe they will change.
#CrippingTheMighty is about larger endemic issues as well. What are the major problems that disabled writers face in the publishing industry? What’s necessary to push the needle forward?
Kelly Ford: Equitable pay for work and wider publication of the very real human and civil rights issues facing the community.
Carly Findlay: Being paid. Reaching the mainstream.
Dani Alexis Ryskamp: In no particular order:
1.) The demand for “writing about disability” in the mainstream media is still a demand for narrowly-told stories that have an inspirational bent, invoke pity, and/or are told “about us without us.” The audience is everywhere presumed to be nondisabled, and the preference remains for the author to be nondisabled as well. When the author is disabled, they are expected to perform a particular type of inspiration or desire to be nondisabled.
2.) There’s a crisis in the writing industry in general about whether and how to pay writers, period. It’s a complex one, driven both by outlets that don’t want to pay writers and writers who don’t understand when, whether, how, and how much they can expect/demand to be paid. This gets even more complex in the case of disabled writers, who are routinely told that their writing on disability is less valuable *because* it is from a disabled person on a topic “no one cares about”, and who often face the additional hurdle of accepting payments in the face of draconian benefits rules.
Where are you now in your writing career? What are some lessons learned for other disabled people who want to publish their work one year after #CrippingTheMighty?
Carly Findlay: I’ve had lots of articles published this year, on platforms I actually read.
Michele Gruba: I’m not currently writing and haven’t since this occurred. The only good thing that came out of this experience is what I learned from the disabled writers in the group. I realized I was wrong in how I was writing. I had only heard the perspectives of parents and professionals before meeting people in the Mighty voices group. I was inadvertently writing about disability in a way that I wouldn’t today. I wish the other parents in the group would have educated themselves and listen as I did.
Kelly Ford: I have not been able to write since my run in with The Mighty Staff or their parental writers.
Dani Alexis Ryskamp: I’ve been a professional writer full-time since 2009, and I’m currently the Legal Coordinator and an editor at Autonomous Press, whose mission is specifically to produce transformative works that push disabled and other marginalized voices into (paid) print.
What #CrippingtheMighty (and more recently, my dispute with My Disability Matters owner Dale Reardon, see here: https://autisticacademic.com/2016/11/22/radio-silence-more-on-the-ethics-of-pay-and-publication-in-disability-writing/) taught me, however, is that even blogging is too much unpaid labor. My commitment to demanding fair pay for disabled writers can’t be half-assed. My plans for the coming year, therefore, include moving my blogs to a platform that generates revenues and/or starting a Patreon once my first novel is released.
Is there anything else you’d like to comment on looking back at the hashtag activism that started last December with #CrippingTheMighty?
Kelly Ford: I believe that this particular hashtag made a difference. LONG way to go, but I am hopeful that it changed some perspectives.
Dani Alexis Ryskamp: Only this reminder to writers, at any point in your career and on any topic: If an outlet is offering you “exposure,” walk away. Any outlet that can give you enough exposure to boost your career is well-known enough to pay you. Any outlet that cannot afford to pay you is not well-known enough to give you meaningful exposure. “Exposure” is not what *they* give *you.* It’s what *you* give *them* by consenting to have your work appear in their publication.
Carly Findlay: The hashtag allowed me to find some great disability activists and writers. It felt like a community when we tweeted. Thank you.
Michele Gruba [no bio]
Carly Findlay: I’m a writer, speaker, appearance activist. I live in Australia. I write at carlyfindlay.blogspot.com
Kelly Ford: Public School Disability Education consultant, Disability self advocate, Mother…Toronto , Canada