Editor’s note: This is Emily’s first post with us. Please consider giving her a warm welcome as a SpAN contributor!
I didn’t feel I had the space to acknowledge my learning disability until my name was safely on my BA degree and hung on the wall for graduating top of my undergrad class. By the time I had completed my MA, I felt I had the space to acknowledge my learning disability, because in a way, I bought into this “overcoming disability” narrative: Look what I’ve accomplished, my disabilities didn’t stop me, I have value, and other ableist rhetoric.
I’ve wanted to write about this for a while, but was hesitant to have my story woven into inspirational messaging. I was behind in elementary school. It took me longer to learn to read and write, I was pulled out of class, I stumbled with my letters and reading comprehension. I had an IEP (Individual Education Plan). I mixed up words and went to a speech pathologist. I had to clarify with teachers (from elementary to grad school) about what project instructions were actually asking.
As an autistic, mentally ill kid with a learning disability, I was often the target of school bullying. After learning how to read, books and the library became my escape. I would rush to get ready before school in the mornings as a pre-teen to read books, so I’d have something to fantasize about all dreary day at school.
I succeeded academically, but still struggled with things like grammar and spelling, sometimes with reading comprehension, and getting my ideas onto the page. Yes this is true, even as a person with a grad degree, even as someone with multiple publications including a novel and teaching experience. I often stumble into this narrative that because I’ve done okay (I have two degrees on my wall, and a nice bio), my disabilities no longer exist.
I’m here to say that I will always face specific challenges. I might be able to write a novel yet still be unsure of commas and sentence structure, and that’s okay. It is what it is. Being an author and facilitator does not mean I have perfect grammar and memory, and having a learning disability does not mean I can’t be a successful author. I forget my plot line, I need to look at my notes often, I forget where I was going with an idea, or can’t tell what I’ve actually gotten down on the page. Sometimes I notice really embarrassing and simple mistakes after hitting publish (be it on a Facebook post or a writing submission) and I’m embarrassed. I feel like there isn’t room to be both professional and have a learning disability, and yet here I am, trying to remind myself that my voice is important and to hit Publish, even when the comma is in the wrong spot or my point is a bit jumbled.
Emily Gillespie is a Toronto-based author, disability activist and professional daydreamer. Her work explores the themes of memory, identity and mental health journeys. Emily enjoys working in community spaces and examining individual and collective experiences. She views storytelling as a tool for resisting predominant social narratives.
Emily has a BA in English, and an MA in Critical Disability Studies from York University. Dancing with Ghosts (Leaping Lion Books, 2017) is her first novel. In 2018, she won a contest for her short-story “D is for Despair,” sponsored by the Ontario Book Publishers Organization. Her poetry was recently featured in the Inkwell Anthology, I Am a Lake. “No Room at the Inn,” a short-story adapted from her second novel is part of the Nothing without Us, anthology by Renaissance Press fall 2019. She is currently drafting her second novel, teaching creative writing, and experimenting with zines as well as performance art.
Well said and so brutally honest – thank you Emily Gillespie, your words will help others know they matter.