Friday, August 21, 2020

A Disabled Author and Reader's Thoughts on Sensitivity Reading

As you've probably noticed by now, I am very open about the fact that I'm disabled. I talk a lot about disability representation, give disability rep book and movie recommendations, and occasionally share my day-to-day experiences as a disabled person.  

Because of this, people often ask me if I will do sensitivity reads for their stories. 

Very rarely do I say yes to this. 

It's not because I don't think sensitivity reads are important (they are...but we'll get to that). It's simply because I have very complicated thoughts about sensitivity reading. When applied improperly, sensitivity reads can easily be misused and abused by authors. Additionally, they can be very stressful for me as sensitivity reader. 

So, as both a disabled reader and author, I'm here to tell you why sensitivity reading is important, how they can fall short, and how we can work to fix this issue. 

Ya with me? Okay. Let's do this.

A picture of a bookshelf and a hand reaching for a book. Above it reads: "A Disabled Author and Reader's Thoughts on Sensitivity Reading"

But before we get started, I have two disclaimers: 

1) This post is dealing with non-paid sensitivity reads. I have never (and probably will never) do paid sensitivity reading, so I can only speak to my own experience here. Paid sensitivity reads work very differently from what I am describing below.

2) If you have ever requested a sensitivity read from me, please know that this post is not about you. If I turned down your request, I turned it down for whatever reason I personally explained to you at the time. If I took you up on the offer, I took you up for whatever reason I explained to you at the time. I've been thinking about this topic for years and have had this post in my drafts folder for months, so: No, this post is not about you. I promise. 

What is Sensitivity Reading and Is it Important?

Put simply, sensitivity reading is when someone reads a manuscript with the intent of providing feedback on how the author handled representation of an underrepresented group. This reader is always one that has personal experience with these issues and is part of the group that is being represented.

Sensitivity reads are, in my opinion, important, especially when a writer is handling topics they are unfamiliar with. It's a great way to make sure you haven't accidentally reinforced negative stereotypes or overlooked cool opportunities for accurate representation. It makes your writing stronger and more interesting.

So why do I have reservations about being a sensitivity reader? So many reasons: 

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? 

A whole lot, let me tell you. 

Authors can (and do) use it as a "diversity pass." Sometimes writers will bring a sensitivity reader on to approve of their work. Then, if anyone critiques their representation, they can say, "But X from this marginalized group said it was fine!" In fact, some authors will intentionally seek out "sensitivity readers" who they know will simply pat them on the shoulder and tell them they did good. It's a really crappy move, but it happens.

Authors use it as a replacement for upfront work. Instead of heavily researching the group they are writing about upfront, authors sometimes do minimal research because "Hey, the sensitivity reader will fix it for me later." Instead of talking to people from the group they are representing before even drafting the story, they just bring those people in at the end. This sucks. It makes a sensitivity reader's job incredibly difficult and often impossible. 

I'll use a real-life example to illustrate this (it's long, but bear with me). I'm a disability advocate at my university. Our New Student Orientation program finally decided to give a disability education presentation for Orientation Leaders, and they asked me and a fellow disabled student to look over the material before the official release. The problem? It was far too little, far too late. Because they didn't consult with us during the creation process, the educational material was incredibly incorrect in a multitude of ways. My friend and I spent hours analyzing and suggesting corrections, and now the program will have to spend a large amount of time applying our edits. If they had simply worked with us upfront and done their research from the beginning, it would have saved all of us a lot of time and energy. 

A little kid saying, "You're killin' me, Smalls!"

This is often what it can feel like to be a sensitivity reader. If authors would approach us before beginning the story and consult with us during the writing process, their stories would be so much better for it. And the editing process would be much smoother. Instead, some authors bring in sensitivity readers at the end when it's very hard for us to make suggestion because the problems are so deeply ingrained in the story.

Put simply: It's too little, too late.

Authors assume that one sensitivity reader is enough because they assume the group they are writing about is monolithic. As you hopefully know, no group of people share the exact same experiences and opinions. As a disabled person, there are many experiences I share with other disabled people. However, myself and my disabled friends don't agree on everything. We use different disability language, different disability advocacy/activism approaches, and have vastly different social experiences. It's pretty cool, actually. 

The problem comes when an author doesn't recognize the diversity within underrepresented communities  and only asks one sensitivity reader to check their manuscript. This still only gives them a relatively narrow view of the group they are writing about and can lead to an inauthentic story.

It also puts far too much pressure on sensitivity readers because it makes us feel like we have to speak for our entire community. It also makes us feel that, if this story ends up having negative representation, we are somehow partially responsible for the disaster. That feeling can be incredibly intimidating and stressful.  

How Do I Fix This? 

I know some people might read the above section and think, "Whelp, I guess sensitivity readers are out, then." 


That is not what I am saying. 

While sensitivity reading can be abused, there are ways to fix this. As a sensitivity reader, below are the criteria I have begun using to decide if I will read a manuscript:

Note that these are also all things I consider as an author, too. It makes my writing stronger and I'm sure it would have the same effect for others. 

I make sure I'm the right reader for the job. Often people will approach me with a general, "I'm writing a disabled character, will you read this to make sure I did it right?" My answer is always: "It depends. What type of disability does this character have?" The answers I get to this question varies: Sometimes the character is very similar to me in respect to their disability, but often the character's disability is entirely different. If I'm dealing with the latter situation, I always tell them that I can double-check for broad disability issues (such as reading it and asking: Is this inspiration porn? Are they othering the disabled character? Did they use hurtful language? Did they use Magical Healing or some other harmful trope? Did they overlook the social ramifications of disability? etc etc etc). 

However, I always strongly recommend that they find a few other disabled readers who actually have the same disability their character has. Otherwise my feedback, while somewhat helpful, will be largely useless when it comes to accurate representation of that specific disability. 

The takeaway for sensitivity readers: Make sure you have personal experience with the topic before agreeing to read. 

The takeaway for authors: Find sensitivity readers who are good fits for what you are writing. 

I ask what their writing process was. Did they research the specific disability? Did they talk to disabled people throughout the project? Did they consume books, essays, films, and/or Youtube videos by disabled people? If the answer is no to one or more of these, I don't instantly turn the author's sensitivity read request down. I do, however, become innately more cautious. I also consider asking for a longer amount of time to read and provide them with notes, as I now have reason to believe that their story will have quite a few holes. 

The takeaway for sensitivity readers: Don't do the heavy-lifting for the author. Make sure they've put in their fair share of work.

The takeaway for authors: Don't be lazy. Do your research up front and along the way, and don't just dump everything on your sensitivity readers. 

I ask how many other sensitivity readers they have. If I'm the only sensitivity reader, then that's a huge red flag for me. Why aren't there others? Is it because the author has only ever interacted with one disabled person (me)? Or do they know other disabled people, but are so uncomfortable around them that they didn't dare ask for their help? If this is the case, it decreases the likelihood that their representation is solid. 

Besides, as mentioned above: The disabled community is not a monolith. It is a very diverse community and I never feel comfortable speaking on behalf of all of us. Being disabled doesn't mean I instantly know all there is to know about disability. I'm still learning, and thus can't shoulder the responsibility of being the Sole Disabled Voice on this project. 

The takeaway for sensitivity readers: Create space for other people in your community by requesting to be one of multiple sensitivity readers, not the only sensitivity reader.

The takeaway for authors: Don't assume that all people from a single community are interchangeable.  Include multiple readers in your process. 

I consider my connection to the author. Sometimes I get sensitivity requests from people completely out of the blue. They've never interacted with me before, yet here they are. This is red flag. 

Most of the sensitivity reads I've done in the past are for authors who I know and have interacted with extensively. Because I know them, I feel comfortable that their motives are pure. I often don't even have to ask them the above questions because I know them well enough to know they've done their due diligence. I also know that they will take my comments seriously while maintaining the integrity of their story and style. This familiarity creates a mutually beneficial atmosphere where we can both thrive: Me as a reader who wants to do right by my community, them as an author who wants to tell a good story.

The takeaway for sensitivity readers: If you get slimy vibes from an author, don't feel like you need to work with them.

The takeaway: Build genuine relationships with sensitivity readers before asking them for help. 

I do have quite a few more thoughts on sensitivity reading, but I'm going to stop here and just open up to questions: If you have anything at all you'd like to know about this topic, please leave a comment below and I will respond! 

Related articles: 
Disabilities in Fiction: Interview with Hannah Heath | Coffee with Yaasha (Episode 14)7 Tips for Writing a Character with a Chronic Illness

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  1. This is great! I'm currently working on a manuscript with a character who has a disability different from mine (leg injury) but it has been a really interesting way to explore thoughts about my own stuff (rheumatoid arthritis, most notably). Your post is a great reminder for keeping all this in mind -- I did these steps extensively on my first book but might have relaxed back a little on this one without meaning to. Thanks for sharing!

    1. That manuscript sounds awesome! I'm so glad this post was helpful for you. I'm excited to see where this story takes you.

  2. Thank you for this! I was recently wondering about the best way of going about stuff like this, because I'm just beginning my journey to publishing and I know eventually something like this would pop up because I just have a genuine interest in the different ways people live and experience life and I like to explore that concept in my stories. Though I try to do the best research I can so that I can try and picture some of what it might be like, I don't always know how to find the people I'm looking for. Over time, I've sometimes stumbled across people (you, a couple of people who write about their experiences being blind, and a couple others with various invisible disabilities) I try to find and follow blogs and read all they have to say about their specific disabilities and personal experiences. And in creating friendships, in person or online... in person I've gotten better. I use to really struggle just in general with anyone because I don't know how to start conversations due to my dislike of small talk. and online I'm just hesitant in general with anyone. I only recently started commenting on blogs and am unsure of how it is other authors make friends with other authors or just people in general... since any of my original online interactions with people happened in closed communities (online schools or workshops) but ig it's just trial and error and learning like everything. :)

    One question about sensitivity reading, would it be appropriate if i were to say, ask you if you knew of anyone with a certain disability that I could start with when searching for help in gaining understanding on that topic? Like, I'd already be researching, I might be beginning to draft the story, and I maybe I haven't yet found a person sharing their personal experiences on this particular topic. Would it be okay to ask someone else who i know has some connections to other disabled people to point me in the direction of someone who might b willing and better able to answer my questions? (I haven't yet had to look for someone sharing about a specific disability so I'm unsure of how easy or hard it might be to find someone. do you think it would generally be easy? would searching for something specific usually bring up blogs or pages of people and their personal experiences? *actually goes and tries right now to see what happens*)

    (sorry about so many words. i have a hard time with posing questions.)

    1. Hi Bri! Thank you so much for commenting! It's great to hear from you. I agree that it can feel really daunting to connect with fellow writers. I always recommend Twitter as a starting point. There's a great writing community on there. If you decided to join, I can point you towards some great people to follow. =)

      That's a great question! Yes, it is 100% okay to ask for help connecting further with the disabled community. I personally know quite a few disabled writers/authors who I'm always happy to spotlight. Of course whether they would agree to answer questions is up to them, but there's no harm in asking around to get connected with people. In fact, I know I personally am always excited when I get to share my friend's platform with others (and always appreciate when other writers point me out as a good disability resource).

      And yes, searching always turns up some people. It isn't always instantaneous, though, and often you have to do a lot of digging. I've found YouTube to be super helpful, as well as disability-related hashtags.

      I hope that helps!

    2. Hm, I hadn't thought too much about joining twitter. I'll join and test it out and see if i can manage not too loose too much time on it. XD Who are the people you suggest? ^-^

      Okie, thanks for answering my questions! :) They were very helpful.

  3. I'm actually starting a sensitivity (though I call it diversity) reading service. I've definitely thought about some of the things you've mentioned here, which is why I plan to always start off with a free consult to get to know the author and their project and make sure we're a good fit. I also plan to make it clear in my contract that they can't use me as a scapegoat and say, "Well, Vanessa has a disability and she thought it was fine." Like you said, we are not a monolith, even within a marginalized group we're going to have different thoughts and opinions. Thanks for this post. I'm going to share it with my diversity readers; I created a directory of freelance readers on my site, so even if I might not be the right fit for an author, maybe someone on my directory will.


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