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Interviews, Recommendations, and More

When I’m 64: Dorothy Ellen Palmer on Age, Disability, and CanLit

We dare you not to be inspired and galvanized by the eloquence, passion and common sense in this post on literary diversity. 

Book Cover When Fenelon Falls

Novelist Dorothy Ellen Palmer (When Fenelon Falls) makes the case that notions of diversity must be broadened to include seniors and disabled people, and that in order for this change to be meaningful, the literary world (and its people) are going to have to change. We dare you not to be inspired and galvanized by the eloquence, passion and common sense displayed in her guest post today.

 And along those lines, please do have a look at With Age Comes Seniority, our list of authors whose writing careers have been established even beyond their fabulous forties. 


I was born in 1955. I’m 61. I remember the Kennedy assassination, Expo ’67, Woodstock, the moon landing, watching the Beatles on a rooftop and onEd Sullivan, not to mention the night the Leafs won the Stanley Cup. I saw the first Trudeaumania, the Black Panthers, Vietnam protests, AIDS hysteria, the end of apartheid and the Berlin Wall. I attended my first Woman’s Liberation meeting in 1976 and as a young teacher mourned the murder of women students on December 6, 1989. After three decades in my union, one as Branch President organizing strikes to defend education from Mike Harris, after a career combating high school sexism, racism, sexual harassment, and homophobia, I know what it means to devote yourself to change that moves slower than your life. I have new solidarity with the black colleague who stood at our Students and Teachers Against Racism (STAR) meeting in 1991 and asked: “Why are there only white faces on this stage?” Ironically, sadly, after a lifetime of building inclusion, in the CanLit world of 2016, it is my entire generation that isn’t being heard.

It’s a double loss for me because I’m more than old: I’m lame. I use the word deliberately. Complicated by arthritis, the congenital defects in my feet are degenerative. I used two feet until 50, moved to a crutch, then a walker. Despite surgery and meds, I’m in pain. From lived experience, I’ve written two novels with disabled protagonists. This May, when I advocated my way onto a “Diverse Bodies” panel at the Festival of Literary Diversity, it marked a first in my lifetime: a festival that acknowledged seniors and the disabled as both missing and essential. It was energizing to be with allies, inspiring to hear other writers affirm the validation they felt to be heard beyond diversity issues, to speak as writers not tokens. I wish I could say I had the same experience. I did not.

A month of heart and head searching later, here’s my conclusion. FOLD provided top-notch accessibility support, and I felt supported by diverse bloggers, editors, publishers, writers, volunteers, and attendees, but ageism and ableism still prevailed. Like every literary event I’ve ever attended, I listened to panel after panel of young, (under 45) able-bodied writers. I felt a lone and lonely token.

And then I came home. And worse than nothing happened.

Logo The FOLD

I scoured the internet for FOLD coverage, finding many deserving reviews. But only one mentioned the landmark inclusion of disabled seniors. It praised what it called FOLD’s defining moment: during my panel an able-bodied person volunteered to help an able-bodied care-giver support her disabled students. It was a welcome moment of kindness and solidarity. That is not the issue. The issue is that it was the only moment covered by any review. No mention of my disabled body on the stage. No mention of my work or communities. In analogy, the insult is cringe worthy. In 2016, no white reviewer would attend a panel of writers of colour, only to report that a white person offered to assist another white person with people of colour. No offer from a cisgender ally to speak for LGTBQA writers would ever be a defining moment.

FOLD was so much better than this coverage. I don’t want to embarrass the well-meaning. I’m saying Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development applies to diversity festivals: ageism and ableism exits even in those resisting their own oppression. I’m saying no able-bodied person can be expected to speak with an authentic voice. So, just as STAR had to cede the stage and listen, as a disabled senior, I respectfully submit the following proposals:

1. Let’s all learn the numbers and acknowledge the enormity of the missing.

StatsCan confirms it: Grey is Canada’s new black.

Our 6 million citizens over 65 are 16.1% of the nation. When the 6.2% over 60 are included, it totals a whopping 22.3%. Let’s stop there. This means if CanLit truly represented Canada, one of every five books published in 2016 would be by a senior writer. One of every five authors in every agency, one of every five reviewed in every newspaper, journal and blog, one of every five appearing at every literary event, and one of every five nominated for every literary award, would all be seniors. We’d get 20% of all publication, publicity, and funding. Our voices would be legion.

And again, it’s a double loss. The 3.8 million citizens with disabilities are 14% of Canada. That’s one in every seven Canadians, and growing. Thanks to Tommy Douglas, we get to be old and disabled. Given the baby boomer bulge, by 2036, our 10 million seniors will be 25% of Canada, some 60% or 6 million of whom will be disabled. Disabled seniors are our fastest growing “minority.”

Where are our stories? Do our lives matter?

While I’m thrilled that current diversity initiatives highlight our 4% indigenous peoples and the 0.5% identifying as transgender, I’m left asking when seniors and the disabled will get anywhere near the attention and opportunities our numbers deserve. At “Diverse Bodies,” I asked the audience who could name a disabled senior writer. Three raised their hands.

Seniors retire from many occupations, but story-telling isn’t one of them. We buy the most books and attend more live theatre. Theoretically, an army of senior storytellers rich with life experience, finally free from paid employment and childrearing, should be flooding the market. Instead, “Emerging writers” emerge only from puberty and the voice of our 14% disabled population is smothered. Seniors pay for youth culture, to be schooled by writers younger than our children. The disabled pay to be silenced. In lip service and tokenism, we get “seniors and the disabled”tacked onto the end of diversity goals of organizations and festivals containing neither. With the bright exception of FOLD, there is zero outreach, no discussion of affirmative actions needed to reach a fair 25% in a short twenty years.

Let’s skip the 1970’s blame-the-victim explanations for this shameful under-representation. Let’s not even try the tired sexist racist saw that submissions are judged on “merit;” that implies seniors can’t write to publication quality. Let’s learn from the struggles of others. The lack of senior and disabled writers is the pervasive result of one thing: the systemic ageism and ableism of CanLit literary culture.

How do we work together to change these numbers? 

2. Disabled senior writers must come out of the closet and demand a seat at the table.

Every writer who comes out of the disabled closet, opens the door for others. While I accept the right to medical privacy, I challenge the silence of stigma or shame. I encourage disabled writers of all ages to self-identify. This is a new and liberating idea for me. Because I could pass in the walking world, I hid in the disabled closet for 50 years. Like the “I see no colour,” deniers of racism, I wanted all to look at me and say, “I see no disability.” Desperate as Cinderella’s stepsisters, I forced myself into unwearable shoes. I struggled to play hopscotch, to dance, to make love without my socks. I turned a blind ear to ableist language, told myself I wouldn’t be an invalid invalid, or the limping village idiot, if I could take a stand, stand up for myself, rise to the occasion, stand tall, and walk like a man.

At university, admitting my size-two 8E-wide feet would never be normal, I took Women’s Studies, cut my hair, ridiculed make-up, and threw my skirts in the trash. If I scorned high heels loudly enough, I hoped no one would guess I couldn’t wear them. In truth, in the little boys’ section of Walmart, in tears, the only fashion choice ever available to me was to pass on Spiderman runners with Velcro, no matter how well they fit. I got old, but my feet stayed children.

When I conceived my own two babies, I held my breath for nine months.

I loved my episiotomies; epidurals gave me the only two hours in my life without pain. When my children were born normal, I was relieved—and resentful. I tried to hide it. I stood to bathe, diaper, and dress my squirming babies. I even played tag. If they asked why I limped, I said I was tired. When my daughter asked why I never wore dresses, I said,” to disenfranchise the male gaze,” an answer I’m sure satisfies all five-year-olds with a bedroom full of Barbies.

In three decades as an English/Drama teacher, I never taught a book with a disabled hero.

I forbade racist and sexist “jokes,” convinced hundreds of teens to stop saying, “That’s so gay!” They refused to stop saying, “That’s so lame!” Teen gatekeepers told melamemeans what all my politically-correct adult friends mean when they so casually use it:Inadequate. A pathetic second best. Half-hearted, fake. Lazy and laughable. Invalid.Yep, that’s me. I’m so lame. I let thieves steal the word for my body, use it to smear me as inferior, and insist they’ve done nothing wrong. Because the first perk of any white/gender/class/ableist privilege is the power to define other people’s experience, even my friends tell me I shouldn’t “complain.” I must be cheerful inspiration porn.

Apparently, I must be spiritually enriched by disability, or I’m doing it wrong.

As long as we stay in the closet, this is how we let others shape and tell our story. In CanLit 2016, there has been a recent surge in tourist voices in non-fiction and memoir, where caregivers and family members speak for the aging and disabled. While this is a valid perspective, it can never replace an authentic voice. There is clearly a market for disabled stories whenAll the Light We Cannot Seewins fame and fortune appropriating disabled experience. Why is this not seen as ableist colonialism, not protested by all allies of diversity who don’t want their authentic voices hijacked by tourists?

More importantly, why are seniors and the disabled not collectively defending ourselves?    

By staying in the closet, we perpetuate stereotypes that the disabled are enfeebled, old people are doddering, and both need help. When I stopped colouring my hair, strangers kindly began instructing me how to use an elevator, a bank machine, my cell phone. As a feisty red-head, my ex-spouse on the run from an Arrest Warrant for three years of unpaid Spousal Support was a criminal. As a grizzled old gimp, I felt this judgement: Understandably dumped. Dried up. Sexless. Left to die. Senior women are twice as likely to live in poverty as senior men. Battling infantilization, stereotyping, economic hardship, and silencing, this is what an authentic senior disabled voice sounds like.

For change in our lifetime, we must open our own closet doors.

And then we must point out that this is ableist language, and struggle to word it anew.

3. Writers, agents, editors, publishers, bloggers, reviewers, and festival organizers, must follow the lead of FOLD to actively seek out and invite disabled and senior writers to the table.

At FOLD, authors challenged publishers on their social responsibility to publish diverse voices. We’ve been asking this since the ‘70s when women writers, led by ROOM, first protested the over-representation of men. Four decades later, we’re still waiting. Newsflash: publishers are not motivated by arguments of social justice. They claim they are convinced by sales and young able-bodied publishing reps have decided there is no market for stories of disability and aging. The mega-enterprise of Zoomer Media suggests otherwise, but ageism and ableism are deeply ingrained in the definition of “a marketable author.” If senior disabled writers can’t enter the building, we can’t do the schmooze circuit of readings and festivals. We aren’t youthful eye candy, and may not be twitter perky. We don’t fit in the youth culture that is publishing. None of this means our stories won’t sell. To the contrary, the publisher who best reaches Canada’s changing demographics could make fistfuls. If this is all that motivates publishers, then please, show us the money.

But the other stake holders in CanLit do have a social justice role to play.

One overlooked benefit of the fair inclusion of seniors and the disabled is that we increase the representation of all marginalized groups. Indigenous writers, LGTBQA writers and writers of colour, all get old. A community that advocates for disabled seniors is challenging the very status quo that abandons and silences their own members.

Seniors and the disabled must be welcomed as full partners in the the expanding circle of diversity. Just as we count male and female writers, count of writers of colour and the LGTBQA community, we must start publicly counting seniors and the disabled. We must all share all the numbers, and continue to elaborate the intersections between all marginalized communities.

Making this change takes daily life, not just events and festivals.

Having been on strike repeatedly, putting my family and livelihood at risk for my principles, I’m perfectly at home asking the literary community to do likewise. We can see ourselves as a collective workforce with the power to negotiate and improve the conditions of labour for all.

As lovers of language, we can challenge our spoken and written words. We can treat ageism and ableism in public the way we would a racist or sexist “joke.” I welcome the recent moment on Facebook when an able-bodied writer outed the ableism of “blind judging.”

We can drop the language of young, able-bodied, self-congratulatory moralizing that elevates the choice of bookstores over e-books. The largest cohort on e-readers are seniors, people for whom journeying to a store, paying the higher cost of print, and carrying and holding a heavy book, may have all become more difficult. The veneration of downtown independent bookstores is rife with able-bodied privilege. With inaccessible curbs, thresholds, and stairs, no e-buttons on doors, aisles too narrow for a wheelchair, no parking, and little or no seating, many fail to meet current accessibility legislation. I will not be made to feel morally inferior for not patronizing a store I cannot enter.    

To avoid hypocrisy, allies must act together and all put our money where our mouth is. We can all ask our agents, editors, publishers, and other writers, what they are doing to seek out and support diversity, now, today. We can make it known that we will refuse to do a panel or reading unless the stage is diverse. We can insist that literary events be accessible, that we won’t appear at any downtown bars or event spaces up two flights of stairs with no parking, no elevator, and no seating. And since accessibility includes financial accessibility, we can refuse to appear at any festival, teach any writing course, join any writer’s organization, or appear at any event, unless it has both published accessibility information and offers all those of limited means opportunity to attend at student cost, or for free.

We have two choices. Either we act to make change together and now, or we talk about it for another 40 years. Then CanLit won’t need you, and no one will read you, when you’re 64.  


Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is a disabled senior writer, binge knitter, Sherlock Holmes fan, mom, and lover of improv. For 23 years, she worked as a high school English and Drama teacher, teaching on a Mennonite Colony on the border of the North West Territories, a four room school house in rural Alberta, a Calgary Adult Learning Centre attached to a prison, and a highly diverse new high school in Pickering, where she created the only high school improv program in Canada and coached for The Canadian Improv Games,

Her semi-autobiographical novel, When Fenelon Falls, features a hurricane, a bastard and a bear. It’s the story a disabled teen adoptee in the Moonwalk-Woodstock summer of 1969. Her recently completed second novel, Kerfuffle, also features a disabled protagonist. Set in another hot summer, it follows a diverse Toronto improv troupe making sense and nonsense of the G20 protests. For more information on Dorothy Ellen Palmer, follow her on Twitter.

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