Neurodiversity in academia and fan spaces: building in inclusion

This blog post is inspired by my friend and colleague Farah Mendlesohn’s post on the difficulties people with hearing impairments can face accessing conferences, and I’m indebted to her work here as I start planning an academic event and plan for inclusion.

I am only speaking for myself here, as a mature white cis woman with dyspraxia, sensory processing difficulties and language comprehension disorder. I would really appreciate neurodiverse people with different neeeds commenting below.

two girls ice skating

I still can’t skate.

I am dyspraxic. Dyspraxia is a developmental coordination disorder, which used to be categorised as “clumsy child syndrome”- like many people with dyspraxia, I had difficulties with learning physical skills such as doing up buttons, riding a bike, swimming and handwriting. However, dyspraxia is a life long disability which can also impact memory, planning, time management, organisational skills and processing. It is often co-morbid with sensory processing difficulties, language disorders, dyslexia, ASD and ADHD. Coping mechanisms that people with undiagnosed or late-diagnosed dyspraxia can contribute to mental health difficulties and/ or social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. For more information, please see the Dyspraxia Foundation here.

So, I have used my experiences both in fan and academic spaces as a dyspraxic participant to make suggestions for an inclusive approach to event organisation.

  1. Explicit information about the event. Where is it? It’s astonishing how many Calls for Papers and other events don’t make that clear. A link on the event page, and information about transport, would be very useful. Dyspraxic people have difficulties with planning, so supporting us with making the decision whether or not travelling by public transport would be helpful. Did I mention that it took me nearly 3 years to learn to drive? I still prefer not to.
  2. Make the information about the event readable. Bullet points are easier than long paragraphs of text. Is it obvious how to respond and who to respond to? Make sure the email address is both obvious and easy to click through, copy or type. Academic email addresses can be very difficult: a list of letters and numbers can be hard for dyspraxics to process.
  3. Before the event: responding to calls for paper or programme ideas. Make it clear when this will happen. An acknowledgement of receipt can help with anxiety over whether the abstract or idea has been received.
  4. At the event: signage! If your event is on different floors or across difference buildings, this is vital. I can get lost in a building I work in 2 days a week, so I have no chance in a building I’m going to be in for a weekend!
  5. Give time for people to get from one room to another. Some attendees may have mobility issues, need to go to the toilet or get a drink between events. People with dyspraxia may need to decompress between times of intensive listening.
  6. Which leads on to: keeping to time. Dyspraics sometimes find it very uncomfortable to sit still for long periods. Additionally, if we have planned our day, it can provoke anxiety if sessions over-run, especially if we are speaking at the next session and may not have time to get to the toilet, get a drink and centre ourselves.
  7. During Q and A sessions, please ask participants and audience members not to talk over each other. Microphones can help with language processing at keynotes or bigger sessions, particularly later in the day: if I am not struggling to hear what is being said it makes language processing and understanding much easier, and therefore it is easier for me to participate.
  8. Think about lunch and refreshment arangements. It is very hard for dyspraxics to manage plate, cup, cutlery, food, drink and standing up. In fact I spent lunch times at an international congress sitting on the service stairs of a conference centre because there was nowhere for me to sit down and eat. A quiet space would make a big difference.
  9. Finally, a non-judgemental approach to phones. Somehow tablet and laptop users at conferences don’t attract the same disapproval as phone users. My phone is my diary, map, organisational aid and also my social space. I often take notes on my phone. A housekeeping announcement encouraging social media usage can take that feeling of shame away.

Thank you for reading. As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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Publication news!

Last week I got home from jury duty fo find an exciting parcel from the University of Colorado:

inside the world of harry potter 2

My name in print!

inside the world of harry potter 2

Isn’t this lovely?

It’s a great collection of essays. Thanks to Christopher Bell for excellent editing.

 

Call for Papers: Robert Leeson

reading and righting

I am chairing a symposium on Robert Leeson’s Reading and Righting 34 years after publication. Please do have a look and contact me for any further information.

Call for Papers: Symposium- Robert Leeson’s Reading and Righting: Culture and representation in children’s literature, 34 years on

Date 20th June 2019

Abstracts due 15th January

Location: University of East London, Stratford E15

Confirmed speakers:

  • Michael Rosen, poet and author, former children’s laureate and Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmith’s, University of London
  • Farrah Serroukh, Learning Programme Leader, Campaign for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE)

Robert Leeson, the children’s author and literary editor of the socialist newspaper The Morning Star, died on 29th September 2013. 2019 marks 34 years since the publication of Reading and Righting; The past, present and future of fiction for the young, where he called for a more socially and culturally representative children’s literature. However, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education’s (CLPE) research, Reflecting Realities (2018) indicates that only 1% of children’s books published in 2017 featured a BAME main character.

This symposium seeks papers related but not limited to:

  • Robert Leeson’s fiction
  • Children’s publishing and representation
  • Gender, race/ethnicity, social class, disability, sexuality and/or cultural or religious backgrounds in children’s literature
  • Children’s historical fiction and under-represented groups

This CfP particularly welcomes presentations from scholars from diverse backgrounds, and from school-based colleagues.

It is expected that presentations will be worked into short essays for publication.

Abstracts and any questions should be sent to Alison Baker, LeesonSymposium@gmail.com.

For more information on Robert Leeson, please see here http://www.walker.co.uk/contributors/Robert-Leeson-1649.aspx

For more information about the Teacher Education Research Group, please see here https://www.uel.ac.uk/research/the-teacher-education-research-group

My Little Pony: The Movie review, Vector

I’ve just seen an email about the annual round up for British Science Fiction Association’s  Vector magazine. I was sent it because last year, I wrote two reviews: one on the film Okja (warning- swearing in the trailer) and one on My Little Pony: The Movie.

my little pony

This is my piece. I hope you enjoy it!

My Little Pony: The Movie

2017, Dir: Jayson Thiesson

All is well in the female-centric ponytopia of Equestria, and Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rarity and Rainbow Dash are helping their friend, Princess Twilight Sparkle, prepare for the Friendship Festival, featuring pop star pegasus Songbird Serenade (played by Sia). However, the festival is interrupted by the arrival of ferocious minions of the Storm King, led by a unicorn with a broken horn, Tempest (Emily Blunt). Tempest captures Twilight Sparkle’s sisters, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, inside obsidian spheres, but before she is petrified, Celestia calls out that her sisters should get help from the “Queen of the Hippo…”. Twilight Sparkle, her friends and her assistant, the dragon Spike, head off on a quest to save her sisters, unaware that the Storm King has charged Tempest with the capture of Twilight Sparkle to complete the spell to activate his staff; in return he will mend her broken horn. On the way the Mane 6 encounter a con artist called Capper, who intended to sell them to pay off a debt until their friendship convinces him to help them, some bird-like former pirates turned delivery airship crew and they discover that the hippos they are looking for are in fact hippogriffs, Queen Novo and Princess Skystar.

This film, aimed at small girls, is no Moana or Despicable Me. Some of the songs are catchy (Rainbow Dash’s It’s Time To Be Awesome is particularly tenacious as an ear worm) but Sia’s Rainbow is rather lacklustre as a finale to an epic quest, facing peril and testing honesty and friendships. So why include it in a round-up of SFF films of 2017? Well, when women’s roles in genre films are still too often Smurfette (Wonder Woman) or Princess Peach, a reward for the hero’s successful quest and persistence (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) it is positive to see a fantasy film where friendships between female characters are prioritised; where they rescue themselves and are resourceful and independent, solving their own problems.  I have not yet seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but I have read that the core friendships and relationships are between women; however it is Rose and Finn (a man and a woman) who go off on the quest.

Katha Pollit first used the term “The Smurfette Principle” in a 1991 essay for the New York Times Magazine, in which she cited April O’ Neill from the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles cartoon as well as Miss Piggy from The Muppets- and indeed, we could include Paw Patrol with its one female puppy; the pink one, of course, as a contemporary Smurfette. By having a mainly female cast of protagonists- and a female antagonist- My Little Pony: The Movie centres female friendships in a SFF film in a way that I have not seen since Ghostbusters (2016).

I told my resident 8-year-old Brony that I was writing about My Little Pony: The Movie. He said “it’s great!” And yes, it is.

Review: Ali Baker

My Nine Worlds schedule

This is me! If you’re coming to Nine Worlds, say hi.

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I’m lucky enough to be on 5 panel items at Nine Worlds 10th-12th August. A full list is here

On Friday:

1:30- Rodents in children’s fantasy fiction. This is a panel discussion. From Redwall to Ratatouille, from Maurice and his Educated Rodents to The Tale of Despereaux, fantasy for children has a history of mice, rats, rabbits and other rodents going adventuring, escaping peril and saving the day. The panel will explore why rodents, features that make these stories work (and when they don’t) and why they are still so popular.

6:45- Policy and Administration: celebrating the back room in genre. This is a panel discussion. First, follow the correct procurement procedure for your spaceship: Administration and governance in other worlds.
Does the Unseen University have research output targets?
Does the wizarding world have a pre-Hogwarts curriculum?
What kind of risk assessment should be carried out before transporting dragon eggs in a conflict situation?
How can chain of custody and evidentiary laws be followed when policing the undead?
What’s the Net Present Value of Barrayar’s space programme?
If you have asked yourself these kinds of questions, then this panel is for you! Come and listen to us talk about finance, education, justice and armed forces administration in fantasy worlds.

On Saturday:

1.30- Talk. Dangerously attractive witches in children’s fantasy fiction. This is an expanded version of a talk I’ll be giving at IBBY Congress in Athens. I will be discussing the way that foreign witches are characterised in His Dark Materials and Harry Potter as sexy, dangerous and predatory. I really enjoyed writing this paper because I learned a lot about the folklore Veela and Lapland witches were based on. There will of course also be jokes about rigid and flexible wands.

On Sunday:

11:45- panel: Social class in fandom. A panel acknowledging and addressing the specific barriers to participation in fandom due to social class and financial situations, such as assumptions about the social class of fans, the gatekeeping of fandom by some fans to “prove” fandom and how finances may preclude that (e.g. the cost of going to see bands/ attend conventions/ own material goods such as vinyl, books, cinema going vs streaming). My husband is on the panel too!

1:30- panel. What would a female friendly future look like? A panel consisting of female scifi bloggers and authors, in which we discuss what a female friendly future could look like, and books that we think portray a feminist future.

Phew! A busy weekend, but I can’t wait!

 

 

 

 

When you find the perfect image…

I’ve been very busy recently with PhD writing and marking from my day-job. This summer I have another PhD chapter to write and in August I have the honour of presenting at the IBBY international congress in Athens! I have to record an oral presentation on a PowerPoint by Thursday, so I have been creating the PowerPoint presentation. As a person with a learning disability (dyspraxia) I find it easier to make sense of oral presentations if there are images to help me process what is being said, so I work hard on my own presentations.

My paper for IBBY is entitled “Dangerously attractive foreign witches in children’s fantasy fiction: Harry Potter and His Dark Materials”. I was searching for images of exoticised women, and I found these:

spanish dancer french womanBoth are dark-haired women, both with their heads turned away from the viewer, showing their long necks, both wearing white open-necked blouses and black bodices. The shape of the Spanish dancer’s legs are visible through her skirt, and her feet and one shoulder are bare. Not much has changed in the British view of the exotic, sexual Other in mainland Europe.

 

Black dogs in children’s fantasy

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At the moment I am writing a chapter of my PhD thesis on working class children in British fantasy fiction from 1965 to 1991. The fantasy fiction of the 1960s and 70s was rooted in the mythology of the British Isles, as Catherine Butler’s Four British Fantasists and Dimitra Fimi’s Celtic Myths in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy. However, I have noticed a repeated figure from British folklore in children’s fantasy literature: the Black Dog, also known as the Gytrash, Barghest, Black Shuck, Grim or Skriker. The Black Dog often foretells death or disaster, as 19th Century literary examples demonstrate: in Jane Eyre Jane mistakes Rochester’s dog Pilot for the Gytrash. Of course, Jane meeting Rochester does bring about death and disaster. Dracula adopts the shape of a huge black dog when he lands at Whitby.

The Giant under the Snow (1968)

The_Giant_Under_The_Snow_(original_cover)

Jonk, the splendidly sullen teenage protagonist of The Giant Under the Snow, is attacked then stalked by a menacing black dog during and after a school trip to an ancient burial site. The black dog is accompanied by a stone faced man, who, the children learn, is an ancient warlord wanting to reclaim a golden belt buckle, so he can regain his power.

This book was recommended as a follow up after the Twitter re-read of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. If I had read it as a child I think I’d have enjoyed it more than I did as an adult; while parts of the book were tense and atmospheric, once Jonk and her friends gained the ability to fly from the wise woman Elizabeth Goodenough (a welcome woman mentor figure in a genre populated with many old bearded men) much of the peril is diminished. Black paw print score: 3.

The Whitby Witches (1991)

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Ben, 8 and Jennet, 12 were orphaned by a car crash, sent to live with unsympathetic relatives, then they are put into the care system. Ben has second sight; he sees the ghosts of his parents, but also other ghosts, and this has caused trouble for the children, until they move to Whitby to live with elderly Miss Alice Boston, a distant connection of their mother’s, who also has second sight and respects both children- not only “special” Ben, but also tough, determined and empathic Jennet.

Miss Boston tells the children the stories and legends of Whitby- Dracula landing at Whitby as a Barghest, legends of St Hilda and Caedmon, and the Hand of Glory, which can still be seen in Whitby Museum. All of these stories and legends are woven into the narrative, a fight between good and evil, and Jennet is attacked by an enormous black hound with glowing red eyes, which appears to be controlled by the witch Rowena Cooper. Thankfully the distruction that this Barghest is foretelling is not carried through, though it does predict a death. Black paw print score: 5

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)

sirius_black___padfoot_by_chillyravenart-dbzlpc2

Image: Chilliravenantart via Deviantart

The third book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) introduces a vital character: Sirius Black. As Beatrice Groves points out in Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling is very deliberate when choosing names for characters. Sirius Black’s name gives us a clue to his nature: Sirius is the Dog Star, and he is an animagus- a wizard who can shape shift. Harry’s first introduction to Sirius is when he is in the shape of a huge black dog, which leads to Harry accidentally summoning the Knight Bus and travelling to Diagon Alley. During Harry’s first Divination lesson, Professor Trelawney reads his tea leaves, and sees a Grim- a black dog that foretells death. This is the first in a long sequence of the Professor predicting Harry’s death; her divination is very Harry-specific. Harry sees the Grim alongside Dementors during Quidditch, leading him to faint and fall from his broom.

Harry is given the Marauders’ Map by Fred and George Weasley, and this is the first time he encounters the names Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs; Padfoot is a name for the ghostly Black Dog of West Yorkshire. Ironically Prisoner of Azkaban the book in the series with the lowest bodycount; thanks to Hermione’s Time Turner, both Buckbeak the hippogriff and Sirius Black are saved, but the arrival of Sirius Black does foretell the darker tone of the next four books, and the return of Lord Voldemort. Black paw print score: 4.

What are your favourite ghostly black dogs in literature?