The Arts Access Podcast is available on Spotify and iHeart Radio. Below, you can also listen to the third episode, Robyn Hunt: a voice for disability.
Robyn Hunt: a voice for disability
Kia ora, welcome back to the Arts Access Aotearoa Podcast. Today’s episode features a conversation with Robyn Hunt.
Robyn is a writer at heart, and she's also been a Human Rights Commissioner, a TV show presenter and is a fierce advocate for disability rights in Government and on Twitter. She co-founded Crip the Lit as a way for Deaf and disabled writers to have their unique voices, perspectives and stories included and valued in mainstream writing in Aotearoa.
Sam: What was it like when you first started writing?
Robyn: Well, I began my writing career in the news, in the caption department actually, of The Press in Christchurch. But nobody wrote about disability. I mean, it would never have occurred to me to write about disability. So I covered all the usual things that you do when you're a junior reporter … the house prices, the magistrates court, that sort of thing.
So we didn't write about disability. There are lots of things you didn't write about, you just didn't, and nobody would even think about it. You might write about it, maybe if it was the charity event or if it was something medical, but that was it. So it was very male-dominated. I think there were three women in the newsroom when I joined.
There was also a women's department, which was all run by women, but they were great. But there were only three of us in the newsroom.
Sam: So when and why did you start writing about disability?
Robyn: I think during the seventies I was in the UK doing my OE and I started to recognise that there was a lot of disability politics, to use the term broadly with a small “p”, around, and that people were talking and starting to write and think about it all.
So, when I came back to New Zealand, I wanted to get back into journalism and it was quite hard. I can't remember how I started. I think I heard Future Indicative on Radio New Zealand. Future Indicative was a disability programme. And I started freelancing for that.
And I went to a writing course with Michael King and I started writing about disability stuff and a bit of technology. I started writing for perhaps some of the more business publications about technology, and it sort of grew from there.
I was freelancing and I did all kinds of stuff, not just disability or technology. I did lots of sort of general freelance writing work while my kids were little. So I've always been interested in reading disability stuff but there wasn't a great deal around in the eighties.
There was a magazine. Something A.I.D, it was called, which was unfortunate when AIDS came along. I can't remember, but it was a disability, a sort of general disability hard-copy magazine. So I wrote a bit for that on technology and other things. And then I got a bit sidetracked into things like human rights and disability employment and EEO and things like that.
But I still wrote reports and all that sort of stuff. So it wasn't really until relatively recently that I started writing more seriously about disability. I was busy with human rights stuff and accessibility stuff during the 2000s and sort of in the last 10 years I've been doing much more writing and thinking about all that stuff.
Sam: So how did Crip the Lit come about?
Robyn: Well, we'd been working with Arts Access Aotearoa and we were thinking about how there was no voice for disabled writers in New Zealand. We were starting to see stuff online. Once you go online, there's loads of stuff out there. All kinds of people doing all kinds of things and writing about it online and writing blogs and so on. And we felt that in New Zealand there was no voice for disabled writers. And people who wanted to write particularly about disability, although not solely, some disabled writers don't necessarily want to write about disability. But we decided that we mostly … Trish Harris and I would get together and complain to each other.
And in the end we decided we would do something and we got involved with Lit Crawl. And I'd have to say that the people who organised Lit Crawl, Claire and Andrew, were incredibly supportive. And the minute we were into it, so were they. So we decided we would call ourselves something and we decided we'd call ourselves Crip the Lit.
And it was largely because in America they were talking about Crip the Vote. And so we thought, Oh, crip the lit. It rolls off the tongue nicely. So Crip the Lit was born.
Sam: So could you tell us a bit about what Crip the Lit is?
Robyn: Well, it's basically a voice for disabled writers. It's a very loose, kind of umbrella title. It's really about giving disabled writers a voice. People who want to write about, not necessarily, but who might want to write about the experience of disability, and our stories, to tell our stories our way and give a focus to our stories.
Sam: What do you think about the narratives around disability that are out in media. You’ve talked a little bit about the film Me Before You.
Robyn: The narratives, they used to be kind of the pity or the pedestal. So it would be either, “Oh, aren't they wonderful’, so it'd be what is commonly known as inspiration porn, or it would be pity porn, which is about the poor disabled person and what a terrible life they lead and how awful it all is.
Or it would be somebody who’s done something. It might be only ordinary things but, you know, how amazing they were for doing it, or they’d done something that you wouldn't expect a disabled person to do. Might be something other people did but you wouldn't necessarily expect a disabled person to do. So you would write about that.
But I think the narrative is changing. There's still a bit of the, “They did it all despite being blind or deaf or whatever”. But I do think the narrative is changing, and I think it's largely because there's a lot more disabled people writing in the media. And the media are more prepared to listen.
So you've got people like Olivia Shivas writing for Stuff. The Spinoff have got a number of disabled writers now and other publications are also publishing disability material. And also, they're been taken to account for their language as well.
Sam: Mmm, the ableist language …
Robyn: Yeah. “They're confined to wheelchair.” That sort of stuff. I mean, it's so annoying.
Sam: Do you have any new writing or advocacy projects on the go?
Robyn: I do. I’ve been starting to write essays, personal essays on disability and on, well, a number of aspects of disability, on living with it and, you know, all kinds of things that you might want to talk about, about disability. So I'm sort of planning a collection of personal essays.
Sam: Can you share any subjects with us?
Robyn: Oh, well, things change, so you know, things morph as you do things. A lot of disabled people want to tell their life stories but I find that incredibly complicated and difficult, and I think it's more manageable to do it by subjects and, and sort of write a personal essay that does some critiquing as well as, you know, maybe telling a bit of my own personal views and experience but more of a critiquing sort of thing.
So I wanted to write about things like ableism and something about the history of disability for the general reader. There's academic stuff around but a lot of that's not really accessible to a general reader and I think a lot of disabled people don't know the history.
Sam: Mmm, as a disabled person, I only just read the ODI A Brief History of Disability in New Zealand.
Robyn: Well, it's a good start but there's a lot more to it and there's a lot of the human story that I think disabled people need to know. Like who were the activists? Who are the people who came before us? Who are the people who blazed the trail? And some of them aren't always that well-known but they're people who are important to me and a lot of disabled people.
The other thing is a lot of them didn't make old bones because a lot of disabled people don't. So I think it's important that we do acknowledge them. Things like ableism, like history. Some of the more complicated stuff like exploring imperfection and scars and imperfections because there's such a cult of beauty and perfection in the human form, and I want to look at what it means to be, to be the other, to be different.
Sam: So what drives you to be such a relentless advocate for human rights?
Robyn: I think I've always had a sense of injustice. You do as a child when you grow up and you see the things that aren't fair that affect you. Like for me it was education often and the things you're not allowed to do that you want to do, and it all seems really unfair.
So I think I had a general sense of social justice from quite young and I became a pacifist in my teens. It's not just been about disability. I've recognised injustice in terms of racism. The Spring Bok tour, women's rights, all of those things. And the Vietnam War I marched against.
So I think I've always had a sense of what was right and what was just. Then gradually as my knowledge and my understanding about disability and my connection with the disability community grew, then I think that’s how I became more active.
Sam: Why is the principle of “nothing about us without us” so important?
Robyn: Since forever really, and certainly in the last, say, couple of centuries, disabled people's lives have not been our own. They've been constrained by others so that our lives have been directed in every sense. In terms of education, in terms of how we lived, in terms of what we did, even in our adult lives, then our lives have been constrained.
I think the commission, the Inquiry into Abuse in State Care has shown that appallingly, and a lot of that is fuelled by eugenics, which is different from some other groups in that eugenics has driven a lot of the things until relatively recently, and I think that's affected the mindset of people in power.
“Nothing about us without us” is really about righting the power and balance and making sure that disabled voices are heard and our views about what we need are respected because we know what's right for us way better than anyone else.
Sam: How do you think people can be effective allies and advocate for Deaf and disabled people?
Robyn: I think if you want to be an ally to disabled people and you're non-disabled, you have to listen to them and you have to let them call the shots. And you have to prepare to be humble. When I first started out in disability I knew nothing about anybody else's impairments and I had to learn. And sometimes you have to learn the hard way, and that's fair enough.
When I was working in E.E.O. I published a cartoon in a newsletter which had somebody, a Deaf person, who was wearing academic regalia and that they were obviously graduating and somebody was saying to them, “Oh gosh, you know, that's fantastic. You are Deaf and dumb and you've got this degree.” And the Deaf community were really angry about it because you can't use the words “deaf and dumb” ever in their presence. Ever, ever, ever.
It's just a no-no. And it didn't matter. That was a hearing person's joke. It wasn't a Deaf person's joke. And I had to learn to understand that and I had to eat humble pie and apologise, which I did, and say, “Thank you for challenging me because that means I can learn and I won't do it again, and you can go on teaching me.”
And so that’s how people will respect you if you're prepared to be told and listen and not do it again. That's the important thing, you know? I’ve never made that mistake again and I've never forgotten doing that. And I was mortified at the time that I'd actually done harm, you know, that I'd upset people.
I wanted to not upset people, you know, it was my job to work with them and to be their champion. And so I learned very quickly. That's why it's nothing about us without us. And even if you do try and do nothing about us, without us, there will still be mistakes. But at least people will learn and be prepared to apologise and do better.
And also Deaf And disabled people know what we need. We know what will work for us. And so it's a matter of working together.
Sam: Is there anything that gives you hope for a more accessible, inclusive future.
Robyn: Yes. Um, there are a number of things. And it’s not the accessibility legislation, I might add. But there are. There are people out there, both disabled and non-disabled, who are really committed to accessibility.
We have better tools. Not completely better, but certainly better than when I was a child for ensuring that we have accessibility and I think that younger people will accept less than we did. Younger people will not tolerate the things that we tolerated when I was young.
They won't tolerate it and neither they should. And it sounds unfair but I guess a lot of the impetus will have to come from our own community, and working with allies and the people that we can influence to make a difference. Finding out where those people are and working with them to make a difference and supporting them to make a difference.
But I think things are changing. Accessibility, in my view, is really not about “things” and “stuff”. It's really about a mindset. And once the mindset is there, then things can change. But if there's no mindset and it's just seen as an add-on, as something extra that's going to cost more money, then that's really pushing the proverbial uphill.
But once somebody gets the mindset that we are building this for everyone, and that's why I think the principles of universal design are so brilliant because they're so inclusive, and to me they're really quite visionary. To build something or make something or do something that includes everyone. You can apply universal design to almost anything.
It was originally thought up by engineers but I think it's applicable to all kinds of things.
Sam: So a lot of your advocacy stuff is, um, you've written some articles recently and you also use Twitter quite a lot?
Robyn: Yeah, I mean, that's one of the things that I think you know, the younger generation are so lucky that often you aren’t living in some kind of condition, some kind of ghetto related to a condition as lots of people did when in the fifties and sixties and so on.
Then, you had very little connection with disability. So I had no connection with disability growing up. But I think social media provides a wonderful place for people to learn, to get to know other people, and to find solidarity and learn from each other and have the support that you need.
Sam: Do you have any tips for the younger generation and people who are disabled?
Robyn: Get out there and do it. You know, do it together. Find other like-minded spirits on social media or whatever other way that you can, and just go for it. And don't let anybody tell you that you can't do it. Cause that's not right. And I think younger people are doing that much, much more. But find a supportive community that isn't going to belittle you or make you cringe.
So just find other disabled people. Join Disability DPOs if you want to get political, because they're the ones that are political with a small “p”. If you want to be an activist, if you want to be an artist, then there are plans afoot for that too.
And Arts Access Aotearoa can put you in touch with various things and people and whatever you need. And I do think that the arts world is becoming more responsive to disability and recognising that disability stories are worth telling and that it's part of the richness of humankind that we should be celebrating.
Sam: That’s it for today's episode. A huge thank you to Robyn for coming on today’s episode and also to the College of Creative Arts at Massey University for letting us use their fully accessible recording studios. Thank you for listening. Mā te wā.
Robyn Hunt ONZM received the Arts Access Accolade 2019. She is a member of the Arts Council of Creative New Zealand. In September 2022, she was awarded the Toi Pōneke d/Deaf and/or disabled artist residency to work on a series of essays.