NOTE: This unit primarily uses person-first language to refer to people with disability. You should always ask what language a person with disability prefers and use it accordingly. See the PWDA Language Guide for more information about respectful language, and the Victorian Government website for definitions of ‘person-first’ and ‘identity-first’.
Teachers should be aware that discussions of disability have the potential to be extremely sensitive. There may be students in your class with disability; who have a family member with disability; or who are uncomfortable discussing disability for many reasons. There may also be students who have little or no experience with disability, and who may express curiosity or concern around this topic.
Collections such as Growing Up Disabled in Australia react against the history of accounts written about people with disability instead of by them. Reading the lived experiences of individuals with disability is empowering and recognises the importance of authentic voices in literature.
Given that this book contains many short texts, it can be used in the classroom in different ways:
- The class can study the whole text.
- Groups of students can focus on different chapters, comparing the writers’ perspectives.
- The book can form part of a comparative study with another text, e.g. the book or film adaptation of My Left Foot (Ireland) or I Can Jump Puddles (Australia).
- The book can be used, among other texts (e.g. non-fiction, film, extended prose fiction, poetry, reports, websites), for a study of a topic area such as ‘achieving agency’; ‘advocacy and persuasion’; ‘the individual in society’; ‘individual identity’; ‘conformity and non-conformity’; ‘otherness and inclusion’; or ‘diversity in Australian society’.
Assumptions about disability
Before reading the anthology, students can consider what they know about disability in Australia, including any images of ‘disability’ that they may have been exposed to via mainstream media.
- What are some of the stereotypes about people with disability that mainstream media accounts tend to rely on or perpetuate?
- Is the portrayal of people with disability as ‘courageous’ or ‘inspirational’ a positive vision, or does it merely separate the ‘exceptional’ from the ‘ordinary’?
Students should consider how they can discuss disability in a respectful and non-stigmatising manner. Ask them:
- What do you think has changed about the way people without disability treat people with disability?
- What do you think about society’s progress towards awareness of disability rights?
- What aspects of life do you think might have improved for people with disability over time?
- What do you think it means to ‘grow up disabled in Australia’? Does it mean something different in the 21st century to what it would have meant 40 or 50 years ago?
Students can write a short statement on what they expect to learn from a book called Growing Up Disabled in Australia.
Links to general capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities
Growing Up Disabled In Australia affords students the chance to examine issues related to Personal and Social Capability (identifying with the perspectives of others), Ethical Understanding (considering values, attitudes and perceptions within texts) and Intercultural Understanding (empathising with the cultural beliefs, values and attitudes of others). The editor, Carly Findlay, has attempted to represent the diversity of people with disability in Australia through her careful selection of accounts. Those that relate to the aforementioned general capabilities, and to the cross-curriculum priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures and Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia, are listed below.
|Capability or priority
|Personal and Social Capability
|This account is presented through letters to different members of society, reflecting on how they have treated Muscat because of her disability. The letters encourage the reader to share her point of view.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Culture
|Dion Beasley and Johanna Bell
|This piece uses clear language and features of poetry to explore the experience of growing up disabled in a remote area of the Northern Territory. Dion Beasley is an Alywarr man who explores his experiences in a unique landscape.
|Messenger’s first poem asks a series of rhetorical questions (similar to the Skeeter Davis song ‘The End of the World’) to emotively question and challenge mainstream society’s apathy towards people with disability. She juxtaposes this with another poem exploring her parents’ perspective, which is marked by love and acceptance.
|Personal and Social Capability
|Kavanagh-Ryan discusses her mother’s reaction to her sexuality and the importance of her online relationships to her wellbeing. This piece offers a sense of hope and reassurance for those feeling isolated because of their disability or sexuality.
|This personal account (the result of an interview) explores the need for political advocacy for and by people with disability. Senator Steele-John discusses discrimination and society’s negative treatment of people with disability in a revelatory manner.
|Mako explores the inherent challenges of having an ‘invisible disability’ and being rejected by their migrant community as a result. They mention the problem of being ‘not disabled enough’ for support, yet still facing disadvantage and exclusion.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures
|NOTE: This text discusses the impacts of sexual abuse within an institution.
Rosengrave is a Yorta Yorta woman and a member of the Stolen Generations. She is a proud disability advocate and has told her story as part of the Royal Commission. This is a powerful piece that explores her triumph over discrimination and abuse.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures
|NOTE: This text discusses family violence.
Kennedy, a Ngiyaampaa woman, reflects on her upbringing both in a hospital and within her own family. Whilst Kennedy’s Aboriginal heritage is an important part of her memoir, she also focuses on the variety of her life experiences.
|NOTE: This text discusses the Holocaust.
This memoir discusses Fein’s experience with a mental health condition and offers insight into the enduring impact of the Holocaust on her and her family’s life.
|Zygier discusses the impact of a trip to Israel and her acceptance of living with familial dysautonomia. Her account encourages the reader to see her perspective as someone who has struggled to acknowledge their disability.
Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia
|Nguyen discusses life with his Vietnamese-Australian family. His account provides an amusing portrait of interactions with his parents.
|In comic form, Firth explores her perspective as a misunderstood neurodiverse individual whose actions have often been misinterpreted by others.
In her ‘Introduction’ to the text, Findlay reflects on the internalised ableism that once led her to perceive ‘disabled’ as a negative and unrelatable label (p. ix, para. 1–2).
- What are the implications of referring to someone as ‘a disabled person’ (identity-first) as opposed to ‘a person with disability’ (person-first)?
- This can be a complex and deeply personal question; you may wish to consult the Victorian Government website for robust definitions of each term, as well as quotes from people who use them.
- How would you define ableism?
- What is the difference between ‘integration’ and ‘inclusion’?
- Are the terms ‘disability’, ‘condition’ and ‘impairment’ different? Do any of them overlap?
- What do students assume about a book titled Growing Up Disabled in Australia?
- What does the term ‘disabled’ assume?
- What does the phrase ‘additional needs’ suggest? Is this preferable to ‘special needs’?
The disability community is diverse and conversations about language are taking place in many different areas. As an example of one such conversation, students can consider the language used by members of the autism community.
- Why do some people on the autism spectrum prefer to identify as autistic rather than as a person with disability?
- Does the idea that ‘everyone is neurodiverse’ empower people with autism, or does it deny their uniqueness?
- What are the implications of using identity-first language (i.e. ‘an autistic person’)?
Students can research the importance of the hashtag #ActuallyAutistic and the resulting emphasis on autistic people telling their own stories.
Personal response on reading the text
Begin by examining the ‘Introduction’, where Findlay summarises the intent of the anthology. In the second paragraph she recalls growing up without a shared sense of identity or community, which prevented her from advocating for support or calling out discrimination. This opening highlights the importance of perception in the way we identify ourselves.
Students can discuss:
- Why is it important to speak up against the discrimination levelled at people with disability?
- What does it mean to ‘perpetuate the othering’?
- Why are pride and community necessary for all individuals?
- What made Findlay re-evaluate her thinking on disability?
- What did she discover from her work in mainstream media?
- How does she identify now?
- What does she say about the purpose of the book?
- There were over 360 submissions to the anthology. What criteria did Findlay use to select what was published?
Understanding life writing
The contributions to this anthology are all examples of life writing. Whether memoirs, oral histories, poetry or reflections on experience, they are all forms of autobiographical writing based on personal experience. Life writing refers to texts that:
- reconstruct real experiences (non-fiction)
- explore the life of the author (autobiography)
- may take the form of memoirs or personal essays
- record memories and observations
- are driven by time and usually structured chronologically
- are generally written in the past tense with a strong first-person narrative voice
- may include oral testimonies and eye-witness accounts
Students will notice that the genre of life writing encompasses a variety of literary forms. The purpose of Growing Up Disabled in Australia is to showcase the writing of often-marginalised voices: those belonging to people with disability, who may experience discrimination in mainstream society. This means that the book has both literary and socio-political dimensions.
Assign groups of students a few chapters from the book, and have them consider how these stories reflect the features of life writing as listed above. They should think about well-known examples of life writing from around the world; Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes are three international examples of the genre.
- Why do you think these texts are so widely read? Is it for their literary qualities, or because they enlighten us about a particular person’s life at a particular place and point in history?
- Why would we read the stories of the 46 ‘ordinary’ Australians in this anthology, and what messages do they have to share with us?
Social vs medical models of disability
The move from the medical model of disability to the social model has implications for the way society regards disability and its responsibilities towards people with disability.
The social model, which empowers the individual, provides the framework for the accounts in Growing Up Disabled in Australia. It focuses on removing the barriers placed on people with disability and on making society more accommodating for them. It exists in opposition to the medical model, which views disability in terms of deficits and privileges the opinions of ‘experts’ who make judgements about individuals based on their perceived capacity. The medical model does not acknowledge the voices, strengths or agency of people with disability.
The social model is referred to throughout the book, including on p. xi, where Findlay shares People with Disability Australia’s (PWDA) definition. This acknowledges the barriers faced by people with disability while arguing for changes that facilitate their equal participation in society. In other words, it is society’s responsibility to accommodate the person with disability, not the other way around.
Students can see how the anthology’s contributors interpret these models on pp. 7 (medical), 11–12 (medical and social) and 77 (social). On p. 110, Robin M. Eames compares how each model frames their disability. What is the difference in perception? What role can anthologies like Growing Up Disabled in Australia play in shifting public perceptions of marginalised groups?
Growing Up Disabled in Australia contains 46 chapters written by people with disability. The book showcases both the diversity of their experiences and the commonalities in their interactions with the people and the world around them. Importantly, it amplifies voices that are often marginalised and overlooked in our society.
As discussed above (Understanding Life Writing), the entries also showcase the diversity of life writing, with contributors utilising poetry, letters, images, dot points and other text types.
Direct students to construct a table, listing each chapter in the anthology and guessing what it will be about.
|What I think this chapter will be about
|‘Question Marks and a Theory of Vision’
Some titles suggest the genre (‘Selected Epistles’ by Olivia Muscat), while others declare the writer’s disability (‘A Polio Story’ by Fran Henke) and others still their journey of acceptance (‘Learning My Place’ by Chantel Bongiovanni). Students can discuss and categorise the chapters. What does each title highlight?
Students might like to look at the ‘Notes on Contributors’ at the end of the book (p. 301) to see if these confirm their thinking about each chapter.
This book is part of Black Inc.’s Growing Up series, which highlights the experiences and voices of specific groups and communities in Australia.
- What are the other titles in this series?
- Who might be the intended audience? Is the goal to reach readers who will identify with the accounts in the texts, or to give the stories of minority groups a general readership?
Can students think of any other groups they would like to see represented in the series? They can write a letter to the publisher asking them to consider that group for another book in the series.
The writer’s craft
A thematic approach to the collection
The anthology can be studied for its use of first-person narrative accounts that explore key themes around identity, individuality, autonomy and self-determination. Some authors recall resisting the notion that they might be disabled, only coming to accept their identity later in life; Eliza Hull vividly expresses this shift in her own thinking over time (p. 94, para. 4), while Todd Winther mentions the perceived stigma of identifying as a person with disability (p. 126, para. 1).
Students can explore these ideas in relation to social attitudes:
- Why would someone be reluctant to identify as having disability?
- How might acknowledging and taking pride in this facet of identity become a source of strength and belonging?
Some contributors express an interest in advocacy and disability pride (especially those with intersectional identities). El Gibbs discusses this in relation to the social model of disability (p. 12, para. 2), and the positive experience of advocating for one’s community is inherent in several other accounts.
Focus questions for each chapter
Growing Up Disabled in Australia contains a rich variety of personal accounts; it would be inappropriate to privilege some above others. Depending on the composition of your class, however, some accounts may be more pertinent or relevant to your context.
The following table provides focus questions for a close reading of each chapter. Students can work in groups or individually to explore assigned stories.
|Title, author, page numbers
|‘Question Marks and a Theory of Vision’ by Andy Jackson (pp. 1–5)
|Coming to terms with difference and the possibility of physical decline
|Why does Jackson repeat that he did not grow up disabled throughout his account?
How did other people react to his disability, and how did this affect him?
How has poetry become a source of strength and self-expression for Jackson?
|‘Forever Fixing’ by El Gibbs (pp. 6–13)
|The empowering nature of the social model of disability
|Why does Gibbs say that she was disabled by how the world treated her?
Why does she believe the medical model is discriminatory and stigmatising for people with disability?
How does Gibbs’ narrative illustrate the importance of disability activism as a source of individual and collective strength?
|‘Selected Epistles’ by Olivia Muscat (pp. 14–21)
|Counteracting stereotypes about people who are blind or have low vision
|How does Muscat’s use of imaginative letters enable her to explore other people’s perceptions in a humorous manner?
How does the final letter contrast with the others and demonstrate the importance of having a supportive parent as an advocate?
|‘To Lake Nash and Back’ by Dion Beasley and Johanna Bell (pp. 22–28)
|Memories of growing up deaf and with muscular dystrophy in remote Australia
|How does the use of short lines and free verse enable Beasley and Bell to create a series of images in the reader’s mind?
Why is the setting of this text important, and how does it impact the narrator?
What makes this text uniquely Australian, and how does this play an important role in Beasley’s memories?
|‘The Eleventh House’ by Sam Drummond (pp. 29–39)
|An accident involving the family dog frames Drummond’s memories of childhood surgeries and trauma
|How does Drummond demonstrate resilience through recollections of his childhood?
How is the impact of his disability compounded by his sense of dislocation from moving around so much?
Why does Drummond juxtapose his memories of surgery and pain with more ‘typical’ childhood interests, and how does this enable the reader to relate to him?
|‘Wired for Sound’ by Fiona Murphy (pp. 40–46)
|The importance of sign language and encouraging inclusive educational environments
|How does Murphy encourage the reader to empathise with the challenges she faced as a young girl with a sensory disability?
How does the text demonstrate the stigma and misunderstanding that people with disability often experience from others?
|‘Hippotherapy’ by Alistair Baldwin (pp. 47–52)
|Memories of hippotherapy (a form of equine-assisted therapy) and Baldwin’s relationship with horses
|What do readers learn about the popularity of hippotherapy as a treatment for children with disability in Australia?
How does Baldwin’s inclusion of historical facts about hippotherapy enlighten the reader?
What makes the topic of hippotherapy an engaging and (generally) lighthearted one for this anthology?
|‘Life Goes On’ and ‘The Blue Rose’ by Kerri-ann Messenger (pp. 53–55)
|Two poems: one about attitudes towards disability, and one about the love and acceptance of Messenger’s parents for their child
|In what ways is poetry a meaningful medium to explore emotion and encourage the audience to question their own attitudes towards disability?
How does Messenger use rhetorical questions to great effect?
How does the symbol of the blue rose, combined with the nurse’s encouragement, demonstrate a progressive and sympathetic worldview towards individuals with Down syndrome?
|‘Falling in Love, Fanfic, and Bone Fusion’ by Kit Kavanagh-Ryan (pp. 56–61)
|Kavanagh-Ryan’s sexuality and the importance of online relationships
|How does the online community act as a meaningful source of friendship and validation for Kavanagh-Ryan?
Why does she contrast the absence of expectations in the online world with her interactions in the offline world?
|‘Noisy Silence’ by Anna Whateley (pp. 62–73)
|Whateley’s journey to understanding her own neurodiversity
|How does the use of Whateley’s childhood writing alongside her adult narrative voice create a lively and engaging tone?
What aspects of her memoir emphasise the ‘Australian Girl’ element of her upbringing?
How does Whateley help us understand the strain of her efforts to appear neurotypical?
|‘You Are Enough’ by Jordon Steele-John (pp. 74–82)
|An oral history recounting the impact of physical disability on Steele-John’s life and his forays into political activism
|How does Steele-John reflect on the nature of love, and what insights does he have to offer?
How did his involvement in disability activism help him shatter his ‘self-delusion’ and embrace his authentic identity?
What message does the text give readers about the importance of a representative democracy and the need for disabled voices to be heard?
|‘I Don’t Need Them to See Through You’ by Jessica Knight (pp. 83–88)
|A humorous account of Knight’s experiences living with low vision
|How does Knight’s opening anecdote portray the vulnerability that people with disability can experience when navigating new relationships?
How do different pairs of glasses and Knight’s attitudes towards them function as a symbol for her gradual acceptance of the reality of her vision impairment?
|‘December Three’ by C.B. Mako (pp. 89–90)
|A free verse poem exploring the challenges of invisible disability and rejection by the migrant community
|How does Mako comment on the expectations that mainstream Australia places on people from a cultural minority?
Why do they want the reader to understand the poverty and structural barriers that they face?
|‘Never Needed Fixing’ by Eliza Hull (pp. 91–94)
|A reflection on the challenges of identifying as disabled
|Why was Hull encouraged to see her disability as a problem that needed fixing?
How is this attitude disempowering for individuals with disability?
Why is disability pride so significant for Hull?
|‘Having a Voice’ by Belinda Downes (pp. 95–100)
|Downes’ memories of being misrepresented (particularly by her mother) due to her cleft face
|How has popular culture led to people with cleft faces being disenfranchised?
How did assumptions about Downes’ face lead to her wishes being disregarded?
Why do you think she wanted to share her memories about her mother?
|‘Chlorophyll Like Pink’ by Patrick Gunasekera (pp. 101–106)
|Through a postmodern writing style, Gunasekera reflects on his experiences growing up and his sexuality
|How does the use of an unusual narrative voice assist Gunasekera to tell his story?
How do his flashbacks help the reader to understand the development of his identity?
How do Gunasekera’s reflections on his own embodiment in intimate relationships relate to his identity as a queer disabled man?
|‘Et Lux (also, light)’ by Robin M. Eames (pp. 107–112)
|Reflections on the loss of Eames’ disabled sister and their own identity as a person with disability
|Why does Eames reflect on what Lucy’s survival would have meant for her family?
What structural barriers does Eames explore that have impacted their own life?
Why are they both terrified by and in wonder of their own survival?
What are the implications of their statement about capitalist Australia (p. 110)?
|‘Don’t Have a Bird’ by Sandi Parsons (pp. 113–123)
|This visceral account of living with cystic fibrosis is drawn together through a bird motif
|How has Parsons experimented with first- and second-person narration to explore different perspectives?
Do you find the use of narrative fragments effective?
How does Parsons sensitively explore death, dying and mourning?
|‘A Body’s Civil War’ by Tim Slade (pp. 124–125)
|The metaphor of civil war frames a poem about receiving multiple diagnoses
|How does the inclusion of numerous medical terms explore the impact of labels on an individual?
Identify Slade’s references to war, battle and soldiering: how do these create an interesting extended metaphor for his experience of living with disability?
|‘Luck and Anger’ by Todd Winther (pp. 126–130)
|Winther comes to accept that he can be both angry about his disability and grateful for his good fortunes
|How does Winther acknowledge the advantages he had as a child with disability in South Australia?
Why does he explore the difficulties of pursuing an intimate relationship as a man with cerebral palsy?
What is the effect of Winther discovering and acknowledging his own anger?
|‘How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Sing “The Robot Song”’ by Tom Middleditch (pp. 131–141)
|Middleditch unpacks his reaction to a performance about an autistic child, and reflects on his own childhood
|What does the expectation that people ‘get over’ their ‘impediments’ say about society’s understanding of disability?
How does Middleditch’s reaction to Robot Song help him understand his own feelings about the representation of disability?
|‘Free as a Bird’ by Jane Rosengrave (pp. 142–148)
|An oral history of Rosengrave’s experiences of institutionalisation and abuse as an Aboriginal woman with an intellectual disability
|How has Rosengrave tried to give a balanced view of institutions?
Why is it important that she is able to share her story as a survivor of institutional abuse?
What does this story add to your understanding of the forced removal of Aboriginal children?
How has Rosengrave demonstrated optimism and strength of character in her lifelong quest to find happiness?
|‘The Boy Who Ached [Fibromyalgia]’ by Marla Bishop (pp. 149–151)
|This poem uses third-person narration to explore Bishop’s journey with fibromyalgia
|How does Bishop demonstrate the shift from feeling powerless to being empowered?
What changes take place between the start and the end of the poem, when the boy becomes a more confident individual?
|‘Red Dust, Jet Streams and Chanel No. 5’ by Gayle Kennedy (pp. 152–160)
|A narrative reflection on Kennedy’s life as she receives treatment for polio and reunites with her Aboriginal family
|How does Kennedy use a naïve perspective to represent her younger self’s limited understanding of the world?
Why did she develop a ‘rich inner life’ that transcended her disability?
How does Kennedy’s journey to becoming a writer demonstrate strength and acceptance of her loss of mobility?
|‘Born Special’ by Kath Duncan (pp. 161–170)
|Duncan writes about how being labelled ‘Special’ isolated her from the world, and how – by escaping this label – she finds belonging in other places
|Why does Duncan intersperse her personal anecdotes with references to different policies and attitudes of the time?
Why does she discuss the effects of internalised ableism, and why is it important for readers to understand this?
How does Duncan’s identification as a ‘Freak’ represent a positive shift for her?
|‘No Middle Ground’ by Yvonne Fein (pp. 171–174)
|Fein discusses how she manages her mental health condition as a second-generation survivor of the Holocaust
|How does Fein establish an honest and transparent tone throughout the text?
How has the ongoing impact of the Holocaust on Fein’s family shaped her own experience of life?
|‘A Polio Story’ by Fran Henke (pp. 175–181)
|A personal historical account of Henke’s trauma and resilience growing up with polio
|How does Henke combine historical and personal evidence in her account?
How have society’s attitudes towards disability changed since Henke’s youth?
What does she reveal about rebellion, resilience and a positive mindset?
What emotions does Henke’s writing trigger and how does she achieve this?
|‘Lady Lazarus’ by Carly-Jay Metcalfe (pp. 182–183)
|An appropriation of Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Lady Lazarus’
|Compare Metcalfe’s poem with Plath’s original, discussing what changes have been made and how these have allowed Metcalfe to own her poem.
Why do you think she chose to appropriate this particular poem?
|‘Surprising Myself’ by Isis Holt (pp. 184–189)
|A Paralympian’s oral history
|What are some of the interesting and unexpected points this text raises about the experience of being a Paralympian?
How has Holt’s relationship with her disability changed?
|‘This Is My Song’ by Lucy Carpenter (pp. 190–193)
|A reflection on Carpenter’s experiences with vision impairment, and other aspects of her albinism
|How does Carpenter explain the way she perceives the world as a result of her vision impairment?
How does her ability to laugh at aspects of her experience shape some of the anecdotes she shares?
|‘Catching Meaning’ by Natalia Wikana (pp. 194–202)
|Wikana’s memories of her time as a student with an intellectual disability
|Why might Wikana have chosen to begin her account by revealing her IQ?
What does she reveal about her struggle to be ‘less weird’, and about her preoccupations as a child?
How have cultural factors (including Wikana’s Asian background) influenced both her own perception of her disability, and society’s perceptions of her?
How does she convey the notion that intelligence is fluid and subjective, rather than static?
|‘The Bedridden Astronaut’ by Melanie Rees (pp. 203–206)
|Rees’ experiences with dialysis and her subsequent revelation about writing
|What were Rees’ childhood dreams, and how does she reflect on their unattainability?
How does the motif of astronauts and space travel create a series of vivid images that symbolise Rees’ experiences of dialysis?
|‘Falling’ by K.Z. Barton (pp. 207–210)
|Discusses life with multiple chronic health conditions
|How does the repetition of the word ‘falling’ create a series of images that convey Barton’s pain and fatigue?
How does Barton’s parachute motif simultaneously express her exhaustion and her innate sense of resilience?
|‘Umbrellas in the Rain’ by Emma Di Bernardo (pp. 211–213)
|Conveys the importance of developing resilience for young people with disability
|Why does Di Bernardo focus her memories around the theme of resilience?
What does the umbrella motif represent?
Who is the intended audience of this text, and how is this demonstrated?
|‘Dressing to Survive’ by Jessica Newman-Marshall (pp. 214–226)
|A series of recollections about Newman-Marshall’s experiences growing up with Marfan syndrome
|How does Newman-Marshall introduce the early signs of Marfan syndrome, and use this introduction to foreshadow her declining health?
How does she explore her experience of stigma and scrutiny as a disabled teenager at high school?
How does Newman-Marshall demonstrate that she has successfully navigated the challenges of young adulthood, despite the issues she faced along the way?
|‘It Is 1975, I Am Newborn’ by Ricky Buchanan (pp. 227–231)
|Buchanan reflects on her journey to identifying as disabled and the barriers she has faced throughout her life
|Why does Buchanan use a series of flashbacks to convey a narrative about her disability?
How has her sense of self been altered by her experiences?
Is the ending of the text (with the publication of the Just Invisible report) triumphant? Do we get a sense that things may improve for ‘housebound/bedridden’ people?
|‘My Early Years (Conductive Ed Preschool)’ by Oliver Mills (pp. 232–233)
|A short poem about Mills’ experiences at preschool
|How does the use of the imperative tone explore the patronising manner in which children with disability are often spoken to?
What is the young Mills being asked to do in the poem, and how does he convey his feelings about this?
|‘Awakenings’ by Tully Zygier (pp. 234–241)
|Zygier’s memory of an epiphany, facilitated by her mother and her mentor, that helps her to accept her disability
|How does Zygier’s self-talk create dramatic irony in relation to her denial of disability?
How does her walking frame bring her joy while also forcing her to acknowledge her disability?
How does Zygier’s placement at a disability service provider lead to an awakening and acceptance of her true self?
|‘Blurred Lines’ by Iman Shaanu (pp. 242–249)
|Shaanu’s reflections on growing up as a Muslim woman with a vision impairment, and on her intersectional identity
|How does Shaanu explore the way other people’s attitudes and perceptions put up barriers for people with disability?
What does this story tell us about cultural beliefs about disability?
What does Shaanu want readers to know about Islam’s attitudes towards disability?
How does she pay tribute to the parts of Australian society that accept disability?
|‘Learning My Place’ by Chantel Bongiovanni (pp. 250–253)
|Bongiovanni recalls a teacher’s discriminatory attitude towards her disability
|Why did Bongiovanni choose to share this particular anecdote?
How does she try to see the bigger picture beyond Mr Robins’ beliefs?
Why would this piece have been selected for an anthology that would attract both disabled and non-disabled readers?
|‘Motherhand’ by Jasmine Shirrefs (pp. 254–257)
|An account of Shirrefs’ experiences growing up deaf
|What things make the world more accessible for Shirref, and where do people still fall short?
Why has Shirref chosen to write in a style that eliminates description and focuses on a series of moments rather than a detailed scene?
How does the straightforward and unsentimental style of this account appeal to the reader?
|‘Amateur Linguistics’ by Lauren Poole (pp. 258–263)
|Poole describes how she has come to understand the world – and herself – through words
|How does the use of dictionary entries create an interesting structure for the text?
How does Poole’s discovery of the term ‘acquired brain injury’ help her to redefine herself?
How does writing about her disability help her to coexist with it?
|‘E Is for Earwax’ by Khanh Nguyen (pp. 264–272)
|Reflects on the varying reactions of Nguyen’s family (and Nguyen himself) to his disability
|How does the anecdote about the magical baby provide a humorous reflection on Mum and Aunty Thanh’s understanding of disability?
How does Nguyen manage to depict his mother as both a dedicated parent and a source of irritation and anxiety?
|‘Drawing My Way’ by Sarah Firth (pp. 273–292)
|Firth shares her experiences of neurodiversity in the form of a comic
|What are some of the advantages of using a comic-style narrative to represent an individual’s perspective?
What do the ‘she’s just a bit…’ panels tell us about how Firth’s neurodivergence was perceived?
In what ways was her mother extremely helpful? At the same time, what were the ramifications of her decision not to get Firth diagnosed?
What does this text suggest about the value of a diagnosis?
|‘Who Counts as Disabled Anyway?’ by Astrid Edwards (pp. 293–298)
|Edwards discusses her experience of multiple sclerosis (MS)
|How does Edwards explore the progressive nature of her MS?
Why was she initially reluctant to acknowledge her disability?
Why does she believe it is important for people with MS to have role models?
|‘Curve’ by Jessica Walton (pp. 299–300)
|Walton shares a poem about her evolving body image following chemotherapy and amputation
|Who are ‘they’ in the first line?
Compare the beginning and ending of the poem. What is it that led to Walton’s positive change?
What does this poem say about perceptions of disability?
Memoirs often illustrate an important idea about humanity. Paradoxically, while they investigate the details of an individual life, their attempts to make sense of that life often communicate universal experiences or ideas. This is why they often end with a moment of realisation or revelation. The accounts in Growing Up Disabled in Australia mostly follow this narrative pattern, with some kind of epiphany or acceptance as a resolution.
Beginnings and endings
Students often focus on the introduction of a text, but the conclusion is just as important – if not more so. Ask students what they expect to find in introductions and conclusions centred on life writing. Have them draw a table with two columns labelled ‘beginnings’ and ‘endings’, then provide the following list of statements from the anthology. Ask them to identity which statements are beginnings and which are endings, and add them to the appropriate column.
|Beginning or ending
|‘A friend says I am the least disabled person she knows. I’ll buy that.’ (p. 181)
|‘Among my earliest memories is one of standing on a table, surrounded by smiles as I sang the old country song “I want a Pardon for Daddy”.’ (p. 152)
|‘I’m glad I don’t remember being born.’ (p. 161)
|‘Which brings me back to my question. Do I belong in this anthology?’ (p. 298)
|‘Lithium probably saved my life.’ (p. 171)
|‘I’ll race you! I shout,/and my children shriek with laughter as we speed across the grass.’ (p. 300)
|‘My mum was young and pretty, a promising pianist and pilot, flying flimsy aeroplanes practically held together with safety pins.’ (p. 175)
|‘And I have lived an entire life in translation.’ (p. 257)
|‘It was an innocent question, but when the nurse asked what I wanted to be when I grew up the conversation left an aftertaste worse than my medication.’ (p. 203)
|‘As I walked up the stairs from the school canteen, the heaviness of my legs was all-consuming. It felt like I was trying to lift my knees through liquid cement.’ (p. 207)
|‘It is 1986. I am eleven.’ (p. 227)
|‘To this day, I continue to grapple with this, but the little awakenings along the way remind me it’s okay to not be okay.’ (p. 241)
|‘“This place isn’t meant for you,” said Mr Robins.’ (p. 250)
|‘Words were my first love.’ (p. 258)
|‘The first time I remember feeling “different” was at primary school.’ (p. 273)
|‘Let me give you the short list of what can go wrong with my body.’ (p. 293)
Students should justify their decision for each statement:
- Was it language or ideas that made them decide the statement was a beginning/ending?
- Did the statement open or close the discussion?
- Was there a sense of coming to a realisation?
They can then select one of the beginning statements and use it as inspiration for their own short story – not about the author’s disability, but rather their own life experiences.
Revisit the narrative structure of short stories:
exposition/orientation > complication > rising action/series of events > climax > denouement/resolution
Memoirs, which follow series of events in people’s lives, are generally expressed as narratives.
Students can choose one account from Growing Up Disabled in Australia and trace its narrative structure based on the elements listed above.
- Do all of the accounts follow this pattern?
- Some entries start with a complication – why?
- Some accounts use features of writing that are more aligned with reports (e.g. the numbered list in ‘Catching Meaning’, p. 197). How does this affect the memoir?
Logos, pathos and ethos
An important feature of the collection is its movement between logos, pathos and ethos: facts, figures and important sources of information (logos) are juxtaposed with feelings (pathos), leading to a discussion or a call for the reader to reassess their values (ethos). The combination of all three makes texts like Growing Up Disabled in Australia highly persuasive.
Students can practise identifying the purpose of different statements. Have them draw a table with three columns labelled ‘logos’, ‘pathos’ and ‘ethos’, then match the following statements to the correct headings.
|‘The official RDA website states that hippotherapy helps develop “postural control, equilibrium reactions, balance, coordination and spatial orientation”.’ (p. 49)
|‘Even now, I feel a strange affinity for horses.’ (p. 52)
|‘What can I say when it hurts so much?’ (p. 53)
|‘Don’t fear the labels.’ (p. 73)
|‘A simple pronoun changes everything.’ (p. 73)
|‘We have struggled for a long time, and we will struggle further still. But we will get there together, in that spirit of empowerment and self-love and hope.’ (p. 82)
|‘Symptoms include progressive loss of muscle tissue and of touch sensation across my body, which causes me to walk with a different gait.’ (p. 91)
|‘That identity, which I feared for so long, is now one of my greatest qualities. It’s who I am.’ (p. 94)
Students can then examine an assigned chapter to see how logos, pathos and ethos work together.
- Look at the way ‘Noisy Silence’ ( 62–73) balances official documents (logos) with personal accounts (pathos) to influence our thinking and values (ethos).
- How does a poem like ‘December Three’ ( 89–90) balance the three rhetorical features of logos, pathos and ethos?
- Trace logos, pathos and ethos in ‘Question Marks and a Theory of Vision’ (pp. 1–5), focusing on pp. 4–5 (from the paragraph about Plato to the end of the piece).
Ask students to share:
- a passage that moved them and why it did so (how did the language support the ideas)?
- a passage that taught them something new about disability
- a passage that was about advocacy and the importance of advocacy
Choose ONE of the following activities to complete with students (or allow them to choose from the available options).
Students are to select one account from Growing Up Disabled in Australia and design an infographic that conveys their personal response to the narrative. They can use Canva or a similar platform to create the infographic and cover any of the following points (plus any others they come up with) in their response:
- What do we learn about the writer’s identity and/or coming-of-age?
- How does the narrative explore the challenges and obstacles they have dealt with?
- What does the text tell us about social attitudes? Does it suggest that society needs to change, or does it reflect a vibrant and supportive community?
- How does the writer express their own uniqueness? What do they want us to know about their character?
- What is the text’s broader message? What can the reader take away from it?
- Does the writer use any interesting stylistic features or narrative choices to help tell their story?
- Is there a specific antagonist or obstacle?
- How does the text examine the challenges that the writer has contended with throughout their life?
The contributors to Growing Up Disabled in Australia represent a diverse cross section of Australian society, united by their experience of growing up with disability. What do students think they would say to each other if they met in person? Working in groups, students are to script and present an imagined roundtable involving two or more contributors, referring to quotes from their writing to support the discussion.
3. Feature article
Students are to imagine that they are newspaper journalists writing a feature article entitled ‘Exploring the social model of disability: Australians speak out!’ What issues do they think the contributors of Growing Up Disabled in Australia would want to raise in this piece? They should select examples from THREE accounts in the anthology and incorporate them into a piece of writing that discusses the contributors’ perspectives.
Students may need to do some background research on the social model of disability; PWDA’s resource would be a useful starting point.
Ways of reading the text
Fictocriticism: disability, politics and advocacy
Fictocriticism is a unique postmodern style of writing that involves the composition of a work with both fictional and critical elements. It often uses a personal account as the springboard for a discursive or reflective text that engages in a broader social commentary. In Australia, fictocriticism first emerged in the work of women writers reacting against the formal and academic nature of analytical writing published at the time. They sought to produce experimental and provocative work that recognised the importance of a personal perspective on social and political issues.
Many of the accounts in Growing Up Disabled in Australia are fictocritical in nature. The value of the social model of disability, and of advocating for the removal of barriers that obstruct equal participation in society, are central to the anthology. Its clearly defined scope (i.e. the formative experiences of Australians with disability) foregrounds the notion that there is something unique or worthy of discussion within its pages.
Many of the contributors discuss how activism and an understanding of the political dimensions of disability are important in their lives. Others demonstrate how expressing their creativity and telling their own story enables them to raise awareness and improve social consciousness around issues related to disability.
Observations from the text about the importance of social consciousness and activism include:
- Andy Jackson on how poetry affirms difference and facilitates togetherness (p. 5, para. 5)
- El Gibbs on her shared battle for autonomy, and the gap between her understanding of disability as a social construct versus her lived experience (p. 12, para. 2–3)
- Fiona Murphy on the denial of deaf children’s access to sign language and how structural barriers have prevented their full participation in society (p. 46, para. 2)
- Jordon Steele-John on the potential ‘self-delusion’ of believing that your personal experiences transcend the collective experiences of a marginalised group, and pretending that disability has no impact on identity (p. 77, para. 2)
- Jane Rosengrave on what disability pride means to her, and how speaking out about past abuse and discrimination is a form of political activism (p. 147)
- Kath Duncan on her initial fear of owning her disability (p. 167, para. 1)
- Fran Henke (p. 180) on going on to lobby for polio survivors in a society that was so unsupportive and neglectful that it almost drove her parents to the brink (p. 180)
Individuals exist within a broader social, political and historical framework. We are always grappling with social norms, whether we choose to accept or react against them. Although the contributors to this anthology range in age and background, and although their stories often reflect beliefs about disability at particular moments in Australian history, their stories are linked by the fusion of personal experiences and social/political attitudes.
Comparison with other texts
Representations in the media
Apart from the contributors to Growing Up Disabled in Australia, students can research some notable Australians with disability who have been active in public or literary life. Ten have been suggested below:
- Dylan Alcott (1990–), Paralympian and 2022 Australian of the Year
- Michele Castagna (1944–2016), disability advocate
- Quentin Kenihan (1975–2018), disability advocate
- Alan Marshall (1902–1984), writer
- Anne McDonald (1961–2010), writer and disability advocate
- Ron McCallum (1948–), first totally blind Australian to be appointed to a full professorship
- Louise Sauvage (1973–), Paralympian
- Steady Eddy, AKA Christopher Widdows (1968–), comedian
- Nick Vujicic (1982–), evangelist and motivational speaker
- Donna Williams (1963–2017), writer, artist and teacher
Students can consider the complex ethical issues represented by SBS’ The Feed in a segment entitled ‘Down Syndrome Life’. It presents the stories of two people with Down syndrome, both of whom lead happy and rewarding lives; this is juxtaposed with an interview with a medical professional who discusses the termination of pregnancies following pre-natal diagnosis of Down syndrome.
Students can discuss:
- How do the narratives interact with each other?
- Do you agree with SBS’ decision to engage in a discussion about the right to life while simultaneously presenting the stories of living individuals with disability?
- Do you think the message to the audience is one of acceptance, or is it intended to provoke a debate?
- The segment refers to internalised ableism: conscious or unconscious discrimination against people with disability due to perceived inferiority or incapacity. How does the program address the idea of ableism?
Also consider how The Feed represents the views of the medical profession in this segment. Students can relate this to the medical model of disability, which the contributors to Growing Up Disabled in Australia often critique.
Representations across the world
Growing Up Disabled in Australia aims to counteract the negative stereotypes that persist about people with disability. Representations of physical difference in classic texts such as Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1910) misrepresent disability within the horror genre. Although the title characters’ humanity becomes evident as their stories unfold, the attitudes adopted towards them are at best patronising, and at worst contemptuous.
Over the course of the 20th century, first-person accounts by people with disability began to articulate a more personal and empowered view, highlighting positive experiences despite the constraints imposed by an often-ableist society.
It is important to note that Growing Up Disabled in Australia celebrates the lived experiences of people with disability. This is quite different from third-person narratives about characters with disability, or memoirs written by parents or siblings. Works of fiction such as Eleanor Spence’s The October Child (1976) or Elissa Down’s The Black Balloon (2008), for example, explore the more removed perspectives of family members of people with disability. The pleasure and the project of Growing Up Disabled in Australia, however, lies in its advocacy: it provides a platform for marginalised voices to tell their own stories and communicate a message to mainstream society.
Invite students to explore other representations of people with disability in 20th century literature, such as:
- The World I Live In by Helen Keller (1908, American)
- My Left Foot by Christy Brown (1954, Irish)
- I Can Jump Puddles by Alan Marshall (1955, Australian)
The following excerpts focus on moments or sensations from the writers’ lives, highlighting their diverse experiences as people with disability. Keller’s dependence on touch emerges through her sensory descriptions of objects; Brown shares the moment he discovers a way to express himself; and Marshall explores his community’s reaction to his illness.
Helen Keller (1880–1968)
Keller became deaf and blind after contracting an unknown illness as a toddler. She eventually learned to communicate with her hands and became a writer, activist and public speaker. Footage of Keller delivering a speech in Sydney in 1948 (from 0:44 onwards) is illuminating.
Keller was a passionate socialist and wrote extensively. Read para. 5 of Chapter 1: The Seeing Hand from The World I Live In, in which Keller discusses ideas, impressions, and deriving meaning from tactile sensations.
- Consider the sensory imagery in Keller’s writing. What images stand out for you?
- What makes this a remarkable piece of writing? Discuss its literary qualities and any language techniques that you notice.
- What do you think of the book’s title? Why is it significant?
Christy Brown (1932–1981)
Brown was born with cerebral palsy into a working-class Irish family. Although doctors advised his parents to commit him to a hospital, they were determined to raise him at home with the rest of his siblings (he was one of thirteen). Brown later discovered that he could control his left foot and learned to write and paint.
Read about this moment of discovery in My Left Foot, from the final sentence on p. 13 to the middle of p. 16 (when Brown’s mother asks him to copy the letter ‘A’).
- How does Brown convey the impact of his nurturing family on his life?
- Note the often-dramatic tone of this excerpt. What do we learn about Brown’s craft from his use of emotive language?
- Why does Brown describe the weather in this excerpt? What atmosphere does this create? Consider the imagery of the fire and the shadows.
- How does Brown create a sense of tension and suspense in this excerpt?
- My Left Foot was a phenomenally popular and widely published book. Why do you think this is the case, based on the writing in this excerpt?
Alan Marshall (1902–1984)
Marshall was born in country Victoria and developed a physical disability after contracting poliomyelitis. His autobiography celebrated life in early 20th century Australia and was widely studied in schools.
Read about the prevailing social attitudes towards disability in the early 1900s as explored in I Can Jump Puddles, from the second half of p. 3 to the middle of p. 5 (when Marshall’s father attempts to explain how his son became ill).
- How do Marshall’s memories explore the stigma attached to physical disability at the time?
- How do we know that this work is set in rural Australia? How does Marshall create a strong sense of setting in his writing?
- Why do you think Marshall has chosen to recall the sense of fear and anxiety created by the polio epidemic?
- How does Marshall emphasise the importance of religion in his community? How does he convey a sense of realism in his memoir?
Evaluation can take two directions: a personal response to the accounts within Growing Up Disabled in Australia, or an assessment about the place of the anthology in the wider world of texts about disability.
Ask students to assess:
Which account in the anthology stands out for you and why? Is it the style or the ideas that you find most appealing?
Having considered other texts about disability, invite students to consider this book in the context of its predecessors.
How successful is Growing Up Disabled in Australia at giving voice to those who have been historically silenced or treated as ‘others’?
Rich assessment task (productive and receptive modes)
Students can choose two or three of the accounts listed under Fictocriticism (or any other accounts from the anthology with a strong social or political theme) and identify a common thread that runs between them. They can then compose a fictocritical piece of writing that draws on their personal responses to their chosen texts, and demonstrates an understanding of how people with disability have been treated by mainstream Australian society. This piece should be titled according to the connection that students have identified (e.g. ‘The Importance of Speaking Out’ or ‘Problems With Assumptions Made by Society’). They should conduct their own research and incorporate information about social attitudes, advocacy and other statistics relating to disability.
Students can experiment with the stylistic possibilities of a fictocritical piece by:
- interspersing facts with references to the personal accounts from the anthology
- expanding on ideas that might have broader relevance for people with disability in Australia
- choosing a symbol or motif that represents the shared experiences of people with disability and exploring this symbol in descriptive detail
- moving between free verse, prose and analysis to create a multi-layered text that experiments with both informative and imaginative forms of writing
In her introduction to Growing Up Disabled in Australia, Carly Findlay sets out several goals for the anthology: being a friend to those in need; changing history; showcasing the diversity of disability; and giving people with disability a sense of pride and belonging (pp. x–xi).
Has Findlay been successful in her aims? Explain why.
Discuss as a class, then have students present their individual responses as a written review.
Rich assessment tasks (receptive and productive modes)
The following assessment tasks will allow students to engage with the themes, structures and techniques of different accounts from the anthology at an achievable level. Each task can be differentiated according to students’ needs; see this sheet (PDF, 144KB) for suggestions.
1. Group podcast
Students may wish to listen to some podcasts about disability, such as Dylan Alcott and Angus O’Loughlin’s ListenABLE. This rich podcast aims to ‘break down stigmas, change perceptions, and challenge what you think it’s like to live with disability’. Alcott and O’Loughlin achieve this by interviewing Australians with disability, exploring the variety of their experiences and enabling listeners to better understand their lives.
Students should consider the features of this podcast, including its conversational style; the hosts’ discussion of related issues in their introduction; their in-depth conversation with the interviewee; and the use of short bursts of muzak to transition between different parts of the episode.
Working in groups of three or four, students are to produce a five- to seven-minute podcast. They will need to incorporate features of the podcast form and give each group member a speaking role.
The topic of the podcast will be:
What should Australians know about the experiences of people with disability?
The podcast should be targeted at a mainstream audience, with the conversation taking the form of a roundtable discussion. Students should appoint one or two hosts and two or three guests. Each guest should represent the opinions of ONE contributor from Growing Up Disabled in Australia. They should refer to relevant challenges and life experiences in their contributor’s writing, and relay any messages this person may have shared about how they want to be treated or what they want society to know or do. Students may also discuss the social model of disability, but the focus should be on what they have learned and understood from different contributors’ experiences.
Each group member will submit a 300–400-word reflection on how this task enabled them to engage with and think deeply about the issues presented in Growing Up Disabled in Australia. This will be used for individual assessment.
2. Textual experimentation
One of the most interesting features of Growing Up Disabled in Australia is the prevalence of non-linear narratives. Many of the contributors have experimented with different textual forms to find what best enables them to convey and respond to their own life experiences.
Given the centrality of disability to this anthology, and the infrequency with which this theme is explored in mainstream publications, it can be easy to lose sight of the book’s significant literary value. The accounts are often beautifully and vividly written, and their authors demonstrate a willingness to explore textual form in unconventional ways. This provides valuable reading material for English students and those who enjoy reading and writing narrative non-fiction.
Contributors who have experimented with textual form include:
- Olivia Muscat (pp. 14–21), who uses a series of epistolary fragments to respond to people’s misperceptions about blindness or low vision. These letters allow her to humorously critique the assumptions and stereotypes about people who are blind or have low vision.
- Dion Beasley and Johanna Bell (pp. 22–28), who use fragments of free verse as a form of poetic flash-fiction to explore Beasley’s memories of growing up disabled in the remote Northern Territory.
- Kerri-ann Messenger (pp. 53–55), whose poetry is marked by rhetorical questions and repetition. Her writing explores both her personal memories and some of the feelings shared by people with disability.
- Anna Whateley (pp. 62–73), who writes in a series of flashbacks that alternate between primary sources (most notably her diaries) and a retrospective narrative voice. This creates a sense of dramatic irony, juxtaposing her younger self’s innocence with her adult self’s more reflective understanding of her neurodiversity.
- Jordon Steele-John (pp. 74–82), Jane Rosengrave (pp. 142–148) and Isis Holt (pp. 184–189), whose oral histories have been recorded in transcripts from separate interviews.
- C.B. Mako (pp. 89–90), who uses free verse (often marked by single-word sentences) to discuss their intersectional experiences as a person with disability from a migrant community.
- Marla Bishop (pp. 149–151), who adopts a third-person voice in a free verse poem to reflect on their experiences from an outside perspective.
- Carly-Jay Metcalfe (pp. 182–183), who transforms Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Lady Lazarus’ in relation to her own experience of living with a chronic health condition.
- Ricky Buchanan ( 227–231), who uses multiple fragments with a strong first-person voice to narrate a series of moments chronicling her disability journey.
- Sarah Firth ( 273–292), who shares her experiences in the form of a comic. This visual medium helps to juxtapose her own perspective with those of the people around her, illustrating how neurodiverse individuals experience a lack of understanding or empathy.
Students can explore some of these accounts; how do their authors use different textual forms to achieve their purpose and communicate with their implied audience? How have they experimented with style, structure and form to communicate their subjective experiences?
Students will explore how ONE of the aforementioned contributors experiments with textual form to present a piece of life writing. They will then emulate the features of this form to:
- produce their own short memoir or autobiographical account, OR
- write the life story of someone they know.
The length of the completed task will vary according to the textual form chosen:
- Poems should exceed 250 words
- Narrative fragments should exceed 500 words
- Students should feel free to experiment with Firth’s comic-style narrative, as long as they produce a text of similar length (more than 20 panels)
Students will also critique their own work in a 300–400-word reflection. They should focus on answering the following questions:
- How has a text from Growing Up Disabled in Australia provided inspiration for my experimentation with form?
- How did this experimentation lead me to create a piece of narrative non-fiction that tells a life story?