Q&A: Deaf Saskatoon writer finds art in his disability
Born deaf, Adam Pottle believes it's a gift that has shaped his writing
People with disabilities and those who wish to learn more about the experience of living with a disability are gathering at a conference in Saskatoon this weekend.
Presenters will be talking about everything from educating educators about disability, to ableism (discrimination against disabled people), to art and accessibility.
CBC Radio's Blue Sky host Heather Morrison spoke with three people who have one thing in common: They are writers whose work often explores this important part of their identity. LISTEN to that conversation here:
Adam Pottle is an award-winning Saskatoon author who has published several books and plays. He was born deaf and his work explores the beauty of deafness and disability.
Here is a transcript of the conversation between Blue Sky host Heather Morrison and Pottle. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How would you say your writing is shaped by your disability?
A:I wouldn't be a writer if I wasn't deaf, and I wrote a whole book about the ways that being deaf has impacted me as a writer. And being deaf has kind of steered me away from the path that most of the men in my family tend to take because my brother works for the railway, or he used to anyway, my dad worked for the railway, his dad worked for the railway and it feels like being deaf kind of derailed me from that path in a way and has turned me toward more artistic and intellectual pursuits … I was the first person in my family to attend university. I'm really grateful to be deaf. It's a gift for me.
Q: In what way did it contribute to your ability to write? What were some of the — as you say, it's a gift. So what were some of the ways that it has moulded you to become the writer that you are?
A: That's a great question and one of the ways that I've noticed is that it has made me more aware of the stereotypes that arise in the world, not just to deaf and disabled people, but to other marginalized groups. So I work really hard in my own stories to avoid stereotypes and concentrate on my characters' humanity.
Being deaf has also given me a unique relationship with words because, typically, when a writer writes they write according to how words sound. For me, I write according to how words look and how words feel. Words have a tactile feeling for me.
I feel like at times I could cut my finger around their edges, and so my deafness has given me that unique relationship with words with text. It's given my writing a unique rhythm. I often find that sometimes my characters' dialogue conforms to the rhythm of captions that appear on screen, and it'll appear on just kind of short bursts and that's probably why I don't have a lot of long monologues in my writing.
Q: So your latest book Voice what made you want to write it?
A: I was actually approached by the (now former) publisher of the University of Regina Press. His name is Bruce (Walsh), and he told me about this series of books that the press was planning and it was called "Writers on Writing."
He had approached two other authors at the time — Richard van Camp and Gail Bowen — and he asked me to consider writing a book about how my writing has been impacted by my deafness. At the time, the prospect scared me because I was used to writing fiction and I really preferred hiding behind fiction because fiction gives you a veil, it gives you a lens and you don't have to be as vulnerable as you would be if you're writing a memoir. I also didn't think I had anything valuable to say.
At the time, I was in my early 30s and it felt like I wasn't in a position to write a book on writing because it felt like that would be something for somebody who is much further along in their career. Once I started writing I realized that kind of attitude really just internalized 'ableism' — that I did, in fact, have something interesting to say about writing about art and the way that we see the world, and I'm very grateful that I have that opportunity.
Q: Can we talk more about internalized ableism? How has ableism showed up? How does it show up in your life?
A: That's a huge question and a valuable question because it's something that disabled people deal with every single day.
It can be difficult to produce art when you also have to prove to the world that you have a right to exist. The world works really damn hard to make sure that disabled people feel that they don't have the right to exist. All you have to do is look at how they've handled the pandemic. Because people no longer feel like they have to mask, they don't feel like they have to vaccinate and there are disabled people across the world, hundreds of thousands of them, who have not been able to come out of their homes because even the smallest gathering is dangerous for them.
Not to mention that in Canada there is MAID ( medical assistance in dying) and that has disproportionately affected disabled people because many disabled people are forced to choose between being impoverished or medical assistance in dying because they're not getting the support that they need. All of those different kinds of attitudes have a huge impact on disabled people. We begin to internalize that and really question, you know, do we have a right to be here?
For me when I was growing up, I felt compelled to pretend that I was normal because even though I was born deaf, I grew up in a hearing family.
I had to wear hearing aids. I had to wear hearing devices in class when I was at school. I had to take speech therapy, which is like learning how to lift a barbell with your tongue.
It can be quite strenuous and quite embarrassing.
You know, as I see my hearing family, I see them listening to music, I see them communicating easily and it really drilled into me this idea that I have to conform to their way of doing things. It in turn made me hate my own deafness and had a considerable impact on my mental health and it continues to do so, but I'm much better now.
It wasn't until my late 20s and early 30s that I really began to see my deafness as a gift and that I have the right as a deaf person, as a disabled person, to ask for help and that I have the right to demand accessibility because it's built into the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but unfortunately it's not often enforced. Internalized ableism is such a bear, such a monster.
Q: So how does art help with that, not just for yourself, but also for other people who are reading or watching, I know you've written a play as well. How does that change the lens through which we view disability?
A: Art performs so many valuable functions.
First of all, it's a release valve. It's also a way of showing the world that we could do better.
For example, we can write science fiction stories that show what an accessible world or accepting community would look like. Also, through art we practise connection, we practise community. So even if a disabled person is, at this moment because of the pandemic, if they're still sequestered in their houses, they can still find ways to connect with other people through art, whether it's through reading books, through watching movies, through painting, through listening to music. So that kind of connection is still valuable and it's becoming increasingly valuable the longer the pandemic goes on.
Q: People who may not have a disability themselves, what's one thing you would like them to take away from this conversation?
A: First of all, wear a damn mask. Try to put yourself in our shoes. Read a book that has a disabled author or watch a film that centres a disabled character and try to expand your empathy and see how they experience the world, and then decide for yourself how you can try to make the world better.
We could do so much better. We have all of the resources to do so. We have the technology. We have the knowledge to do so, but because of our ableist attitudes, we're choosing not to. That's another valuable thing about it, is that it can help us change those perspectives. I'm hoping that people become more open to experiencing those kinds of perspectives.