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Stories can change the way we think

Jax Jacki Brown grew up in a regional area and understands the importance of community. Ahead of the Writeability Goes Regional and Online Own Voices: Why Writing Matters forum in Bendigo, Jax spoke about stereotypes, community and the importance of representing those with disability as nuanced, whole people.

You spoke at the first Own Voices: Why Writing Matters forum in Ballarat and ran a writing workshop with forum participants. What was your experience of the event?

It was great! I really enjoyed the day! Coming from a regional area myself, before I moved to Melbourne four years ago, I always love to get back out into the country and to hear from and connect with other people with disabilities.

I also loved that the forum was based on the social model of disability – the idea that much of the disadvantage we face as people with disabilities is due to society being inaccessible – I think this is such an important idea because it situates the ‘problem’ not in our bodies and minds but with society, and asks us to be part of changing things.

Finally, I enjoyed facilitating writers with disabilities to do some actual writing, hear what they came up with, and to share the poem ‘You Get Proud by Practicing’ by Laura Hershey with everyone.

You’re a disability and queer rights activist, and recently visited the Loddon region as part of the LGBTI Roadshow. What effect can events such as this and the Own Voices: Why Writing Matters forum have in regional areas?

The LGBTI roadshow is an initiative of the Department of Premier and Cabinet and Gender and Sexuality Commissioner Rowena Allen to go to regional towns and engage with local communities on LGBTI issues and provide education, but also more importantly to listen to the community about what is happening in their town and how they can make it more inclusive for LGBTI people.

It was great to provide a disability perspective and get people thinking about people with disabilities, as having sexualities and relationships and these aspects of our lives are just as important as our access to employment, public transport, housing et cetera and yet they are often not considered.

Growing up in a regional area, coming out as queer, falling in love and being part of the local LGBTI and writing communities there, I thought a lot about what it would have meant to me as a young person to have both these events come to my town, and I think it would have really been great. But I wonder whether I would have had the courage to go along? When I was struggling with these two parts of my identity would it have been too confronting to sit in a room and bring this to the surface? I hope I would have gone because I’m sure I would have got a lot out of it. It’s funny to reflect on that now, as these days my social circles are almost entirely made up of people with disabilities or LGBTI people. These are my people, this is where I find my connection, my sense of self and my purpose.

I hope these events get people thinking about identities and issues they may not have thought about before, I hope they make them feel engaged, meet new people and do some interesting writing!

Awareness of Own Voices stories is increasing within the writing community and beyond. How important are these stories to readers from marginalised groups?

It’s really important to have our voices telling our stories, to not have people without disabilities speaking for us. It’s a political act in much the same way that other marginalised groups have reclaimed personal narratives as a political action. Still too often in the mainstream media is disability portrayed either as a tragedy or conversely as inspirational. These two ideas are stereotypes of disability and don’t allow us to be seen as nuanced, whole and interesting people who are contributing a lot to the world in numerous ways. There is also very little out there showing people with disabilities being proud to have a disability. Disability pride, like LGBTI pride, is important and powerful. 

What impact can stories from diverse writers have in the wider community?

Stories can change the way we think about, respond to and engage with people different to ourselves. Diverse stories provide us with new and interesting perspectives.

People with disabilities currently make up 22% of the population yet we are only 2%- 4% of the stories shown on television and film, and those stories often show disability as a terrible tragedy, as a burden on families and on society, or people with disabilities as existing solely to inspire non-disabled people.

There is a lot of work that needs to be done in changing and challenging thinking on disability and one of the key ways we can begin to do this is by seeing disability as part of human variation, as part of diversity, and including our stories as important and as valued for all that they say about the human experience. 

Are there any challenges or issues that are more prominent for disabled people in regional areas?

Access to transport is a big one. Being able to get on the local bus, get an accessible taxi or an accessible V/Line train are huge issues and impact on our capacity to be part of the community. Often people with disabilities are just not part of the community because we literally can’t access it.

Buildings in regional towns are often heritage-listed so they are not made accessible, but this heritage is preserving a history of exclusion of people with disabilities from equal access to everyday life.

Access to services and supports also tends to be more limited in regional areas, as is access to accessible, affordable accommodation options.

Isolation is a big issue for people with disabilities both in regional and metropolitan areas.

One of the key ways we can begin to address our isolation and disadvantage is to be part of events such as the forum, be that in person or online, and find our voice and tell our stories for ourselves. We have powerful and important things to say, now is the time to say them, to write them, speak them and begin to change the narrative of disability from one which is no longer depicts us as tragic or inspirational but as full, worthy and interesting human beings. 

About Jax Jacki Brown

Jax Jacki Brown is a disability & LGBTI consultant, writer, spoken-word performer, public speaker, disability sexuality educator and workshop designer and facilitator. She is a graduate of Southern Cross University with a Bachelor of Arts in Cultural Studies and Communication, where she focused on disability and LGBTI studies, providing a sound academic framework to affirm and explore her commitment to disability and social justice issues.  

Jax’s public speaking work is extensive, she has provided guest lectures on disability for University of Melbourne, Victoria University, Southern Cross University and frequently presents at conferences. Jax runs workshops on disability for university departments and organisations. 

Her written work has been published on websites such as JunkeeDaily LifeThe Feminist ObserverWriters Victoria, ABC’s Ramp Upand in print for Archer Magazine: The Australian Journal for Sexual Diversity, Queer Disability Anthology (2015) and Doing It: Women Tell the Truth About Great Sex (2016).  

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