Spoonie Authors Podcast Epsiode 10: Disability in YA with Kati Gardner

Don’t like the podcast format? You can also view the podcast on YouTube. (Closed captions are available for the YouTube video; transcript can be found below video.)


Transcripts done by CJ Clougherty, @PadfootPGH

Dianna: Hello, and welcome to the Spoonie Author’s Podcast: a podcast that explores a different disabled author’s stories each week. I’m your host, Dianna Gunn, and joining us today is Kati Gardner. Kati Gardner is a recovering actor, caretaker of two tiny humans and the author of YA novel Brave Enough. Her second novel Finding Balance is set to be released this May. Hello, Kati!

Kati: Hello, thank you so much for having me. 

Dianna: It’s wonderful to have you on the show. I’m very excited for you and your upcoming release. Can you tell us a little bit about Finding Balance?

Kati: Sure! So Finding Balance is – um –  a companion novel to my first novel Brave Enough, and it centers around Jace Ellison and Mari Manos, and it’s told in dual to point of views. So I’m just gonna read a little bit of the blurb because it does a better job explaining it than I can, and it says: “Jace Ellison doesn’t remember having acute lymphocytic leukemia when he was three years old. His cancer diagnosis only enters his mind twice a year. Once is at his yearly checkup at the oncology clinic and once when he attends Camp Chemo in the summer, no one in his real life knows about his past, especially his friends at Atlanta West Prep.

Mari Manos has never been able to hide her cancer survivorship. She wakes up every morning, grabs her pink forearm crutches, and starts her day. Laurie loves Camp Chemo, where she’s developed a healthy crush on fellow camper Jace. At camp she knows she’ll never get “the look” or have to explain her amputation to anyone. Jace wants to move on, to never reveal his past. But when Mari transfers to his school, he knows she could blow his cover. That’s the last thing he wants. But he also cannot ignore his attraction to her. Mari wants to be looked at like a girl, a person, and not known for her disability, but how do you move on from cancer when the world won’t let you?” That is a brief sort of synopsis of Finding Balance

Dianna: Awesome. That sounds like a really powerful story. So – and certainly not the, you know, the kind of fare we usually see in the YA world. So very exciting to me at least. It feels weird to say that story is exciting because, it sounds like there’s definitely some very serious heaviness at points.

Kati: I try to balance all of that out.I’m not a very heavy person. And so I try to think, you know, I try to write with as much humor as I can. And because being a teenager and being a person in general, is kind of funny and awkward and all of this. *laughs* I tried to  – I tried to – don’t know, if I wanted to write a weepy book, I could. I don’t want to though. And so those are kind of the – what I’ve always said about my writing is that nobody dies in these books. So that’s like, the main thing that I want to get across: disabled people, and people with chronic illness don’t die. Because I saw so much of that whenever I was a teenager and when I was growing up,

Dianna: So is that what inspired you to write Finding Balance, or what – what is the story behind the story?

Kati: So Finding Balance actually, I’m not going to say it’s directly lifted from my life, but it  – there’s – there was a moment whenever I was younger, I was like an eighth grade where I found out that my best friend from cancer camp had never told anyone at her middle school that she had had cancer. And I thought that this was astounding! Because I didn’t get that luxury! Because I have this disability that, you know, is very noticeable. I am an amputee and I use crutches, and I’ve never worn a prosthesis. People have always known that something happened either, you know, maybe I was born this way or I was in a car accident or like one of the rumors that circulated around my high school for a while I was in a tractor accident. I  – there – I’ve never had the luxury of not telling people

Dianna: I think it says a lot about where you grew up that people thought you had a tractor accident. 

Kati: Georgia, in the South that’s a thing. And I went to an amputee camp one year.  I only went one, I didn’t – I didn’t love amputee camp, but that’s just me. A lot of people really love it. But  something like 70% of the kids there lost their limbs, either in farming equipment accidents or lawn mower accidents, things like that. And so I hired a yard service as a grown up, I’m not risking any more limbs. *laughs* Not willing to go there. Um, but so I was astounded by the idea that you could not tell people that you had had cancer. Like, it literally impacts everything I do almost every day. Um. 

And, and so I wanted to kind of play with that idea of what it’s like to be a survivor of childhood cancer. And because there is this weight for that word, that people are put on there that you’ve done something extraordinary when you really have just lived life the way it was given to you. You haven’t done anything that nobody else would do in the same situation – or everybody else would do in the same situation. It’s nothing special, people treat you like you’ve accomplished something like winning the Super Bowl. And so I kind of wanted to play with that juxtaposition of not being able to tell people, and being able to tell people. And I’m not saying that there’s a right or wrong. If you don’t want to disclose that kind of information, I’m not saying you have to. I just wanted to play around with that idea. 

Dianna: Yeah, it makes a lot of fun sense. That’s something that’s really important to me, too. You know, in running this podcast, one of the things I’ve been very adamant about is like, yes, this is a podcast for disabled folks first boonies, but I don’t want to force people to talk about their disability unless they want to.

Kati: Yeah exactly. 

Dianna: Like they’re absolutely authors who approached me who are like, “my work is about disabled people. I want to talk about my disability. I do this kind of activism and like, we’d love to talk about this and blah, blah, blah”. But you know, there are people that just want to talk about their books and, you know, books that they love, and it’s completely valid. I do always try to tie things back to representation in the end so that there is some discussion of disability. But there whether you disclose or not, and how much you disclose is a really personal decision. 

Kati: Exactly

Dianna:  I think that’s even more true for teenagers. So I think that’s a really important thing that you’re tackling, because I can only imagine what it’s like to go through high school with that. 

Kati: It’s funny because one of the themes that I really kind of explored a lot in this book not only is the survivorship and how heavy that word can feel, but addressing how often able bodied people feel like they have a right to know your personal story or to discuss your body like you’re not a person. And I’ve had some very interesting experiences because I’ve been in an amputee since I was eight, you know, with people like making a lot of assumptions about how my body works and whether or not it’s valid. And – and so I put I wrote some scenes in here based on some similar things that have happened to me that were discussed. Because Mari lives life with one leg just like I do, she has a hip disarticulation amputation, which means she has none of her left leg, or none of her right leg left, I have none of my left leg left. There are differences between us. That’s one of them. She doesn’t have any of her right leg left. So she chooses not to wear prosthesis and, and one of the things that’s discussed in the book is how people will talk about you like you’re not even there and what that feels like and how nobody deserves that information from you. If I want to offer it and if I want to share it, that’s fine. But you don’t get to come up to somebody and ask, “Hey, why do you look that way?”

Dianna: Yeah, like it is human nature to be curious. Absolutely. But it should also be, you know, natural to understand that that’s, you know, not a question you ask. Certainly not a stranger. But that is something that – 

Kati: Oooh they do it all the time!

Dianna: I’m curious as to: would you say that’s gotten better or worse, as you grew up? Do you find that it’s the same in every environment or?

Kati: It is different. So I like in my bio, I have two young children of my own. And so I’m often surrounded by young children. And so they’re, they’re naturally curious, and that’s fine. I, encourage the questions. I am completely honest, I don’t ever like –  say, you know, anything that isn’t truthful, and I spent a lot of time working with different specialists in various arenas in my life. They’ve given me some great words and ways of explaining my disability and my chronic illness to kids in a way that’s not scary, because I don’t want a kid who maybe someday is diagnosed with some sort of cancer to automatically think, “oh god, I’m gonna lose my leg”. And so I’m just, I’m used to that. So that doesn’t bother me as much.

I’ve had a lot of experiences as a teenager more so – and as a young adult – more so than as my gray-haired self, I’m almost 40. People accuse me of not being able to park in the accessible parking spots, despite the fact that I have a sticker because I don’t look disabled until I get out of the car. And then they do a lot of backpedaling. *laughs* And I would say that it’s, it’s better in some ways. It’s like, it used to be like at parties and things like where if I didn’t know everybody, somebody who felt like they were being incredibly genuine would come up to me and be like, so “Tell me what happened”. It’s none of your business what happened! Like you’re not being super supportive or being an ally by wanting to know my personal history.  And so to answer your question – and maybe I just have this face and personality that makes people think they can ask me these questions in the grocery store when they never know me – but I feel like it’s, it’s pretty, it’s pretty much the same throughout like – I’m – people are going to ask me what happened. When I was pregnant with my children, I got a lot of questions because people were very concerned about how a person with a disability could handle having children. And I’m like, well, just like you do. Which is not well. We’re all equal there. *laughs*

Dianna: *laughs* You’re not wrong.

Kati:  Everybody ends up in therapy. It’s fine! *laughs* I guess it is basic human nature. What gets me more than anything are the ableist comments about inspiration, you know, inspiring people. Um – which – I’m always just like “Thanks??”, you never know how to respond to that when people are like “You’re so inspiring! and I’m like, “Really? I’m late for carpool, and I have two gallons of milk. I’m not inspiring at this moment.

Dianna: Yeah.

Kati: Um – I’m literally failing at everything I’m trying to accomplish. Don’t lay that on me right now. Let me do something that’s inspiring! Yes! But living my life is not inherently inspiring.

Dianna: Yeah, I think that’s a really big distinction, and something that is particularly important to people who are coming on this podcast, because a lot of you guys are – you folks are doing amazing work. You’re, you know, writing books, writing plays, writing comics, editing anthologies, blogs, all these things, those things are inspiring. Absolutely. But just the day to day existence shouldn’t be. Unless you’re inspiring another disabled person to live their best life! Like – *laughs

Kati: And that’s fine! I don’t know that I necessarily need you to tell me

Dianna: That’s very true. 

Kati: I think that’s right. I don’t – I don’t even know how to respond to that. And it’s a similar type thing around like Veterans Day and Memorial Day in the US. People will salute me, because people have lost limbs in various wars. But I’m like “Oh no, I may be the same age as these people, but that’s not me. Please don’t do that. Pleeaase don’t do that!” 

Dianna: That sounds really awkward, yeah. 

Kati: It is really awkward. *laughs* The natural assumption is that I did lose my leg and I’m a veteran. And I’m like “Nope! Not a veteran! Not what happened!” Let’s find a different assumption here, shall we people? Maybe I’m just really cute. That’s always my default, I’m just really cute, and that’s what you should be inspired by. So my undergrad degree is in theater so I, you know, I’ve spent a lot of time performing. And like you were saying that type of stuff, yes, I was often inspired by really amazing performances that I see on stage. And able bodied or disabled bodies, that’s amazing. I definitely want to see more disabled bodies on stage, just to throw that out there.

Please put more disabled bodies in all the arenas. Uh – stop winning your Oscars on my disability. But that’s inspiring work. Me running late for carpool and driving a white minivan is never inspiring. But those are some things that I explore in Finding Balance, more so than Brave Enough. I wrote about some of that in Brave Enough, there’s that scene with the accessible parking. That’s pretty – pretty, uh, out there in Brave Enough. But in Finding Balance I talk a lot about inspiration porn, and how as disabled people we can sometimes feed into that unknowingly, because that’s what the world has taught us. So that’s something that I’ve talked about a little bit in that one. And mostly –  when I sat when I sat down to write both of these books, I wanted to write books about kids with chronic illness and disability kissing. And somehow it got lost to this other stuff that also happens. But there is some kissing, so. I guess that’s a win there. 

Dianna: Was that something that made you excited about this project? Being able to bring to the table characters with disabilities having the opportunity to be kids and make out? 

Kati: Yeah. I wanted to kind of walk away a little bit from that trope that we see a lot of times, especially in YA lit, where disabled characters or chronically ill characters are there for the purpose of teaching people something, how to live their best lives or whatever. Um – and I just wanted them to make out and go to dances and try on pretty dresses, that kind of thing. Typical teenager stuff. I wanted to – and when you do all that stuff as a teenager with a chronic illness or a disability, that still comes into play in every day life. I saw a Twitter thread yesterday, and I wish I could remember who said it, that talked about – *audio cuts out*

Dianna: Hello?

Kati: – how we can tell our stories better than, maybe someone who isn’t disabled or chronically ill, we understand automatically how that stuff impacts every day of our life Um – I was writing something today about a character, and this character has left sided paralysis. You know, she moves differently,m and she’s always going to move differently. And, you know, her thoughts are always –   it becomes like, second nature for her to, you know, lift for arm differently, but she still lifts her arm differently. Um, and so it’s one of those things. I kind of enjoy that work and knowing that I can, um, hopefully ring true for other people with disability even if you aren’t an amputee, you’ll go “Oh, yeah, that’s a real thing that happens in my life”. But we also make out and go to dances.  

Dianna: And why do you think that is particularly important in YA? Why are you focused on YA specifically? 

Kati: Right now (because I think one day I may write a romance novel, I haven’t plotted it out) I really like teenagers in general, and I think that  – um – they sometimes get the shaft in the way that “adults” view them, they don’t view them as fully realized individuals with fully active brains that work. Uh – it’s always “oh, you’re just a teenager”. Especially teenage girls. Teen girls get crapped on a lot. Everything from their choice in music, their choice in clothing, you know, everything about teen girls for some reason incites anger. I really like teenage girls. I was a teenage girl. And – um – I like that time period a lot because you’re getting this taste of independence.

And  – uh – I can still remember how excited I was the first time I was able to drive my car somewhere on my own, and not have to wait for my mom to take me, and how freeing that felt. And so I really like trying to capture those moments. I really like writing these love stories, and I don’t think that disabled people (especially disabled teenagers) get to see themselves fall in love as teenagers, often enough, And – and so I think that they deserve the right to have messy breakups and – um – you know, all those other things in books.. And no one dies. I always like to say that  their disability and their chronic illness is just like their hair color. Like it influences a lot of things, but it’s not necessarily the main story. Uh – so yeah, that’s kind of what I like to write. 

Dianna: I like that a lot.

Kati: And why I think it’s important.

Dianna: That’s awesome. So beyond your own work, how would you like to see disability representation change, not just in YA, but as a whole over the next five to ten years?

Kati: I just want more! Like I want to, I want more of everything and I want it – I want it written by and created by and starring people with disabilities. I will absolutely not watch TV shows that have actors portraying a disability instead of actively living with a disability. Not going to watch it. I don’t care how funny it is. I’ve spent too much of my life as a young adult pounding the pavement as an actor and being told I didn’t look the part, and that being a valid reason not to cast me, to then support somebody who doesn’t look the part getting that part. I just want it, I want more of it.  I want to see so much more with I think, right now like 56 million Americans here in the US are disabled, and we make absolutely nothing in the pop culture media. We’re just not there. 

I just, I just want so much more. I have so many friends that are amazing actors that are disabled and they’re doing amazing work. Go check out the documentary Becoming Bulletproof. AJ is a – is a friend of mine from high school. That’s how long we’ve known each other. And he’s featured in that documentary as a disabled actor. He’s just wonderful. And he’s constantly pounding the pavement. The Drink History about the ADA is one of the best things I’ve seen disabled people do recently. But I want more of that. I don’t want to be able to name two projects. I want to be able to name so many projects that we can’t keep them all straight. 

Dianna: Right

Kati: And I definitely want to see more people of color with disabilities – um – in these –  in these avenues and making their creative work, because there’s so many intersections in that. I can’t write that, and I want to read that, and I want to learn about that, and I want to be entertained by that. So. All the people with disabilities everywhere. Yeah. 

Dianna: And actually being supported by mainstream media outlets, which I think is the really big thing because I know lots of amazing disabled people who are doing amazing, independent work, but it’s not acknowledged by you know, a lot of society. And I think that, to me,  is almost more heartbreaking than the lack of stuff in the mainstream. Like there’s so much good stuff like actually been put out there, but it’s being ignored because not by, you know, the small handful of creators who have been deemed worthy of the public eye. 

Kati: Yes! Please give us money. Give us money for our art. To create. Give disabled bodies money to create. I don’t understand why that’s so hard. I don’t get it. I have felt incredibly supported by my publisher -um – and they did a wonderful job whenever we were working on the cover for Finding Balance. They were like “Do you have any ideas” and all I said was “I really want a disabled girl on the cover”. I said “You don’t see disabled bodies on book covers, please please please give me a disabled body on the cover.” And they did.

They actually gave me two choices. The book is in Atlanta so one featured the skyline, and the other had a disabled body. And I was like, “Oh, there we go. That’s it!” More that. More – more – more- more mainstream push for these creators in all aspects. Um – let me find it on Netflix, let me find it on Amazon Prime, make it accessible to all of us. More closed captioning that actually works. More of those things.

Dianna: Yeah. The closed captioning is a really interesting conversation right now because it’s so variable for a lot of stuff. Youtube does have this thing that automatically captions your stuff, and I have done a lot of stuff on Youtube, and it’s pretty good. But it’s not so good for things like if somebody has a stutter, or a thick accent, and so it definitely has a long way to go. But it’s also really expensive, you know? That’s something we looked into for this podcast, and it’s like $1 a minute. And I understand for independent creators, that’s not really possible, but we need to find ways for it to become possible. And we need for you to forward and demand a better AI that understands accents and understands better so that we can make things accessible. There’s a big push towards video in podcasting right now, and Deaf people are being left behind in a lot of those instances. 

Kati: I just – I get really irritated when people say it’s “special”, like it’s a “special need”. I used to be a teacher so whenever I’d hear about a student having a “special need”… it’s not special, it’s a need, and we need to make it happen. It’s literally the only way some people can enjoy the world. My accessible parking spot that I use when I go somewhere is not because I get –  it’s not a bonus, and I get to be closer! It literally gets me access to that place. And so it’s about access. It’s not about something special. It’s not about a bonus. It’s literally the only way some people can enjoy the world. I have – you know people who are visually impaired need audiobooks. They need that. And it shouldn’t cost as much as it does. Thankfully there are resources for that kind of thing, but what happens when they’re not in school anymore? Or when those options aren’t necessarily free anymore? There just needs to be more access for everybody.

Dianna: Absolutely. So we are coming up to our time. Thank you so much for joining us. Where can people find out more about you and your books?

Katie: Um, I am on Twitter, @authorkatie and I’m on Instagram @authorkatigardner

Dianna: And that’s Kati with an I? 

Kati: Yeah! K-a-t-i. You can find me both of those places. And then Plux is my publisher, and you can find all my books there. If you preorder through Quail Ridge Books out of Raleigh, North Carolina, you get swag, so that’s something to think about. 

Dianna: Oooo!

Kati: Yeah! Uh, but you can preorder it. It’s at all major retailers, as well as your local independent bookstore. I always you to go through an independent store if you can. You can also ask your library to order it. And as of yet we do not have an audio version. But if you really want an audio version, I’ll read it to you. Yeah. You can get it at retailers, and at your local library as well. 

Dianna: That’s amazing! So, yeah, thank you very much. Have a wonderful day and keep writing! Keep doing the good work!

Kati: Thanks! Thank you so much for having me. Thanks for having me, and thanks for hosting this amazing podcast.

Dianna: Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Spoonie Authors Podcast. The Spoonie Authors Podcast is part of the Spoonie Authors Network: a community initiative devoted to sharing the stories of disabled authors and educating abled people about what life is like for disabled creatives. Transcripts of this podcast are also available on the Spoonie Authors Network. To learn more or become a contributor visit spoonieauthorsnetwork.blog 

And of course, if you enjoyed this podcast make sure to leave a five star review on your favorite podcast streaming platform.

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