Celebrating Women with Disabilities in Canadian Arts and Culture

March 20, 2023 | Winona

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This post highlights books by some amazing women with disabilities who have made unique and ground-breaking contributions to Canadian arts and culture.

Maud Lewis

Maud Lewis (1938-1970) is one of Canada's most celebrated folk artists. As a child, she developed rheumatoid arthritis, which limited mobility in her hands. She lived most of her life in poverty in Nova Scotia, selling her cheerful hand-drawn Christmas cards and colourful paintings of animals and landscapes for a few dollars each.

These days, paintings by Maud Lewis sell for tens of thousands, her difficult life story has been romanticized in film (2017's Maudie), and her joyful art was recently celebrated in a major exhibition at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and accompanying book, Maud Lewis: Paintings for Sale.

Book cover of Maud Lewis: Paintings for sale, featuring a painted tree branch alive with blue birds, pink cherry blossoms, and a yellow butterfly.

Maud Lewis: Paintings for Sale by Sarah Milroy.

"From her black cats and kittens, to her cart horses and oxen hauling logs, to her quayside scenes of ships in port and the Maritime landscape in all seasons, Maud Lewis made paintings that still delight in their optimism and buoyant vitality."

More books about Maud Lewis.

Vivian Chong 

Vivian Chong is a multi-disciplinary artist who has created works as a playwright, dancer, comedian and graphic novelist. Her graphic memoir Dancing After TEN follows her journey of living with sight loss due to a medical reaction that caused scarring on her skin and the surface of her corneas. This beautiful book was created in collaboration with cartoonist Georgia Webber, whose own memoir is next on this list.

Cover of the book Dancing After TEN which features colourful line drawings overlapping one another of a figure dancing across the page.

Dancing After TEN: A Graphic Memoir by Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber.

"In late 2004, Vivian Chong's life was changed forever when a rare skin disease, TEN (Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis), left her with scar tissue that would eventually blind her. As she was losing her sight, she put down as many drawings on paper as she could to document the experience. This graphic novel is an inspirational tale and a powerful work of graphic medicine."

Georgia Webber

Georgia Webber is a comics artist and editor who facilitates courses on creating at the intersections of health and art. Before collaborating on Vivian Chong's graphic memoir, she published her own graphic member, Dumb: Living Without a Voice, about her experience following a sudden throat injury that forced her into months of silence.

Cover of the book Dumb: Living Without a Voice, featuring a cartoon illustration of a person holding a hand to their throat with a worried expression and speaking an empty word bubble.

Dumb: Living Without a Voice by Georgia Webber.

"Part memoir, part medical cautionary tale, Dumb tells the story of how the book’s author copes with the everyday challenges that come with voicelessness. Throughout, she learns to lean on the support of her close friends, finds self-expression in creating comics, and comes to understand and appreciate how deeply her voice and identity are intertwined."

Related reading: Disability Representation in Comics and Graphic Novels.

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a U.S./Canadian queer, autistic and disabled nonbinary femme writer. They have written or edited numerous books rooted in disability and transformative justice, and are a lead artist with the performance project Sins Invalid.

Their newest book is The Future is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes, and Mourning Songs. It was written over the course of two years of disabled isolation during the pandemic.

Cover of the book The Future is Disabled which features a sundial made of small brown figures telling the time of the world, on a rainbow nebula background.

The Future is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes, and Mourning Songs by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

"What if, in the near future, the majority of people will be disabled--and what if that's not a bad thing? And what if disability justice and disabled wisdom are crucial to creating a future in which it's possible to survive fascism, climate change, and pandemics and to bring about liberation?"

More books by Leah Laksmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.

Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is a disabled senior writer, accessibility advocate, and former drama teacher and union activist. Her hilariously honest memoir, Falling for Myself, was featured in a previous library blog post, Celebrating Assistive Technology.

Her latest book is the seriously funny Kerfuffle: A Novel That Speaks Spoof to Power. It's about a group of disabled improvisers and abled comrades who share the stage during the 2010 G20 protests in Toronto.

Cover of the book Kerfuffle: A Novel That Speaks Spoof to Power, featuring a silhouette of a pregnant person standing in a spotlight, with a crutch on one arm and wielding a sword in the other.

Kerfuffle: A Novel That Speaks Spoof to Power by Dorothy Ellen Palmer.

"It's one hot summer. Jumping on and off stage, the diverse, five-member improv troupe called Kerfuffle make sense and nonsense of their complex lives and the 2010 Toronto G20 protests. Uncertain which player is her baby daddy, nine-months-pregnant Nellie Wolfe wields her crutch as both prop and weapon to hunt him down. It’s an inside-anarchy exposé of G20’s crucible moments, from black balaclavas to a burning police car to being kettled, incarcerated, and freed to continue the struggle. Satire at its best, Kerfuffle offers both belly laughs and a demand for justice."

More books by Dorothy Ellen Palmer.

Amanda Leduc

Amanda Leduc is a disabled writer and disability rights advocate who speaks regularly on accessibility and the role of disability in storytelling. Her last novel, The Centaur's Wife, was featured on our International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2021 booklist. Her earlier non-fiction book, Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, explores how disability is portrayed in fairy tales and offers new ways to celebrate the magic of all bodies.

Cover of the book Disfigured which features an illustration of a house almost completely obscured by a dense forest of green leaves through which poke various parts of the body: ear, eye, foot, hand, and crutch.

Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc.

"In fairy tales, happy endings are the norm - as long as you're beautiful and walk on two legs. After all, the ogre never gets the princess. And since fairy tales are the foundational myths of our culture, how can a girl with a disability ever think she'll have a happy ending?"

More books by Amanda Leduc.

For more great books with Deaf and disability representation check out our Deaf and Disability Book Lists and blog posts on accessibility, disability, and Deaf culture.

For information about accessibility at Toronto Public Library, including accessible format collections and accessibility services, please visit the Accessibility section of our website.