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#DisabilityVisibility in Publishing: Time For Action

Publishers are beginning to address issues of diversity and under-representation, but is agenda-setting translating into real intersectional inclusion?

In 2017, The Publishers Association published a ten-point inclusivity plan for building a workforce representative of modern society. It set a 15% target for BAME representation and proposed that women should hold 50% of senior leadership positions. It didn’t set any targets for disability inclusion.

The 2019 survey allowed us to reflect on the successes and shortcomings of diversity & inclusion schemes. Yet the industry still falls short: just 13% of respondents identified as BAME and only 6.6% identified as having a disability.

Until we set a clear agenda, there will be no industry standard for the inclusion of disabled employees and no tangible change.

The Creative Case For Disability Inclusion

Disability inclusion isn’t only about taking moral action – although I hope that publishers appreciate the cultural power they hold and care about social inclusion. It also makes good business sense.

There’s a clear connection between diversity and innovation. Disabled people are often creative thinkers and innovators – it’s a vital life skill for navigating an inaccessible society. These skills translate into the workplace, adding value to processes and campaign ideas.

Not to mention the 13.9 million disabled people in the UK. That’s one in five readers with the consumer power to drive the best-seller list. Yet while book products are becoming more accessible – think e-books and audiobooks – we still can’t read stories written by or about disabled people without encountering inspiration porn.

What About Authors?

Disability arts are thriving, and there are so many incredible disabled writers – just check out #CripLit. But there are remarkably few Own Voices stories from disabled authors in mainstream fiction. It’s so far down the agenda that there are no published figures about disabled authors. This lack of disabled voices prompted #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs, where disabled readers and authors protest against the proliferation of non-disabled voices writing about disabled lives.

Publishers have the responsibility and the means to change this picture. They are responsible for selecting the books that are published and championing them up the best-seller list. That’s why we need disabled voices commissioning other disabled voices.

Fighting the Good Fight

Despite these trends, there are some stellar organisations tackling under-representation. The Good Literary Agency focuses exclusively on representing authors of colour, disabled, LGBTQ+ and working-class authors. This initiative goes beyond box-ticking by concentrating on actively publishing, promoting and amplifying the voices of disabled writers.

Several publishing groups report in-house disability networks without doing much to support or fund them. Disability access groups are not paid positions but led by pioneering volunteers. The work they do to offer safe spaces to disabled colleagues is so vital in advancing the disability agenda. Check out the Springer Nature Disabled Employee Network (co-founded by Kirsty Bone, Twitter: @kirstybone) and Crip Collective (a Facebook community for disabled publishers and writers founded by Ever Dundas).

Take Action

Addressing the under-representation of disabled people in publishing goes far beyond raising awareness. Here are three actions publishers need to take if they’re serious about disability inclusion:

1. Use Positive Action Schemes to Support Disabled Access

Big publishing groups like Penguin Random House, Hachette and HarperCollins have developed positive action schemes to create traineeships and internships for BAME and low socioeconomic background candidates. But disability remains off the agenda. Let’s do something about that.

We need accessible, paid training opportunities targeting disabled candidates too. Since life is, on average, £583 more expensive per month if you’re disabled, centring accessibility and affordability is vital for disabled people to enter the industry. Then we need to think about how we develop once we’re there.

2. Disabled Peer Mentoring

Just 1.8% of publishing Executive Managers identify as disabled. There is clearly some way to go in developing the careers of disabled employees. Publishing houses could begin by actively promoting the work of disabled networking groups across the industry.

Disabled employees are often not put forward for promotions because of implicit bias. Developing disabled-led peer mentoring schemes allows more senior disabled colleagues to share their skills and challenge implicit bias at the executive level. And this type of mentoring isn’t just for publishers. Penguin Random House’s WriteNow scheme offers industry mentoring to disabled and under-represented writers – why not encourage established disabled writers to get involved and share their experience of breaking down barriers?

3. Make Access a Priority

It’s not rocket science, but many disabled candidates do not apply for roles in publishing houses because the recruitment process isn’t accessible – online forms that don’t comply with screen-readers is a common cause of digital inaccessibility. Access is about so much more than installing a ramp for wheelchair users.

Can we offer remote working – COVID has shown we definitely can! – and flexible working hours? Can we provide alternative office space to avoid over-stimulating environments? What affordable technology can we buy to invest in our disabled employees? How can we incorporate rest breaks into long meetings?

Publishing has a reputation for being inflexible in its approach to the way things are done. Ask yourself: do we absolutely have to do it this way, or would innovation make our working life more inclusive and better for everyone involved?

Access is about showing you care about your employees and their well-being. Don’t just tell us that you’re committed to health and safety, show us you’re proactive and ready to learn from our experiences.

Article by Charlie Thorpe



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