In Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back, editors Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka, and Daniel Sluman have compiled a poignant and beautiful anthology of poetry crafted around the principles of disability justice. The 54 poets featured in the collection share their experiences of illness and ableism caused by the medical-industrial complex while simultaneously dreaming of an accessible disability justice future. The poems are divided into five themes: Bodies, Rules, Maps, Dreams, and Legends. In their works, the poets wrestle with the complexities of everyday ableism in the United Kingdom, offering artist statements that elaborate on their disability in relation to their artistic praxis. Some of the most interesting works were written in the style of academic essays and personal reflections, for example Eleanor Ward’s essay on the politics and realities of disability poetics in the United Kingdom.
A particularly striking point made by several poets, including Sandra Alland and Angela Readman, is the inaccessibility of the publishing industry and its affiliated literary spaces for disabled writers. Due to inaccessible design, from the lack of ramps or scent-free spaces, or the expectation that poets should be striving for a chance to read their work out loud despite the anxiety it causes, D/deaf and disabled poets are not granted the same platform as neurotypical and non-disabled writers. Thus is the beauty of Stairs and Whispers because it has made every effort to ensure the holistic accessibility of its content, from providing audio recordings of almost every entry, curating film-poems in British Sign Language and offering image descriptions, to including a glossary for disability terminology. More than simply a poetry anthology, Stairs and Whispers also serves as a resource for disabled bodies who seek solidarity and community and allows us to hold beauty in neurodivergency and disability through art that cannot be stripped away by ableist discourses and structures.
The variety of works, including poetry, prose, visual arts, and even a CV template from the point of view of a disabled body, make Stairs and Whispers a necessary read for anyone interested in disability justice and neurodiversity in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the extensive care taken to foreground accessibility and disability justice, which seeks to combat ableism and its entanglements with other oppressions at every level, is palpable in the anthology. On the power of poetry, co-editor Khairani Barokka writes in her introduction: “It is through stanza that communion happens between the shades of life that we hall know can’t be enumerated, can’t be delineated, can’t be kept hidden from ourselves” (16). Stairs and Whispers takes to heart the familiar rallying cry of disability justice, “nothing about us without us,” and presents the nuances, pains, and joys lived by disabled bodies in an anthology that is well worth reading.
Georgia Lin is a first-generation Taiwanese immigrant woman of colour who has lived experiences of neurodivergency and mental illness. She is reading the MSt in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Linacre College, and her research interests lie at the intersections of disability justice, women of colour feminisms, and artistic diasporic formations. Georgia also enjoys reading and writing poetry, choral singing, and cats.