What is ‘Access Questions for Self-Publishers’? 

This document collates questions, prompts, considerations and resources for expanding and clarifying what we might mean by ‘accessibility’ within self- and independent publishing. Primarily, this document uses the term ‘access’ in the context of barriers caused by ableism, although these barriers inherently overlap and intersect with barriers caused by racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism and classism. 

This resource is not a checklist or a how-to guide. Instead of being a replicable template it hopes to enable you to think about accessibility in a contingent and specific way most relevant to your work, project, publication, press, or interests. As the awareness of accessibility has started to move into mainstream consciousness, it has become co-opted as an expensive add-on, a box to be ticked. In reality, having conversations about access is messy and nuanced. Access needs change, and can change rapidly. Two people’s access needs might completely contradict each other; someone’s comfort could be someone else’s distress. Not being able to meet someone’s access needs might mean they can’t participate, resulting in their segregation. It might mean they are put through pain or mental distress with dangerous consequences, or it might contribute to a lifetime of degradation and silencing. Beginning these conversations can feel immobilising, scary, and restrictive – but to not have them is to willingly cause these forms of harm to continue. 

What we can do, even with no financial support or institutional backing, is enter these discussions with joy for the futures they make possible, the relationships they open up, and the vital knowledge they allow to be nurtured and circulated.

Why publishing?

Publishing in the broadest sense is just the making public of something. The moment when something – a piece of work, an idea, a project – turns outward. Commercial literary, arts, and academic publishing has historically excluded disabled people, through a mix of working cultures, ableist normative practices, prejudice, and ignorance. It is unsurprising then that private, underground, alternative, independent, and self-publishing practices have historically been the home of marginalised voices, and continue to be sites for developing and circulating our ideas, theories, and lived experiences. 

When we are othered by a system, when we come up against a system that isn’t designed for us, we are exposed to vital and unrecognised knowledge about that system. Publishing, as a practice of knowledge production, maintenance and organising, can be a tool for cultivating and taking care of that knowledge. 

How has this document come to be?

13.2% of students within the UK have registered disabilities, with 3,500 students at UAL in contact with their Disability Service. The actual figure of disabled students will be much higher. This document aims to empower disabled students to find ways of publishing that work for them, and to understand the power that self-publishing holds for marginalised voices. Simultaneously, it hopes to challenge non-disabled students to consider how the norms and standards which they take for granted can work violently to further marginalise their disabled peers.  

This work has been funded by the University of the Arts London CCW Equality, Diversity and Inclusion staff research fund. As a disabled staff member and recent graduate, I understand the potential irony of conducting such research within the context of marketised education, but it is important to recognise that institutions are made up of people who make decisions every day with the tools they have available. As well as working at UAL, I have worked as a support worker and access consultant, and publish many disabled writers through my press, Sticky Fingers Publishing. It is largely through these contexts and through discussions with my contemporaries, peers and students that I have come to assemble some of my learning here. Key to this are the brilliant conversations I was able to have with Olivia Spring, Abi Palmer and D Mortimer, abridged versions of which are available to read alongside this resource. 

Some Suggestions for Using this Document

Each part of this document is made up of a hundred words introducing an idea, three questions for thinking through this idea, and then links to external resources. This format intends to provide a digestible and scalable way to work through complex discussions. There is a great deal more to say and think about the topics addressed, and many more topics which could have been included. Omissions have been made based on what I have been able to do within the time and resources my budget enabled. The sections – Roles and Hierarchies, Communication, Cost and Value, Time, Writing, Editing, Design and Production and Press and Distribution – have been arranged around an idea of a publishing process which is linear. Most likely, your process won’t be. Take this as an invitation to remix, cut up and collage this resource into whatever shape feels good to you. 

You might want to look through this document at the beginning of a particular project, to reflect on your practice more generally, or when embarking on collaborations to establish open communication about access. A lot of these questions involve thinking about who your work is for – something we often don’t know until later in the process, or even after the fact. Hopefully having the points this resource makes in mind, even if we don’t know who we are making work for, can help us more critically figure that out and more clearly feel our way through. 

Please remember when entering these conversations that you don’t owe anyone medical information or proof you are disabled, and that no one else owes you this either. If you are non-disabled, don’t leave this work for your disabled peers to do on their own. Disability justice is a commitment we all have to make every day. 

Individual reflection 

Going through this document, take some time to write down or voice note your thoughts in response to the questions and prompts. You might want to think about: 

  • What makes you uncomfortable or reluctant to reflect?
  • What don’t you understand, and how can you learn more? 
  • How do the points covered relate to your own experiences? 
  • How does this learning cast your previous experiences into new light? 
  • What are some changes you can make straight away to your internal thinking and your external behaviour? 

Group planning 

Remember that everyone has a different relationship with the subjects that may come up in these discussions, and that not everyone will be able to enter these discussions as easily as others. Respect each other’s emotions, believe each other’s lived experiences, and go into these conversations in good faith. Plan a check-in discussion in the near future so there’s an opportunity for further reflection for those who need it. 

As well as discussing the points suggested for individual reflection above, you might also want to think about: 

  • Where are your priorities different as individuals within the group? 
  • Which questions are good to answer now, and which ones can be figured out as you go along? 
  • How will you stay accountable for the decisions made through these conversations?