My main character has a physical disability I do not have. While the story is not specifically about this condition, it is a major part of the character. I want a sensitivity reader to ensure that my portrayal is accurate, respectful, and enjoyable to people who have this condition as well as those of us who do not have it.

Do you have any advice for finding a sensitivity reader beyond Google? What do I need to know if I do hire one?

Dave L

Dave L,

This is a great question! Thanks for asking it. : ) Because I’m hoping this answer can be a resource for a wide range of people, I’m going to talk about the broader category of disability consultants, which includes folks who work on digital accessibility, education, writing, and game design.

I definitely have some general advice for working with a disability consultant.

Tips for Working With a Disability Consultant

Start consulting early.

For a large project, like a novel, I recommend consulting at least twice: once in the early stages to spot structural problems and once in the later stages to focus on the specifics. Consulting early is something that is often overlooked but is important for spotting structural problems, such as a disabled character based on a harmful disability stereotype, that would require a lot of rewriting or uncomfortable compromises to deal with later. If you have the budget for it, consider consulting at additional stages, and with multiple people.

Be honest and open about what you are looking for and what you can pay.

A prospective consultant needs to know how much work the project will be, what type of work it is, how much it pays, and what the timeline is. If you are putting out an open call, then research what fair-pay rates are and put your rate into the call. If you are approaching consultants individually, ask them what their rates are and respect them.

Never try to talk someone down to a lower rate. However, if you are low income, it is okay to share that fact and ask if they are currently able to make accommodations for low income clients. If you aren’t low income, but your budget is less than the standard rate of pay, you should reflect on why that is.

Finally, if you are inexperienced, share that and invite feedback, as inexperienced people often don’t know exactly what they need and the consultant might have helpful guidance.

For character consulting, look for a consultant who matches your character’s core experiences.

Ideally, you will find a consultant that has lived experience of both your character’s disability and any intersecting marginalized identities that they have. At a minimum, you want to think about your character’s race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. If getting someone who shares your character’s marginalized traits isn’t possible, then look for someone with a history of working intersectionally, especially on marginalized identities they don’t share. This is also where those with a larger budget may wish to hire multiple consultants.

Also, keep in mind that two people with the same disability can have very different experiences, so finding a consultant with the same disability might not mean that a consultant’s lived experiences match those of your character. For example, the consultant and character could experience significantly different symptoms or the consultant might use crutches, while the character is a wheelchair user. It is good to get a consultant who shares as many disability experiences as possible with your character.

Broader knowledge of disability representation makes a big difference.

When looking for a consultant to help with disability representation, lived experience of the disability or disabilities being represented is most important, but there are certain problems that can’t be spotted without additional awareness of ableism. For example, there is a negative pattern in which physically disabled characters are limited to mental roles. Even if each individual character who follows this pattern is respectfully depicted, the collective absence of physically disabled characters with physical roles and abilities still sends the harmful message that physically disabled people are physically incapable.  

You can look for consultants with broader awareness by checking out their previous projects, websites, and public social media. Have they done interviews, written articles, or created resources about disability representation? If so, check those out! If not, do they engage with other disabled folks and promote conversations and resources about respectful disability representation?

Remember that disabled people aren’t a monolith.

There isn’t a consensus among disabled people on the one right way to do things. For example, there is disagreement about the language we use to talk about disability. I recommend using identity-first language, as do many disability activists, but there are also people who passionately advocate using person-first language.

This means that it isn’t possible to make something that is a perfect representation for all disabled people. Choices will need to be made. Also, remember that a disability consultant is one individual person with their own perspective, not the final arbiter of accessibility and disability representation.

Ask what their access needs are and share yours.

I suggest starting with access needs about communication. What forms of communication work best for them? For example, do they work better with email, text messages, phone calls, or video chat? What about communication style? For example, do they need short messages that only deal with one question at a time? Are nudges and reminders helpful or stressful? What about you? If you have conflicting access needs, you will want to know that right away so that they can be addressed.

Make a clear agreement before work starts.

Communication is complicated and misunderstandings happen easily, so it is important to be explicit about what each of you are agreeing to do and to document that agreement somewhere you both can easily refer to. At a minimum, you will want to cover what work is expected, when it will start and end, how much the consultant will be paid, when they will be paid, and who owns the copyright to anything being worked on (probably you). For larger projects, it is typical for payment to be broken up into chunks that are paid as work progresses.

In my experience, how formal this agreement is varies. Some people put together a contract, frequently using online contract templates. Others work less formally. I’m not a lawyer and can’t give legal advice about the relative risks involved, but I can say that, at a minimum, getting an explicit, clear agreement is important to avoiding problems, even when working with friends.

How to Find a Disability Consultant

I don’t know of any directories of disability consultants for speculative fiction, but there are multiple directories that are focused on tabletop games. At least some of the people in these directories will be interested in work that goes beyond the tabletop industry. Currently there are two small, but growing, online directories. I made a list of Disability Consultants for Geeky Projects on my website and DOTS RPG Project has a Consultant Directory that is divided into six categories of consulting services.

There is definitely a need for a larger directory and, happily, disability advocate Jennifer Kretchmer is working on a Disabled Professionals in Tabletop Directory. They shared an update on this project with me, so I can give you some details here. It already has two hundred and thirty responses that span over forty occupations.

Even though this directory is not yet online, by contacting Jennifer, people have already been able to use it to find consultants with diverse skill sets. For example, My Sound Delve was able to find disabled voice actors for their Disability Soundset, and Hatchlings Games found “d/Deaf/HoH writers, designers, and artists for current and upcoming projects.” Most exciting, this directory allows “searches for multiply-marginalized disabled individuals with lived experiences at intersecting points of identity.”

The place to go to find information about the Disabled Professionals in Tabletop Directory is this Twitter thread, as it has an FAQ with important information. For those disabled professionals who are interested in signing up, that Twitter thread also has the participant form. While waiting for the directory to be online, you can send requests with the positions you are looking to fill to Jennifer’s email, which is provided in a button at the bottom of their Linktree page.

Do note that all of these directories are self-reported, so it is up to you to use the caution and awareness appropriate to any situation where you are hiring a stranger from the internet.

If directories aren’t working for you, then it is time to advertise in the community. I usually write up a short summary of the job (with details about how I want to be contacted) and share it on social media. It is best to start with your own social media and any relevant groups you are an active member of. Disabled people are everywhere, so don’t limit yourself to disability specific groups. Also, it can help to specifically ask friends to spread the word.

To spread the word further, branch out on social media. You can join relevant Facebook groups, use applicable Twitter hashtags, etc. Be sure to check group guidelines before posting, and respect the purpose of the group. This is also the point where you might want to start doing some google searches for consultants as well.

Long-term, I recommend building up a network of disability advocates and activists by following folks doing this work on social media. You may have to do some experimenting to figure out which social media platform works best for you, for me it is Twitter. As an introvert, building a network has been challenging for me, but by listening, retweeting, and engaging in respectful interactions over time, I’ve made meaningful connections.

I hope that this helps. : ) Good luck with your storytelling project!

–Fay Onyx from Writing Alchemy

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