A True Story Written by an Author With a Disability: Picks for the TPL Reading Challenge 2021
This past April, members of the Reading Challenge team discussed the category "a true story written by an author with a disability" at a terrific online event. Ames and myself were joined by Winona, a Senior Services Specialist who works in Accessibility Services for the library. Accessibility Services provides and promotes accessible library collections, services, and equipment for people who are D/deaf and people with disabilities.
When the Reading Challenge team was putting together our 2021 categories, we offered this definition of "disability":
Disability is understood as any physical, mental, developmental, cognitive, learning, communication, sight, hearing, or functional limitation that, in interaction with a barrier, hinders a person’s full and equal participation in society. To learn more, visit the City of Toronto's Disability Awareness & Inclusion website.
Not every author on this list may identify as being disabled. In particular, we received multiple recommendations for books by authors on the autism spectrum. Some autistic people would present autism as a difference, not a disability. However, our goal is to raise awareness of authors with diverse abilities, and we are including those books in these recommendations.
If you missed April's live event, you can still check out the replay online! Here are some book recommendations from the event to get you started. Each are available in multiple formats at TPL and also through CELA. You can also review or download the TPL Reading Challenge event transcript from our event, which has all of the book recommendations.
Select Event Recommendations
Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law by Haben Girma
A beautifully written memoir by Haben Girma, who is a disability rights lawyer, advocate, and the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. Girma shares her experiences growing up in a world that wasn't designed to include her and learning to fight for justice and inclusion. It's also the story of a life lived to the fullest extent, with determination, humour, and joy. Born in California to an Eritrean refugee and an Ethiopian immigrant, Girma's life is full of adventure and possibility. She plays hide-and-seek in Louisiana, helps build a school in Mali, climbs a glacier in Alaska, and of course graduates from Harvard Law. This engaging book challenges ableist misconceptions that define and limit what people can, and cannot, do, and reminds readers that we can all become advocates for a better, more inclusive world.
– Winona, Senior Services Specialist
The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde
This book was originally published in 1980 and it's only about 60 pages long in regular print. Audre Lorde shares excerpts from her diary documenting her battle and recovery from breast cancer, and the way she is treated by society. Lorde could be considered to have a temporary disability during her illness and recovery process. But because she chooses not to have a prosthetic breast, she is perceived and treated as disabled by others. Societal perceptions of ability/disability is a fascinating thread throughout all of the poems and essays that make up this book.
– Ames, Librarian
Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century edited by Alice Wong
This outstanding anthology is edited by Alice Wong, founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project. Writers with a range of disabilities and perspectives contribute engaging personal essays, speeches, interviews and more. This is an impactful, rich reading experience. Highly recommended.
– Jennifer, Librarian
Event Participant Recommendations
All of the titles below – and more! – were recommended by our hosts and participants during April's event.
- About Us: Essays from the Disability Series of the New York Times edited by Peter Catapano
- Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist by Judith Heumann
- Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer
- Hello! I Want to Die, Please Fix Me: Depression in the First Person by Anna Mehler Paperny
- Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine by Michele Lent Hirsch
- Little By Little: A Writer's Education by Jean Little
- No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality by Michael J. Fox
- The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love With Me by Keah Brown
- The Story of My Life by Hellen Keller
- We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby
More Staff Recommendations
We also reached out to our staff for their picks for "a true story written by an author with a disability". Here are their suggestions:
Dancing after TEN by Vivian Chong & Georgia Webber
Vivian has a reaction from Ibuprofen which triggers an extremely rare skin disease (Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis) while on vacation in the Caribbean with her boyfriend and his family. She documents this experience as well as the long and painful recovery. She uses her art as a way to capture her emotions as she struggles with the loss of her sight. I would definitely not be as forgiving as Vivian is!
Dumb: Living Without a Voice by Georgia Webber
Georgia chronicles a severe vocal injury that left her with pain whenever she used her voice. She learns to communicate differently, and tries to find what her voice means to her. A look into what it means to experience an ill-defined condition that is difficult to treat, and the frustration with medicine this can cause.
These books could also work for:
- a book by two or more people
- a debut book
- a book by or about someone you'd like to meet (maybe!)
- a book in a genre you've never read before (maybe!)
– Emily, Librarian
Sitting Pretty: The View From My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body by Rebekah Taussig
This is an essay collection inspired by Taussig's own experience of disability. She does an amazing job of illustrating her day-to-day life, while connecting those anecdotes to broader systems of power. I laughed, I cried, I thought, and then I recommended her book to all my friends.
It could also work for:
- a debut book
- a book about someone unlike yourself
– Sam, Librarian
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
A collection of essays about dealing with schizoaffective disorder. As a personal account of an illness most people fear and misunderstand, it is revelatory. I will never forget the way she describes being gripped by a delusion, knowing it must be a delusion, but unable to stave it off.
– Alyson, Senior Branch Head
Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
Lucy was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma as a child. She subsequently attended Sarah Lawrence College and was roommate to bestselling author Ann Patchett. Following Lucy's death, Patchett wrote Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, which chronicles their twenty year friendship, and the deterioration of Lucy's mental and physical health. Also well worth a read.
– Vivien, Senior Branch Head
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
When Bailey became bedridden due to a neurological disorder (one we would now likely identify as ME/CFS), a friend brought her a pot of flowers from the woods near her house. It happened to have a snail living in it. Barely able to move most days, she cared for the snail, observing its habits in minute detail. The resulting book, written after her partial recovery, is an enchanting exploration of the small, the slow and the contemplative.
– Wendy, Digital Content Lead
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell
A memoir told through the frame of near death experiences, each of the book's 17 chapters focuses on a different times O’Farrell narrowly avoided death. O’Farrell had encephalitis as a child and some of the brushes with death relate to the long term neurological symptoms she experiences. Other brushes with death are caused by external forces, a near miss plane crash and a terrifying encounter on a hiking trail. O’Farrell does a beautiful job describing these incidents, big and small, and exploring their significance within her life story.
– Myrna, Librarian
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot by John Callahan
In 1972, at the age of 21, John Callahan was involved in a car crash that severed his spine and made him a quadriplegic. A heavy drinker since the age of 12 (alcohol had played a role in his crash), the accident could have been the beginning of a downward spiral. Instead, it sparked a personal transformation. After extensive physical therapy, he was eventually able to grasp a pen in his right hand and make rudimentary drawings. By 1978, Callahan had sworn off drinking for good, and begun to draw cartoons. This book recounts Callahan's life story, from the harrowing to the hilarious. Featuring more than 60 of Callahan's cartoons, it's a compelling look at art, addiction, disability, and fame. A film adaptation of the same name starring Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan was released in 2018.
– Howard, Manager
Strangers Assume my Girlfriend is my Nurse by Shane Burcaw
Shane Burcaw in this selection of essays recounts moments of his life with a degenerative disease, specifically focused on awkward moments and common assumptions made towards him (including others believing his then-girlfriend now wife is his caretaker!) Shane's approach is lighthearted and goofy, shedding light towards the positivity that can often be overlooked when it comes to disability.
It could also work for:
- a book about someone unlike yourself
- a book by or about someone you'd like to meet
- a book that made you feel comforted or hopeful
– Kristen, Page
Cockeyed: A Memoir by Ryan Knighton
In this book, Ryan takes readers on his journey into blindness through funny, witty, and sometimes, dark stories from his teenage years through to his early 30s, and how he learned to live as a person who is blind.
– Darren, Manager
The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida
I get goosebumps remembering this amazing biography about a non-verbal, autistic boy from Japan. Extremely immersive and truly an eye-opening experience for readers, this first-person account was written by Naoki with the help of his mother and a method known as facilitated communication. It was adapted into a Sundance Award-winning documentary by the same name that tells Naoki's story as well as dramatizing the experiences of other young, non-verbal people with autism around the world. I dare you not to see the world differently after reading this book.
– Reagan, Librarian
Additional Recommendations from TPL Blogs and Booklists
- Celebrating Assistive Technology & Helen Keller and Representation of Deafblind People by Denise
- Children's Books with Positive Disability Representation by Eleni
- Disability: Read Up On It! booklist from Children's Services
- Diverse Abilities booklist from Youth Services
Recommendations from Facebook
These are just a few of the books that the members of our Reading Challenge Facebook discussion group are reading and recommending for "a true story written by an author with a disability". You can read the entire thread, even without a Facebook account.
- Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad
- Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant by Daniel Tammet
- Broken Places, Outer Spaces: Finding Creativity in the Unexpected by Nnedi Okorafor
- Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
- Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability and Making Space by Amanda Leduc
- Funny, You Don't Look Autistic: A Comedian's Guide to Life on the Spectrum by Michael McCreary
- Nujeen: One Girl's Incredible Journey from Syria in a Wheelchair by Nujeen Mustafa
- Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh
- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
- The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything that Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams
- Unflinching: The Making of a Canadian Sniper by Jody Mitic
Our next TPL Reading Challenge Online Discussion is on Wednesday, September 29. Nalini and Wendy will be discussing "a book about someone unlike yourself" and "a book with a one-word title". All are very welcome to join! Register now or tune in on September 29 at 4pm. All Reading Challenge Online events are presented with live captioning.
If you have further recommendations for "a true story written by an author with a disability", please share in the comments below!