Four summer books about disability

Deane Saunders Stowe smiling for the cameraScience fiction author Deane Saunders-Stowe selects four summer reads by disabled authors or featuring disabled people in leading roles.

For years, I’ve had strange ideas drifting around in my head, but I’d never contemplated writing a novel. Okay, maybe once or twice – but I never thought I’d be capable of writing something that others would find entertaining.

Back in 2011 I met my partner, Kris Saunders-Stowe. Kris lived a rather hermit-like life, somewhat trapped by his disability, hobbling around with a walking stick, until I encouraged him to try using a wheelchair. From that moment on, Kris saw how liberating it could be to move freely and without the tiredness and pain associated with standing.

As our life together slowly progressed we reached a turning point: Kris began training to become a fitness instructor and I felt the first urge to write. While Kris trained, I wrote. While he embraced and overcame his disability, turning it to his advantage and eventually creating Wheely Good Fitness, I developed characters and a plot.

From our dealings with a variety of disabled people from all walks of life, I could see how much of a challenge daily life could be. Kris’s own challenges, both mental and physical inspired the creation of  double-amputee character Aryx Trevarian; our relationship sowed the seeds for a co-dependency between the protagonists.

Disability and science fiction

The front cover of the book, Synthesis Weave
The front cover of Deane’s book, Synthesis Weave

My novel, Synthesis:Weave is science fiction, and one of the things I dislike about the representation of disability in science fiction is the tendency to ‘gloss over’ it or ‘fix’ it. The popular movie Avatar does this – Jake Sully (the protagonist) is a paraplegic and becomes the hero of the film by taking remote control of another body, an avatar. This of course avoids the issue of his disability altogether. I didn’t want to do that – it’s disrespectful to those who can’t simply cast aside their disability.

My character was going to use his wheelchair. Aryx finds a way around using his chair in certain situations, but it’s not ideal. I know that many wheelchair users are more capable than others give them credit for and I wanted to portray that, but I didn’t want to make disability the focus of the book, so it’s just a fact – Aryx is a hero that happens to use a wheelchair. Kris was kind enough to put himself through some discomfort after suggesting we do a photo-shoot to depict one of the scenes from my book.

While trying to promote my book I’ve come into contact with a couple of authors with disabilities, and also several people who wanted to know more about disability being portrayed positively in fiction. I have collated four books which are either written by an author with disabilities, or have characters that portray disability in a positive fashion.

Blind by Rachel DeWoskinFront cover of the book 'Blind', by Rachel DeWoskin

When Emma Sasha Silver loses her eyesight in a nightmare accident, she must relearn everything from walking across the street to recognizing her own sisters to imagining colours. One of seven children, Emma used to be the invisible kid, but now it seems everyone is watching her. And just as she’s about to start high school and try to recover her friendships and former life, one of her classmates is found dead in an apparent suicide. Fifteen and blind, Emma has to untangle what happened and why—in order to see for herself what makes life worth living.

Lamont: Moon’s Rising by Rob Brown

The bullet-torn body of a wealthy landowner’s son is discovered floating on a loch in a remote corner of Scotland’s picturesque landscape. Returning from holiday, Detective Crieff Lamont discovers that he has a new partner: the young and inexperienced Felisa Tortolano. Sent to investigate, they find themselves working alongside a detective seconded from Manchester following allegations of racism.

So begins a week in which corruption, deception and dark family secrets strain relationships, while the investigation opens doors leading to more powerful, clandestine characters.
Ever the cold, clear thinker, Lamont finds his mental stability threatened as the week progresses when he has to come to terms with another, more painful truth hidden from him by his wife.

Formerly a Director of Nursing, marathon runner, and outdoor enthusiast, Rob is a T4/5 paraplegic. His characters gravitate toward the mean, the mad, and those in trauma – even Lamont suffers a hidden PTSD, following a friendly bullet in the head.

Life Without Limits by Nick Vujicic

Life Without Limits is an inspiring book by an extraordinary man. Born without arms or legs, Nick Vujicic overcame his disability to live not just independently but a rich, fulfilling life, becoming a model for anyone seeking true happiness. Now an internationally successful motivational speaker, his central message is that the most important goal for anyone is to find their life’s purpose despite whatever difficulties or seemingly impossible odds stand in their way.

Nick is a Serbian Australian evangelist and motivational speaker born with tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare disorder characterised by the absence of all four limbs. As a child, he struggled mentally and emotionally as well as physically, but eventually came to terms with his disability and, at the age of seventeen, started his own non-profit organisation, Life Without Limbs

Love & Justice by Diana Morgan-Hill

Aged 29, Diana fell under a London train. In seconds the tall, glamorous businesswoman went from busy woman of the world to double-leg-amputee, her life in ruins. Then it got worse. A few days later, as she lay in hospital, traumatised and heavily sedated, she learnt that the railway’s Transport Police wanted to prosecute: she had ‘boarded a moving train and trespassed onto their railway line’. Her fight for justice took five years and was a more harrowing experience than having both of her legs ‘stolen’ from her.

Shocked to the core by the sudden, catastrophic change in her body image, Diana had to overcome the issues surrounding sexuality and disability whilst dealing with High Court dramas. Her story is told, amidst a turmoil of emotion, with tremendous humour, charm and heart.

Got a summer book you can’t put down? Leave a comment and recommend your favourite book about disability.

“I’m running the world’s only wheelchair spin class”

Guest post from Kris Saunders-Stowe, a fitness instructor working with both disabled and non-disabled people. In Scope’s film, he explains why we need to change the way we think about disability and fitness.

We hope it will inspire you to sign up to our inclusive fundraising event, Steptember and get moving this September!

DSC_0184My first response to the idea of using a wheelchair started with ‘f’ and ended with ‘off’! I was an active person, and never saw myself as a wheelchair user.

But my joint problems, which started 14 years ago, progressively got worse and I was doing less and less. Over time – and no word of a lie – I became a hermit. Going out became more and more difficult, and eventually I just thought, ‘What’s the point of going anywhere?’ I never went out apart from to the doctor and the supermarket.

‘It was so liberating’

Then some friends of mine were going to Alton Towers, and the only way I could realistically join them was by borrowing a wheelchair.

And that was it. It was so liberating. Suddenly I was back to normal. It was a completely different perspective – I was free to move about as quickly or slowly as I wanted, and I could do so much more.

That was two years ago, and I’ve never looked back since. My personality has come back, and I take things in my stride rather than letting them get on top of me. In actual fact, I think I’ve got a better life than I’ve had in probably 20 years.

Getting into fitness

I’ve always worked in horticulture and retail – never in sports or fitness at all. But then in 2012, I was in Cardiff and the Australian Paralympic team were staying in my hotel! We got chatting, and I followed the team during the Games and got quite engrossed.

DSC_0518I took up wheelchair basketball and we didn’t have a proper coach, so I had a go at standing in myself. I loved it, and I started thinking: ‘Could I do this for a job?’

Within a couple of months, I had started the qualifications I needed to become a fitness instructor.

While I was training, I realised that there aren’t enough fitness programmes properly tailored for disabled people. The few classes I could find on YouTube were extremely slow and sedentary. The instructor training manuals would say, ‘You may need to adapt this routine for disabled people…’ – but what does that mean? They didn’t say. It was a token gesture.

Wheely Good Fitness

So I decided to set up my own business, Wheely Good Fitness, running classes adapted for physically disabled people. That doesn’t mean they’re gentle or easy – they are pretty intense!

I currently run a variety of classes, including what is quite possibly the only wheelchair spin class in the world. We have a huge range of members, from people with slight mobility problems to those with very complex needs.

It’s incredibly rewarding for me because I can see the change in people. Within a few weeks they’re sitting up straighter in their wheelchairs, their flexibility increases, their confidence grows.

Suzy (right), one of our most committed members, recently pushed herself round a shopping centre for the first time in years. The change in her has been unbelievable.

Changing attitudes

I’m currently writing a set of qualifications for instructors, explaining how to create fitness regimes suitable for disabled people. My hope is that these will be accredited by awarding body Skills Active, which means the qualification will be available for instructors across the country to take.

I am so surprised that no one has looked at wheelchair-based fitness from a different perspective.

People seem to have got used to seeing disabled people as delicate and fragile, rather than as somebody who’s just got a different way of doing things. Being disabled doesn’t mean you need to be wrapped in cotton wool, it just means you need to think creatively about exercise and fitness.

Getting fit and taking control of your body is just another way of demonstrating your capabilities – and suddenly, you’re taking down those barriers.

Find out more about Steptember, and sign up today!